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.
All people need to consume omega-3 fats regularly. The recommended daily intake for adults is 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females, according to the National Institutes of Health. The omega-3 family encompasses numerous fatty acids, but three primary forms are eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid. The first two forms primarily occur in fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna. The third can be found in plant oils, including flaxseed, soybean, walnut, and canola oils.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Chemical compounds called cannabinoids are found in marijuana and also are produced naturally in the body from omega-3 fatty acids. A well-known cannabinoid in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, is responsible for some of its euphoric effects, but it also has anti-inflammatory benefits. A new study in animal tissue reveals the cascade of chemical reactions that convert omega-3 fatty acids into cannabinoids that have anti-inflammatory benefits – but without the psychotropic high.
Dyerberg, J., Eskesen, D. C., Andersen, P. W., Astrup, A., Buemann, B., Christensen, J. H., Clausen, P., Rasmussen, B. F., Schmidt, E. B., Tholstrup, T., Toft, E., Toubro, S., and Stender, S. Effects of trans- and n-3 unsaturated fatty acids on cardiovascular risk markers in healthy males. An 8 weeks dietary intervention study. Eur.J.Clin.Nutr. 2004;58(7):1062-1070. 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.
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): This plant-based omega-3 is found in green, leafy vegetables, flaxseeds, chia seeds and canola, walnut and soybean oils (although those rancid oils are not ones I generally recommend). ALA is known as a short-chain omega-3, meaning your body has to convert it into longer-chained EPA and DHA to synthesize it. This process is rather inefficient and only about one percent of the ALA you consume is converted to the long-chain version your body needs (although this percentage is slightly higher for women).
Scaly, itchy skin (eczema). Fish oil might help PREVENT eczema, but research is not consistent. Some early research suggests that mothers who take fish oil supplements during pregnancy reduce the risk of severe eczema in their infants. Also, population research suggests that children who eat fish at least once weekly from 1 to 2 years of age have a lower risk of developing eczema. But other research, including recent studies, suggests that neither supplementation during pregnancy nor supplementation during infancy reduces the risk of eczema. Overall, research suggests that fish oil does not help TREAT eczema once it has developed.
Thusgaard, M., Christensen, J. H., Morn, B., Andersen, T. S., Vige, R., Arildsen, H., Schmidt, E. B., and Nielsen, H. Effect of fish oil (n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids) on plasma lipids, lipoproteins and inflammatory markers in HIV-infected patients treated with antiretroviral therapy: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Scand.J.Infect.Dis. 2009;41(10):760-766. View abstract.
The chemical structures of EPA and DHA are very similar and they compete for uptake and processing resources. During digestion, the triglyceride molecules in standard fish oil are broken down into a mono glycerol and two free fatty acids, small enough to be absorbed into cells of the gut lining. More often than not, DHA is the fatty acid that remains attached to the glycerol backbone, meaning in essence that DHA gets a ‘free pass’ into the gut, while the remaining free fatty acids (more often EPA) must reattach onto a glycerol molecule or risk being oxidised and used as fuel. The implication of this is that DHA levels in our cells are often concentrated at the expense of EPA after absorption when taking EPA and DHA in the standard ratio of 1.5 to 1.
In lab experiments, animals given krill showed improved navigation skills. What this means is that they achieved higher levels of cognition and memory required to navigate complex territory.28 In addition, research shows that animals supplemented with krill oil showed significantly fewer signs of depression and resignation. This improvement in mood was equivalent to the effect of the prescription anti-depressant drug imipramine (Tofranil®).29
Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
Several other analyses of the evidence have been done in the last few years (2012 or later), and like the 2018 analysis and the AHRQ report, most found little or no evidence for a protective effect of omega-3 supplements against heart disease. However, some earlier analyses suggested that omega-3s could be helpful. The difference between the newer conclusions and the older ones may reflect two changes over time:
The number, location, and orientation of the double bonds determine the health effects of fatty acids on the body. One aspect of this is their effect on triglycerides and LDL and HDL types of cholesterol, which in turn affect how much cholesterol gets deposited on the inside of blood vessels. There are also subtypes of LDL and HDL which are also likely important to their health effects.
After a large number of lab studies found that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in slowing or reversing the growth of hormonal cancers, namely prostate and breast cancer cells, animal and human epidemiological studies have been conducted to see whether this effect occurred in real-life scenarios. The evidence is somewhat conflicting in some reports, but there is some evidence to suggest breast and prostate cancers may be potentially slowed (or the risk reduced) in people who eat a lot of oily fish and possibly those who supplement with omega-3. (66, 67, 68)
Omega 3 fatty acids are monounsaturated fats that come from food sources—primarily cold water fish (eg, salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel, and herring)—that contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Other fatty acids are derived from plant-derived sources of food—including nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds (eg, flax, chia, sunflower)—that have primarily ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).
To reap all the omega-3 benefits, it may be difficult for some people to eat the required amounts of oily fish, particularly with the well-known dangers of farmed fish, which are more readily available to most Americans. That’s why some people consider a high-quality omega-3 supplement in addition to a well-rounded diet. I’ll discuss supplements in a moment, though.
“The review provides good evidence that taking long-chain omega 3 (fish oil, EPA or DHA) supplements does not benefit heart health or reduce our risk of stroke or death from any cause. The most trustworthy studies consistently showed little or no effect of long-chain omega 3 fats on cardiovascular health. On the other hand, while oily fish is a healthy food, it is unclear from the small number of trials whether eating more oily fish is protective of our hearts.
Pumps the Heart: Where to begin? Omega-3s reduce triglycerides, stabilize your heartbeat, make platelets "less sticky" and can even lower blood pressure. The EPA you get with your daily DHA dose helps prevent artery-blocking clots. In the Iowa Nurses Study (and 3 others), 1 ounce of nuts a day decreased the incidence of heart disease between 20 and 60 percent.
Recent studies have shown that the consumption of fish oil (or, more specifically, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) can improve fertility in both men and women. DHA, which is a byproduct of omega-3 fatty acids, plays a key role in the mobility of sperm and health of sperm in men. Low blood levels of DHA have been linked to decreased fertility. Animal studies have found that the DHA in fish is vital to changing dysfunctional round-headed sperm into strong swimmers with cone-shaped heads packed with egg-opening proteins. (29)
Cashew nuts are a versatile, creamy nut, eaten on their own as a snack or used as a base for many vegan cheese substitutes. RXBAR, a healthy alternative to the standard sugar-loaded snack bar, uses cashews for several of its flavor varieties. And with delicious (and kid-friendly!) flavors like gingerbread, chocolate chip, or “Berry Blast,” these bars are a tasty way to add more cashews to any diet.
For slowing weight loss in patients with cancer: 30 mL of a specific fish oil product (ACO Omega-3, Pharmacia, Stockholm, Sweden) providing 4.9 grams of EPA and 3.2 grams of DHA daily for 4 weeks has been used. 7.5 grams of fish oil daily providing EPA 4.7 grams and DHA 2.8 grams has been used for about 6 weeks. In addition, two cans of a fish oil nutritional supplement containing 1.09 grams of EPA and 0.96 grams of DHA per can have been used daily for up to 7 weeks.
Meta-analyses (research that combines and analyzes results of multiple studies) generally suggest that the omega-3s are effective, but the findings are not unanimous because of variability between doses, ratios of EPA to DHA, and other study design issues. The most effective preparations appear to have at least 60% EPA relative to DHA. While DHA is thought to be less effective as an antidepressant, it may have protective effects against suicide. Recent work at Massachusetts General Hospital and Emory University suggests that depressed individuals who are overweight and have elevated inflammatory activity may be particularly good candidates for EPA treatment.
Jump up ^ Wang C, Harris WS, Chung M, Lichtenstein AH, Balk EM, Kupelnick B, Jordan HS, Lau J (July 2006). "n−3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not alpha-linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease outcomes in primary- and secondary-prevention studies: a systematic review". The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 84 (1): 5–17. doi:10.1093/ajcn/84.1.5. PMID 16825676.
Fish oil is a commonly used dietary supplement, with sales in the U.S. alone reaching $976 million in 2009. Problems of quality have been identified in periodic tests by independent researchers of marketed supplements containing fish oil and other marine oils. These problems include contamination, inaccurate listing of EPA and DHA levels, spoilage and formulation issues.
Fish oil supplements are available as liquids or capsules. Some capsules are enteric-coated to pass through the stomach before dissolving in the small intestine, thus helping prevent indigestion and "fish burps". Poorly manufactured enteric-coated products have the potential to release ingredients too early. ConsumerLab.com, a for-profit supplement testing company, reported that 1 of the 24 enteric-coated fish oil supplements it evaluated released ingredients prematurely.
Your best way to achieve a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 is by getting your fish oil from wild-caught fish like salmon. However, I still think it is beneficial for some to supplement with a high-quality omega-3 fish oil or cod liver oil. Plus, cold water fish are frequently contaminated with mercury and pesticide residues, making it very difficult to safely achieve recommended levels.
Maximizing the benefits you get from omega-3s is highly dependent on how they are absorbed and transported throughout your body. Although these fatty acids are water soluble, they cannot be easily transported into your blood in their free form. Therefore, they need to be packaged in lipoprotein vehicles for them to be better absorbed into your bloodstream.
For rheumatoid arthritis, one systematic review found consistent, but modest, evidence for the effect of marine n−3 PUFAs on symptoms such as "joint swelling and pain, duration of morning stiffness, global assessments of pain and disease activity" as well as the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The American College of Rheumatology has stated that there may be modest benefit from the use of fish oils, but that it may take months for effects to be seen, and cautions for possible gastrointestinal side effects and the possibility of the supplements containing mercury or vitamin A at toxic levels. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has concluded that "[n]o dietary supplement has shown clear benefits for rheumatoid arthritis", but that there is preliminary evidence that fish oil may be beneficial, but needs further study.
Luo, J Rizkalla SW Vidal H Oppert JM Colas C Boussairi A Guerre-Millo M Chapuis AS Chevalier A Durand G Slama G. Moderate intake of n-3 fatty acids for 2 months has no detrimental effect on glucose metabolism and could ameliorate the lipid profile in type 2 diabetic men. Results of a controlled study. Diabetes Care. 1998;21(5):717-724. View abstract.
Other suspected health benefits of omega-3s and fish are less well established and need further study. They include suggestions of a reduced risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and possibly advanced prostate cancer, all related to eating fish rather than taking supplements. Some observational studies have associated omega-3s to a lower risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as age-related macular degeneration.
Three randomized trials assessing more than 600 patients with known malignant ventricular arrhythmia were carried out under the protection of implanted cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) therapy.41–43 In all 3 of the trials, 75% of the patients had ischemic heart disease, survived ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation and were randomized to 1 to 3 g/d of fish oil. In the first trial of its kind, 402 patients with ICDs were randomized to either a fish oil or an olive oil supplement.41 Although statistical significance was not reached, after approximately 1 year the primary end-point of time to first ICD cardioversion for ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation or death from any cause was longer in the fish oil group. This finding was not replicated in a trial of 200 patients who were randomized to either fish oil or a placebo and followed for a median of approximately 2 years.42 In fact, time to first ICD cardioversion was not changed and the incidence of recurrent ventricular tachycardia and fibrillation was more common in the group assigned to fish oil. In the largest trial, 546 patients were randomized to supplemental fish oil or a placebo and were followed for a mean period of 1 year.43 The primary outcome of the rate of ICD cardioversion or all-cause mortality was not reduced. It was concluded in a recent meta-analysis of these trials that fish oil did not have a protective effect.44
For several years now, the fish oil and Alzheimer’s disease connection has been studied with consistent results. The essential fatty acids vital for brain function that are found in fish oil can not only slow cognitive decline, but can help prevent brain atrophy in older adults. A study published in the FASEB Journal looked at the health effects of four- to 17-month dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. The findings once again confirm the potential for fish oil to be used as a weapon to fend off the onset of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. (8)
Most Americans take in far more of another essential fat—omega-6 fats—than they do omega-3 fats. Some experts have raised the hypothesis that this higher intake of omega-6 fats could pose problems, cardiovascular and otherwise, but this has not been supported by evidence in humans. (4) In the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, for example, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats wasn’t linked with risk of heart disease because both of these were beneficial. (5) Many other studies and trials in humans also support cardiovascular benefits of omega-6 fats. Although there is no question that many Americans could benefit from increasing their intake of omega-3 fats, there is evidence that omega-6 fats also positively influence cardiovascular risk factors and reduce heart disease.
The studies examining the possible benefits of omega-3s continue. Researchers are looking at a range of health outcomes and the impact of a heart healthy diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids on a range of chronic disease. For instance, Dr. Hooper's team is beginning to evaluate the effects that omega-3 fats may have on diabetes, dementia, and some cancers.
Keck, P. E., Jr., Mintz, J., McElroy, S. L., Freeman, M. P., Suppes, T., Frye, M. A., Altshuler, L. L., Kupka, R., Nolen, W. A., Leverich, G. S., Denicoff, K. D., Grunze, H., Duan, N., and Post, R. M. Double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials of ethyl-eicosapentanoate in the treatment of bipolar depression and rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Biol.Psychiatry 11-1-2006;60(9):1020-1022. View abstract.
For those who can’t or choose not to eat fatty fish, or who have certain health issues, supplementation is a way to increase omega-3 levels. “There are some conditions that might respond well to supplementation, such as depression or cardiovascular risk factors, including elevated triglycerides,” explains Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RDN, LDN. If you're ooking to increase your omega-3 levels, Click here for six tips to finding the right supplement.
High triglycerides. Most research shows that fish oil from supplements and food sources can reduce triglyceride levels. The effects of fish oil appear to be the greatest in people who have very high triglyceride levels. Also the amount of fish oil consumed seems to directly affect how much triglyceride levels are reduced. Some fish oil supplements including Lovaza, Omtryg, and Epanova have been approved by the FDA to lower triglycerides.