Three omega−3 fatty acids are important in human physiology, α-linolenic acid (18:3, n-3; ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5, n-3; EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6, n-3; DHA). These three polyunsaturates have either 3, 5, or 6 double bonds in a carbon chain of 18, 20, or 22 carbon atoms, respectively. As with most naturally-produced fatty acids, all double bonds are in the cis-configuration, in other words, the two hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond; and the double bonds are interrupted by methylene bridges (-CH
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.
One day I was cooking pasta when the kitchen started to fill with the odor of fish. I happen to hate fish, so this was not a pleasant experience. It was also a mystery, since I never cook fish. A little detective work discovered that the offensive odor was coming from the pasta. Apparently I didn’t notice the “Now with Omega 3” label on the box when I purchased it. My daughter and I still refer to this as the “fish pasta incident”.
Hernandez, D., Guerra, R., Milena, A., Torres, A., Garcia, S., Garcia, C., Abreu, P., Gonzalez, A., Gomez, M. A., Rufino, M., Gonzalez-Posada, J., Lorenzo, V., and Salido, E. Dietary fish oil does not influence acute rejection rate and graft survival after renal transplantation: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Nephrol.Dial.Transplant. 2002;17(5):897-904. View abstract.
Australian researchers published results of a study examining the effects of fish oil on weight loss in combination with diet and exercise in the May 2007 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The results show that a combination of fish oil supplements and regular exercise can reduce body fat while also improving heart and metabolic health. The fish supplementation group had lowered triglycerides, increased HDL cholesterol and improved blood flow. Overall, adding fish oil to a current exercise program (and a overall healthy lifestyle) looks like it can decrease body fat as well as cardiovascular disease risk. (32)
The Federal Government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 recommends that adults eat 8 or more ounces of a variety of seafood (fish or shellfish) per week for the total package of nutrients seafood provides, and that some seafood choices with higher amounts of EPA and DHA be included. Smaller amounts of seafood are recommended for young children.
Further, according to subgroup results based on the presence of specific clinical diagnoses or not, the association of omega-3 PUFA treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms was significantly higher in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions. Among 6 studies included in a meta-analysis of the effect of omega-3 PUFAs on depressive symptoms, the analysis showed a nearly null effect of omega-3 PUFAs on depressive symptoms in healthy participants.73 Although the reason for the null effect of omega-3 PUFAs on anxiety and depressive symptoms remains unclear, certain pathophysiological conditions might be required for omega-3 PUFAs to exert an association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms.
However, since the dosage of fish oil required for an ideal effect in the improvement of a patient is unknown, the Arthritis Center in the Department of Rheumatology at John Hopkins University considers including omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil in the treatment of arthritis as controversial. The University also cautions that arthritis patients must be wary of all the other side effects that can come from using fish oil. You can read more about arthritis on the web page of the Arthritis Foundation and the Arthritis Center.
Full citation: Abdelhamid AS, Brown TJ, Brainard JS, Biswas P, Thorpe GC, Moore HJ, Deane KHO, AlAbdulghafoor FK, Summerbell CD, Worthington HV, Song F, Hooper L. Omega 3 fatty acids for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD003177. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003177.pub3.
Fish oil is effective in reducing inflammation in the blood and tissues. Regular consumption of fish oil supplements, tablets, pills, and capsules is helpful to those who suffer from chronic inflammatory diseases. Fish oil is effective in treating gastrointestinal disorders, Celiac disease, short bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) including Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis, which are both typical disorders of the intestine. Patients suffering from Crohn’s disease often find it difficult to absorb vitamins, fats, and essential supplements. Fish oil supplements are an effective diet for such patients.
The omega-3 index may also be helpful for assessing health risks beyond cardiovascular disease. Studies are currently investigating the relationship between omega-3 index levels and mental health issues, like depression (15, 16, 17), cognitive functioning (18, 19), body weight (20), as well as eye health issues, like macular degeneration (21), to name just a few.
Stiefel, P., Ruiz-Gutierrez, V., Gajon, E., Acosta, D., Garcia-Donas, M. A., Madrazo, J., Villar, J., and Carneado, J. Sodium transport kinetics, cell membrane lipid composition, neural conduction and metabolic control in type 1 diabetic patients. Changes after a low-dose n-3 fatty acid dietary intervention. Ann Nutr Metab 1999;43(2):113-120. View abstract.
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)
Nielsen, A. A., Jorgensen, L. G., Nielsen, J. N., Eivindson, M., Gronbaek, H., Vind, I., Hougaard, D. M., Skogstrand, K., Jensen, S., Munkholm, P., Brandslund, I., and Hey, H. Omega-3 fatty acids inhibit an increase of proinflammatory cytokines in patients with active Crohn's disease compared with omega-6 fatty acids. Aliment.Pharmacol.Ther. 2005;22(11-12):1121-1128. View abstract.
Depression. There is inconsistent evidence on the effect of taking fish oil for depression. Some research shows that taking fish oil along with an antidepressant might help improve symptoms in some people. Other research shows that taking fish oil does not improve depression symptoms. The conflicting results may be due to the amount of EPA and DHA in the supplement or the severity of depression before treatment.