Fish oil seems to be a subject of controversy. Some people swear by it, and there are thousands of clinical trials out now trying to study what the latest and greatest thing about the supplement is. The Natural Standard does a really good job collecting and gathering data for those who are interested in delving through what fish oil may or may not be doing to us. Definitive answers, however, may take a little while to get.
As with other supplements, when it comes to quality, you get what you pay for. Life Time sources its omega-3 fish oil (both capsules and liquid) from sustainable fisheries off the coast of Chile. We only use oils from small, cold-water anchovy, sardine, and mackerel. It’s molecularly distilled to be sure it’s free of mercury, PCBs, and heavy metals. If your fish oil brand doesn’t name the species of fish it’s sourced from, or it lists larger, predatory species, the quality and purity of the oil could be less than optimal.
The two key omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in these omega-3s. Some plants are rich in another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert to DHA and EPA. Good sources of these are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil.
So back to fish oil in general. The major fish oil benefits include decreasing the risk of heart disease and stroke while also helping reduce symptoms of depression, hypertension, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain, arthritis and chronic skin ailments like eczema. (2) Fish oil intake has also been associated with aiding the body in weight loss, fertility, pregnancy and increased energy. Prescription fish oil has even been approved by the FDA to lower unhealthy high triglyceride levels. (3)
The supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated oils prominent in fatty cold water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. In many observational studies, people who regularly consumed fish two or more times a week were less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths than those who ate fish infrequently or not at all.
In another study, Australian researchers looked at whether giving infants added omega-3 fatty acids might improve health,4 including reducing their risk for heart disease. They gave 420 infants either an omega 3 supplement or olive oil from birth through six months, then revisited that at age 5 years to see if either group appeared healthier from a heart risk point of view.
Currently, there isn’t a set standard recommendation for how many omega-3s we need each day, but suggestions range from a fish oil dosage of 500 to 1,000 milligrams daily depending on whom you ask. How easy is it to get these recommended amounts? To give you an idea, there are more than 500 milligrams of total omega-3s in one can of tuna fish and one small serving of wild-caught salmon.
Nielsen, G. L., Faarvang, K. L., Thomsen, B. S., Teglbjaerg, K. L., Jensen, L. T., Hansen, T. M., Lervang, H. H., Schmidt, E. B., Dyerberg, J., and Ernst, E. The effects of dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: a randomized, double blind trial. Eur J Clin Invest 1992;22(10):687-691. View abstract.
Metagenics offers a wide range of educational opportunities including webinars, group meetings, and seminars as part of our commitment to continuing functional medicine education. Our goal is to give our practitioners further insight to help address their patients’ unique health needs for a higher level of personalized, lifetime wellness care. We have been sharing this ever-growing body of nutritional and lifestyle research for over 25 years.
The question is whether the observed cardiovascular benefits often found among fish eaters is due solely to the oils in fish or to some other characteristics of seafood or to still other factors common to those who eat lots of fish, like eating less meat or pursuing a healthier lifestyle over all. Whatever the answer, it does not seem to be fish oil supplements.
Increased EPA levels in the blood and cell membranes effectively regulates inflammatory pathways and reduces total inflammatory ‘load’, so for any inflammatory conditions or concerns, we recommend a phase of pure EPA supplementation for at least 3-6 months. Pre-loading the body with pure EPA (without the opposing actions of DHA for uptake and utilisation) ensures constant replenishment of EPA ’supplies’ to support its high rate of turnover. Since DHA levels remain fairly stable and much lower daily amounts are required, DHA levels can be supported continually through dietary intake, or increased to 250 mg daily in later stages of treatment through supplementation.
One meta-analysis concluded that omega−3 fatty acid supplementation demonstrated a modest effect for improving ADHD symptoms. A Cochrane review of PUFA (not necessarily omega−3) supplementation found "there is little evidence that PUFA supplementation provides any benefit for the symptoms of ADHD in children and adolescents", while a different review found "insufficient evidence to draw any conclusion about the use of PUFAs for children with specific learning disorders". Another review concluded that the evidence is inconclusive for the use of omega−3 fatty acids in behavior and non-neurodegenerative neuropsychiatric disorders such as ADHD and depression.
Marchioli, R., Barzi, F., Bomba, E., Chieffo, C., Di, Gregorio D., Di, Mascio R., Franzosi, M. G., Geraci, E., Levantesi, G., Maggioni, A. P., Mantini, L., Marfisi, R. M., Mastrogiuseppe, G., Mininni, N., Nicolosi, G. L., Santini, M., Schweiger, C., Tavazzi, L., Tognoni, G., Tucci, C., and Valagussa, F. Early protection against sudden death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids after myocardial infarction: time-course analysis of the results of the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell'Infarto Miocardico (GISSI)-Prevenzione. Circulation 4-23-2002;105(16):1897-1903. View abstract.
If you find yourself in a position where you are just not eating any of these foods, and you want to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, then I think fish oil is okay, but I would limit not the amount of fish oil but the amount listed on the label of EPA and DHA combined. I would limit that amount to around 250 milligrams per day because I don’t think most people need more than that. Some signs that you might not be getting enough omega-3 fatty acids include chronic low-grade inflammation, poor visual acuity, slower mental processing, trouble learning, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease and psychiatric conditions, like depression, anxiety, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, ADHD.
Some studies suggest that people who get higher amounts of omega-3s from foods and dietary supplements may have a lower risk of breast cancer and perhaps colorectal cancer. More research is needed to confirm this possible link. Whether omega-3s affect the risk of other cancers is not clear. Clinical trials to examine this possibility are in progress.
One of the most well-known benefits of omega-3s are the way they positively affect risk factors associated with heart disease. That’s one reason the American Heart Association is very clear about encouraging people to get enough in their diets. (8) Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death worldwide, but communities who eat diets rich in fish have remarkably low instances of these diseases, which is at least partially due to their high omega-3 consumption. (9, 10)
Bo and I worked with Dr. Harris many years ago to measure the impact of eating one Omega Cookie® daily on the study participants’ omega-3 index levels, and we recently ran into him at ISFFAL. At the conference, we remeasured our omega-3 index and omega-6/omega-3 ratios, and a few weeks later, we got our results in the mail. For the two of us, it was exciting to get another concrete measure of how our daily omega-3 consumption impacted our scores. For the record, we take one vial of Omega Restore™ per night and frequently sneak an Omega Heaven® or Omega Cookie during the day.
What makes omega-3 fats special? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
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Another recent study shows that fatty fish consumption can cut the risk of eye-diabetes complications. The researches tracked the seafood consumption of about 3,600 diabetic men and women between the ages of 55 and 80 for nearly five years. The researchers found that people who regularly consumed 500 milligrams each day of omega-3 fatty acid in their diets (equal to two servings of fatty fish per week) were 48 percent less likely to develop diabetic retinopathy than those who consumed less. (23)
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.
Growing up, Joe was plagued with a myriad of health issues such as gut problems, autoimmune issues, chronic fatigue, brain fog, insomnia, and general inflammation. Both conventional and alternative doctors weren’t able to help him, so he decided to fix himself. With lots of health questions and few satisfying answers, Joe decided to read every research paper he could get his hands on and conduct thousands of experiments on his own body in order to fix his health issues. Joe started SelfHacked in late 2013 when he successfully fixed all of his issues, and now it gets millions of readers a month looking to educate themselves about how they can improve their health. Joe is now a thriving author, speaker, and serial entrepreneur, founding SelfDecode & LabTestAnalyzer.
Thanks to fatdog11 for that informative post about PCB’s in fish-oil supplements. Are these same toxicity levels found in fish themselves, or possibly are these levels so high only in highly concentrated fish-oil products? Also, can fatdog11 please inform us more about algae-derived omega-3. What are the DHA and EPA levels in these capsules? What is the cost, and where can they be purchased?
Carrero, J. J., Fonolla, J., Marti, J. L., Jimenez, J., Boza, J. J., and Lopez-Huertas, E. Intake of fish oil, oleic acid, folic acid, and vitamins B-6 and E for 1 year decreases plasma C-reactive protein and reduces coronary heart disease risk factors in male patients in a cardiac rehabilitation program. J.Nutr. 2007;137(2):384-390. View abstract.
The bottom line of all that is that there was no clear health benefit from consuming omega-3 fatty acids in food or supplements. There was a suggestion of a possible benefit from LCn3 on cardiac events, but this did not hold up when they took into consideration the quality of the evidence. The better trials, with less risk of bias, tended to be negative.
A Cochrane meta-analysis published in June 2012 found no significant protective effect for cognitive decline for those aged 60 and over and who started taking fatty acids after this age. A co-author of the study said to Time, "Our analysis suggests that there is currently no evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplements provide a benefit for memory or concentration in later life".
Giacco, R., Cuomo, V., Vessby, B., Uusitupa, M., Hermansen, K., Meyer, B. J., Riccardi, G., and Rivellese, A. A. Fish oil, insulin sensitivity, insulin secretion and glucose tolerance in healthy people: is there any effect of fish oil supplementation in relation to the type of background diet and habitual dietary intake of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids? Nutr.Metab Cardiovasc.Dis. 2007;17(8):572-580. View abstract.
Fish oils seem to help reduce some fat levels in the blood. These fats are called triglycerides. Birth control pills might decrease the effectiveness of fish oils by reducing these fat levels in the blood.