When it comes to omega-3 benefits, there are rarely nutrients that pack this many positive health outcomes into one compound. The most commonly known benefit of omega-3s is a reduced risk of heart disease, but that’s not the only studied plus of getting lots of omega-3s in your diet — from fetal development to retinal function to weight management (and a lot more in between), these acids support and promote optimal health for anyone. (1)
In a 2009 joint study by the USDA and researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina, grass-fed beef was compared with grain-finished beef. The researchers found that grass-finished beef is higher in moisture content, 42.5% lower total lipid content, 54% lower in total fatty acids, 54% higher in beta-carotene, 288% higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium, 193% higher in total omega−3s, 117% higher in CLA (cis-9, trans-11 octadecenoic acid, a cojugated linoleic acid, which is a potential cancer fighter), 90% higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA), lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease, and has a healthier ratio of omega−6 to omega−3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84). Protein and cholesterol content were equal.
Humans can convert short-chain omega−3 fatty acids to long-chain forms (EPA, DHA) with an efficiency below 5%. The omega−3 conversion efficiency is greater in women than in men, but less studied. Higher ALA and DHA values found in plasma phospholipids of women may be due to the higher activity of desaturases, especially that of delta-6-desaturase.
Good points, Miroslav. Focusing on your 4th point, with so many different formulations on the market that contain various preservatives, only looking at the blood levels of omega-3’s as the flag for increased risk for prostate cancer tends to ignore the fact that certain populations in coastal regions maintain a diet high in omega fish oils and don’t have a marked increase level of prostate cancer, pointing to the fact that another agent may be to blame here.
There have been conflicting results reported about EPA and DHA and their use with regard to major coronary events and their use after myocardial infarction. EPA+DHA has been associated with a reduced risk of recurrent coronary artery events and sudden cardiac death after an acute myocardial infarction (RR, 0.47; 95% CI: 0.219–0.995) and a reduction in heart failure events (adjusted HR: 0.92; 99% CI: 0.849–0.999) (34–36). A study using EPA supplementation in combination with a statin, compared with statin therapy alone, found that, after 5 y, the patients in the EPA group (n = 262) who had a history of coronary artery disease had a 19% relative reduction in major coronary events (P = 0.011). However, in patients with no history of coronary artery disease (n = 104), major coronary events were reduced by 18%, but this finding was not significant (37). This Japanese population already has a high relative intake of fish compared with other nations, and, thus, these data suggest that supplementation has cardiovascular benefits in those who already have sufficient baseline EPA+DHA levels. Another study compared patients with impaired glucose metabolism (n = 4565) with normoglycemic patients (n = 14,080). Impaired glucose metabolism patients had a significantly higher coronary artery disease HR (1.71 in the non-EPA group and 1.63 in the EPA group). The primary endpoint was any major coronary event including sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction, and other nonfatal events. Treatment of impaired glucose metabolism patients with EPA showed a significantly lower major coronary event HR of 0.78 compared with the non–EPA-treated impaired glucose metabolism patients (95% CI: 0.60–0.998; P = 0.048), which demonstrates that EPA significantly suppresses major coronary events (38). When looking at the use of EPA+DHA and cardiovascular events after myocardial infarction, of 4837 patients, a major cardiovascular event occurred in 671 patients (13.9%) (39). A post hoc analysis of the data from these diabetic patients showed that rates of fatal coronary heart disease and arrhythmia-related events were lower among patients in the EPA+DHA group than among the placebo group (HR for fatal coronary heart disease: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.27–0.97; HR for arrhythmia-related events: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.24–1.11, not statistically significant) (39). Another study found that there was no significant difference in sudden cardiac death or total mortality between an EPA+DHA supplementation group and a control group in those patients treated after myocardial infarction (40). Although these last 2 studies appear to be negative in their results, it is possible that the more aggressive treatment with medications in these more recent studies could attribute to this.
In total, 19 articles with 19 data sets revealed the main results of the meta-analysis, namely that there was a significantly better association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 19; Hedges g, 0.374; 95% CI, 0.081-0.666; P = .01; Figure 2), with significant heterogeneity (Cochran Q, 178.820; df, 18; I2, 89.934%; P < .001) but no significant publication bias via Egger regression (t, 1.736; df, 17; P = .10) or inspection of the funnel plot (eFigure 2 in the Supplement). According to the trim-and-fill test, there was no need for adjustment for publication bias. The meta-analysis results remained significant after removal of any one of the included studies, which indicated that the significant results are not owing to any single study.
A group out of India conducted a study published in Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology based on the premise that “fish oil rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids has been preferred to chemosensitize tumor cells to anti-cancer drugs.” The study found that using 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) to treat colorectal cancer along with fish oil increased the survival rate in carcinogen-treated animals. Researchers also found that the fish oil ameliorated hematologic depression, along with gastrointestinal, hepatic and renal toxicity caused by the 5-FU. (15)
Researchers are taking a hard look at a different sort of balance, this one between possible effects of marine and plant omega-3 fats on prostate cancer. Results from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and others show that men whose diets are rich in EPA and DHA (mainly from fish and seafood) are less likely to develop advanced prostate cancer than those with low intake of EPA and DHA. (6) At the same time, some-but not all-studies show an increase in prostate cancer and advanced prostate cancer among men with high intakes of ALA (mainly from supplements). However, this effect is inconsistent. In the very large Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, for example, there was no link between ALA intake and early, late, or advanced prostate cancer. (7)
The deficiency of EPA and DHA in diet contributes to skin conditions, such as dandruff, thinning hair, eczema and psoriasis, as well as age spots and sun spots. Without the essential fatty acids, too much moisture leaves the skin. The truth is your internal health can appear on your skin, and taking fish oil internally as a supplement may be as good as or better than applying conventional moisturizers.
A scientific review published in 2013 looked at omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and prostate cancer prevention. Researchers concluded that there’s a great deal of evidence suggesting that omega-3s have antiproliferative effects – which means they inhibit cancer cell growth – in cancer cell lines, animal models and humans. In addition, the “direct effects on cancer cells” and indirect anti-inflammatory effects on the immune system fighting the cancer likely contribute to the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to inhibit tumor growth. (14)
Like its other leafy green counterparts, broccoli is a powerful source of ALA, one of the omega-3 fatty acids your body needs (but can’t make on its own). Broccoli is also high in fiber, zinc, and — surprisingly — protein, a must for any ADHD brain. If you or your child doesn’t like broccoli, try pairing it with a cheesy sauce or baking it into tots — try this simple recipe to get started.
However, this difference in the length of the carbon chain gives these two types of omega-3s significant characteristics. EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids, while ALA is a short-chain fatty acid. The long-chain fatty acids are more important for cellular health. Another omega-3 fat, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) can also be better synthesized by your body by elongating EPA.
We’ve written about the dose necessary to achieve measurable benefits before. However, a person’s actual omega-3 intake can be tricky to estimate. Even if you eat at least two servings of fatty fish per week, as the American Heart Association recommends (10), your fish might contain more or less omega-3s depending on the fish species, the time of year, and how you cook it. Even taking fish oil supplements isn’t always straightforward, as dose can be impacted by numerous bioavailability factors, as well as genetics, age, gender, medication-use and lifestyle.
Finally, it is often assumed since there are not high levels of EPA in the brain, that it is not important for neurological function. Actually it is key for reducing neuro-inflammation by competing against AA for access to the same enzymes needed to produce inflammatory eicosanoids. However, once EPA enters into the brain it is rapidly oxidized (2,3). This is not the case with DHA (4). The only way to control cellular inflammation in the brain is to maintain high levels of EPA in the blood. This is why all the work on depression, ADHD, brain trauma, etc. have demonstrated EPA to be superior to DHA (5).
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that everyone eats fish (particularly fatty, coldwater fish) at least twice a week. Salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, lake trout, and tuna are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids. While foods are your best bet for getting omega-3s in your diet, fish oil supplements are also available for those who do not like fish. The heart-healthy benefits of regular doses of fish oil supplements are unclear, so talk to your doctor to see if they're right for you. If you have heart disease or high triglyceride levels, you may need even more omega-3 fatty acids. Ask your doctor if you should take higher doses of fish oil supplements to get the omega-3s you need.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to increase platelet responsiveness to subtherapeutic anticoagulation therapies, including aspirin. Recently, it was noted that patient response to aspirin for anticoagulation therapy is widely variable (45), and, thus, the number of patients with a low response to aspirin or aspirin resistance is estimated to range from <1% to 45%, depending on many variables. However, in patients with stable coronary artery disease taking low-dose aspirin, EPA+DHA supplementation has been proven to be as effective as aspirin dose escalation to 325 mg/d for anticoagulation benefits (45). The antiplatelet drug clopidogrel has also been associated with hyporesponsiveness in some patients. This could be attributed to poor patient compliance, differences in genes and platelet reactivity, variability of drug metabolism, and drug interactions. More importantly, in 1 study, patients receiving standard dual antiplatelet therapy (aspirin 75 mg/d and clopidogrel 600-mg loading dose followed by 75 mg/d) were assigned to either EPA+DHA supplementation or placebo. After 1 mo of treatment, the P2Y12 receptor reactivity index (an indicator of clopidogrel resistance) was significantly lower, by 22%, for patients taking EPA+DHA compared with patients taking placebo (P = 0.020) (46).
The human body does not produce significant amounts of EPA or DHA on its own, so you must get these important nutrients from the foods you eat and the supplements you consume. If you’re looking to get the heart health benefits of omega-3s, go straight to the source of EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are naturally found in marine sources, including fatty fish – salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring – shellfish, and marine algae.
Fish oil contains two very important omega-3 PUFAs. I’m talking about docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are sometimes called the marine omega-3s because they mainly come from fish. Some of the best fish to eat to obtain fish oil from in your diet include wild-caught salmon, herring, white fish, sardines and anchovies.
Fish oil is very beneficial for pregnant women because the DHA present in it helps in the development of the eyes and brain of the baby. It also helps to avoid premature births, low birth weight, and miscarriages. Research conducted in Denmark, which involved 8,729 pregnant women, concluded that a diet with low amounts of fish resulted in a higher risk of premature or preterm babies.
46. Gajos G, Rostoff P, Undas A, Piwowarska W. Effects of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids on responsiveness to dual antiplatelet therapy in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention: the OMEGA-PCI (OMEGA-3 fatty acids after pci to modify responsiveness to dual antiplatelet therapy) study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2010;55:1671–8. [PubMed]
Of great clinical importance, EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been associated with longer gestation and increased concentrations of EPA and DHA in fetal tissues (21). In 2005, preterm births accounted for 12.7% of all births in the United States, increasing the likelihood of health complications (22). Carrying a baby to term is very important because prematurity is the cause of various infant diseases and can lead to death; preterm delivery is an underlying factor for 85% of the deaths of normally formed infants (23). One mechanism by which EPA and DHA may decrease the incidence of preterm birth is by decreasing prostaglandin E2 and prostaglandin F2α production, therefore reducing inflammation within the uterus, which could be associated with preterm labor (21, 24). Several studies investigated EPA and DHA intake during pregnancy and its correlation with longer gestation. Conclusions were that EPA+DHA supplementation during pregnancy delayed the onset of delivery to term or closer to term; however, supplementation did not delay delivery to the point of being post-term (20, 23, 25). This supports the evidence that EPA+DHA ingestion leads to optimal pregnancy length. EPA+DHA supplementation reduced the HR of preterm delivery by 44% (95% CI: 14–64%) in those who consumed relatively low amounts of fish and 39% (95% CI: 16–56%) in those who consumed medium amounts of fish; however, a level of statistical significance was not met (P = 0.10) (23). The Judge et al. (20) study found that women who had DHA supplementation from gestation week 24 until full-term delivery carried their infants significantly (P = 0.019) longer than did the women in the placebo group. One study found that DHA supplementation after gestation week 21 led to fewer preterm births (<34 wk of gestation) in the DHA group compared with the control group (1.09% vs. 2.25%; adjusted RR, 0.49; 95% CI: 0.25–0.94; P = 0.03). Also, mean birth weight was 68 g heavier (95% CI: 23–114 g; P = 0.003) and fewer infants were of low birth weight in the DHA group compared with the control group (3.41% vs. 5.27%; adjusted RR, 0.65; 95% CI: 0.44–0.96; P = 0.03) (25).
First, EPA inhibits the enzyme that produces arachidonic acid. Second, EPA impedes the release of arachidonic acid from cell membranes (where it is stored) and its metabolization once it is released. Without this release and metabolization, your body can’t make eicosanoids. The result is lower risk of the inflammation that would have been caused by all that arachidonic acid going to eicosanoids.
In my opinion, the key benefit of DHA lies in its unique spatial characteristics. As mentioned earlier, the extra double bond (six in DHA vs. five in EPA) and increased carbon length (22 carbons in DHA vs. 20 in EPA) means that DHA takes up takes up a lot more space than does EPA in the membrane. Although this increase in spatial volume makes DHA a poor substrate for phospholipase A2 as well as the COX and LOX enzymes, it does a great job of making membranes (especially those in the brain) a lot more fluid as the DHA sweeps out a much greater volume in the membrane than does EPA. This increase in membrane fluidity is critical for synaptic vesicles and the retina of the eye as it allows receptors to rotate more effectively thus increasing the transmission of signals from the surface of the membrane to the interior of the nerve cells. This is why DHA is a critical component of these highly fluid portions of the nerves (7). On the other hand, the myelin membrane is essentially an insulator so that relatively little DHA is found in that part of the membrane.
Weimann, A., Bastian, L., Bischoff, W. E., Grotz, M., Hansel, M., Lotz, J., Trautwein, C., Tusch, G., Schlitt, H. J., and Regel, G. Influence of arginine, omega-3 fatty acids and nucleotide-supplemented enteral support on systemic inflammatory response syndrome and multiple organ failure in patients after severe trauma. Nutrition 1998;14(2):165-172. View abstract.
Children require DHA for growth and development, and the brain, CNS and retina rely heavily on the adequate supply of DHA during growth in the womb. Thus women should emphasise DHA in their diets when they become pregnant and continue to take this until they cease breastfeeding. Children continue to need DHA up until the age they start school, so if children under the age of five are taking an omega-3 supplement, it should contain DHA. The exception is for children with developmental problems – where pure EPA or high EPA omega-3 has been shown to be most effective for supporting cognitive function. We would still recommend, where possible, naturally derived sources of omega-3 such as oily fish to support a balanced EPA and DHA intake.
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Fish oils seem to decrease blood pressure. Taking fish oils along with medications for high blood pressure might cause your blood pressure to go too low.