Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found abundantly in fish oil, are increasingly being used in the management of cardiovascular disease. It is clear that fish oil, in clinically used doses (typically 4 g/d of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) reduce high triglycerides. However, the role of omega-3 fatty acids in reducing mortality, sudden death, arrhythmias, myocardial infarction, and heart failure has not yet been established. This review will focus on the current clinical uses of fish oil and provide an update on their effects on triglycerides, coronary artery disease, heart failure, and arrhythmia. We will explore the dietary sources of fish oil as compared with drug therapy, and discuss the use of fish oil products in combination with other commonly used lipid-lowering agents. We will examine the underlying mechanism of fish oil’s action on triglyceride reduction, plaque stability, and effect in diabetes, and review the newly discovered anti-inflammatory effects of fish oil. Finally, we will examine the limitations of current data and suggest recommendations for fish oil use.
Basil — a flavorful and easy-to-find herb — is a strong source of omega-3 fatty acids. Since basil is used primarily as a seasoning, however, you likely won’t get a full day’s supply of omega-3 from a standard serving. For best results, use whole basil leaves, and add them toward the end of your meal’s cooking time to preserve the plant’s nutrients. In addition to delivering omega-3s, basil teas like Buddha Tea’s Organic Holy Basil Tea also promote calm and reduce cell inflammation.
Guallar, E., Aro, A., Jimenez, F. J., Martin-Moreno, J. M., Salminen, I., van't Veer, P., Kardinaal, A. F., Gomez-Aracena, J., Martin, B. C., Kohlmeier, L., Kark, J. D., Mazaev, V. P., Ringstad, J., Guillen, J., Riemersma, R. A., Huttunen, J. K., Thamm, M., and Kok, F. J. Omega-3 fatty acids in adipose tissue and risk of myocardial infarction: the EURAMIC study. Arterioscler.Thromb.Vasc.Biol 1999;19(4):1111-1118. View abstract.
Grigg, L. E., Kay, T. W., Valentine, P. A., Larkins, R., Flower, D. J., Manolas, E. G., O'Dea, K., Sinclair, A. J., Hopper, J. L., and Hunt, D. Determinants of restenosis and lack of effect of dietary supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid on the incidence of coronary artery restenosis after angioplasty. J Am Coll Cardiol. 3-1-1989;13(3):665-672. View abstract.
Unintended weight loss is a problem that many patients with AD may face, and EPA+DHA supplementation has had a positive effect on weight gain in patients with AD. In a study using EPA+DHA supplementation, patients' weight significantly increased by 0.7 kg in the EPA+DHA treatment group at 6 mo (P = 0.02) and by 1.4 kg at 12 mo (P < 0.001) and was observed mainly in patients with a BMI <23 at the study start (54). This means that those patients with a lower BMI preferentially gained weight compared with those patients already with a higher BMI.

Tanaka, K., Ishikawa, Y., Yokoyama, M., Origasa, H., Matsuzaki, M., Saito, Y., Matsuzawa, Y., Sasaki, J., Oikawa, S., Hishida, H., Itakura, H., Kita, T., Kitabatake, A., Nakaya, N., Sakata, T., Shimada, K., and Shirato, K. Reduction in the recurrence of stroke by eicosapentaenoic acid for hypercholesterolemic patients: subanalysis of the JELIS trial. Stroke 2008;39(7):2052-2058. View abstract.
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.
Birch, E. E., Carlson, S. E., Hoffman, D. R., Fitzgerald-Gustafson, K. M., Fu, V. L., Drover, J. R., Castaneda, Y. S., Minns, L., Wheaton, D. K., Mundy, D., Marunycz, J., and Diersen-Schade, D. A. The DIAMOND (DHA Intake And Measurement Of Neural Development) Study: a double-masked, randomized controlled clinical trial of the maturation of infant visual acuity as a function of the dietary level of docosahexaenoic acid. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(4):848-859. View abstract.
Increased consumption of omega 3 fats is widely promoted globally because of a common belief that that it will protect against heart disease. There is more than one possible mechanism for how they might help prevent heart disease, including reducing blood pressure or reducing cholesterol. Omega 3 fats are readily available as over-the-counter supplements and they are widely bought and used.
Several recent clinical studies, especially those focusing on the benefits of omega-3 in inflammatory conditions, have investigated the actions of pure-EPA in protecting against excess inflammation in the body. EPA works in several different ways. Firstly, it is the precursor to a number of immune messengers, collectively called ‘eicosanoids’ (series-3 prostaglandins, series-3 thromboxanes and series-5 leukotrienes,) all of which have anti-inflammatory roles.
Recently another Omega-3 fatty acid, DPA (Docosapentaenoic Acid) has been discussed more frequently in the scientific community, as a new and very potent Omega-3 fatty acid. Previously thought to work in through EPA and DHA we are now learning it has very distinct functions in the body. All three of these polyunsaturated fats play an important role in the functioning of our bodies.
Heart rate variability, a possible surrogate outcome for the risk of sudden death, was assessed in a randomized trial of myocardial infarction (MI) survivors with an ejection fraction of 40%. In the 49 patients that were randomized to either fish oil or olive oil, Holter monitor recordings showed an increase in heart rate variability in the fish oil group.31 In a larger cohort assessed in the Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS),32 however, no difference in heart rate variability could be attributed to fish oil.
For patients without documented CAD, the American Heart Association 2006 Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations advise the consumption of at least 2 servings of fish per week, preferably fatty fish high in DHA and EPA.65 The guidelines also recommend a daily fish intake equivalent to 1 g/d of EPA and DHA for secondary prevention of CAD. Fish oil supplements containing EPA and DHA are suggested as an alternative to fatty fish consumption for secondary prevention.
We’ve already seen that fish oil can help with depression-like symptoms in rats, but what about people? A study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience evaluated the effects of fish oil supplementation on prefrontal metabolite concentrations in adolescents with major depressive disorder. Researchers found that there was a 40 percent decrease in major depression disorder symptoms in addition to marked improvements in amino acid and nutrition content in the brain, specifically, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. (21)
Good for you for eating healthily! Sadly, many people do not like omega-3 containing foods such as fish, and for these people, supplementation may be a good alternative to obtain omega-3. As a clinical investigator, my research focuses on study supplements, which is what I was asked to cover in this article. I’m all for healthy eating, but not everyone can afford it or wants to eat certain foods, and this is perhaps why supplements are so popular.
Corresponding Author: Yutaka J. Matsuoka, MD, PhD, Division of Health Care Research, Center for Public Health Sciences, National Cancer Center Japan, 5-1-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan (yumatsuo@ncc.go.jp); Kuan-Pin Su, MD, PhD, China Medical University Hospital, No. 2, Yude Road, North District, Taichung City, Taiwan 404 (cobolsu@gmail.com).
For patients without documented CAD, the American Heart Association 2006 Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations advise the consumption of at least 2 servings of fish per week, preferably fatty fish high in DHA and EPA.65 The guidelines also recommend a daily fish intake equivalent to 1 g/d of EPA and DHA for secondary prevention of CAD. Fish oil supplements containing EPA and DHA are suggested as an alternative to fatty fish consumption for secondary prevention.
The conversion of ALA to EPA and further to DHA in humans has been reported to be limited, but varies with individuals.[79][80] Women have higher ALA-to-DHA conversion efficiency than men, which is presumed[81] to be due to the lower rate of use of dietary ALA for beta-oxidation. One preliminary study showed that EPA can be increased by lowering the amount of dietary linoleic acid, and DHA can be increased by elevating intake of dietary ALA.[82]
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.
A six week, double-blind study on fish oil supplementation for body composition showed that the group taking 4 grams/day of fish oil (contained 1600mg if EPA & 800mg of DHA) experienced a significant increase in lean body mass and significant decrease in fat mass compared to a group that took safflower oil (an omega-6 oil). The fish oil group also saw a tendency for decreases in cortisol, a hormone associated with belly fat gain when elevated.
The chemical structure of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Eicosapentaenoic acid consists of 20 carbons (C20) with 5 double bonds, and the last unsaturated carbon is located third from the methyl end (n-3). Do-cosahexaenoic acid consists of 22 carbons (C22) with 6 double bonds, and also with the3 last unsaturated carbon located third from the methyl end (n-3). Adapted with permission from Frishman et al, eds. Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapeutics. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2003.3
Several small studies have shown that combination therapy with fish oil and HMG CoA reductase inhibitors is safe.56–61 The largest trial to date, the JELIS trial,32 was an open label trial of 18,645 Japanese adults with hypercholesterolemia who were randomized to a standard statin regimen or a fish oil formulation containing 1.8 g of EPA added to a statin medication. The cohort was made up mostly of postmenopausal, nonobese women with a 15% to 20% incidence of diabetes, tobacco use, or CAD. The primary outcome of any major cardiovascular event, at a mean of 4.6 years, was moderately reduced by a relative risk reduction of 26%. Both unstable angina and nonfatal MI were reduced, but no change was seen in sudden death. Overall, the findings were remarkable because at baseline approximately 90% of Japanese consumed at least 900 mg of EPA and DHA per day.62 The rates of cancer, joint pain, lumbar pain, or muscle pain were similar in the 2 groups. There was a similar rate of increase in measures of creatine phosphokinase, but more patients had an increase in aspartate aminotransferase levels (0.6% vs. 0.4%) in the fish oil group. The rate of bleeding was 1.1% in the fish oil combination group versus 0.6% in the HMG–CoA reductase inhibitor group.
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.

Katzman  MA, Bleau  P, Blier  P,  et al; Canadian Anxiety Guidelines Initiative Group on behalf of the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada/Association Canadienne des troubles anxieux and McGill University.  Canadian clinical practice guidelines for the management of anxiety, posttraumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders.  BMC Psychiatry. 2014;14(suppl 1):S1. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-14-S1-S1PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
A tremendous body of research has been conducted on these important nutrients since it was first discovered in the 1950s that fish oil offered many health benefits and that these benefits were attributable to a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3. Despite the volumes of research on omega-3s, it is only in recent years (within the last 15 years or so) that the actions of EPA and DHA have come to be understood individually. Researchers now often investigate the actions of EPA and DHA individually rather than together, no longer simply under the generic label omega-3 as they are widely referred to.
While fish for dinner is one way to get EPA and DHA, most people don’t eat the suggested two to three servings of oily fish per week to reap the benefits of omega-3s. What’s more, there are extremely few food sources, aside from fish, that naturally provide EPA and DHA. With all the benefits that can come from fish oil, it’s no surprise that these supplements are increasing in popularity.
Fish oil is useful in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, Raynaud’s symptoms and similar conditions. Using the fish oil can help in reducing the need for large dosages of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). The Royal Adelaide Hospital and the University of Newcastle, located in Australia, have reported that fish oil has shown positive effects in the treatment of arthritis. In cases of osteoarthritis, fish oil can be helpful in reducing the impact of enzymes that destroy cartilage.

Various scales were used in these studies to evaluate the target outcome of anxiety symptoms: the Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale, Profile of Mood States, State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale, Generalized Anxiety Disorder questionnaire, Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scales, Clinician-Administered Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Scale, Beck Anxiety Inventory, visual analog scale of anxiety, Impact of Event Scale–Revised, Conners score anxiety subscale, Neuropsychiatric Inventory, test anxiety severity, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale anxiety subscale, and Child Behavior Checklist anxiety subscale. The psychiatric and physical health conditions of the recruited participants also varied widely: general population without specific clinical conditions,36,47,51,55,60 participants with acute myocardial infarction,35 borderline personality disorder,2 mild to severe depression,59 obsessive-compulsive disorder,33 severe accidental injury,49 participants who were traumatized by disaster,54 participants with substance abuse disorder,34 women with premenstrual syndrome,56 children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,48,53 Alzheimer disease,58 generally healthy undergraduate college students but with test anxiety,61 Parkinson disease,52 and participants with Tourette syndrome.57 Sixteen studies compared the effect of omega-3 PUFA treatment with that of the placebo33,34,36,47-49,51-53,55-61; the other 3 studies were non–placebo controlled trials.35,50,54 The mean (SD) Jadad score of the recruited studies was 3.8 (1.0) (eTable in the Supplement).

This article had several limitations and the findings need to be considered with caution. First, our participant population is too heterogeneous because of our broad inclusion criteria, which might be true if considering current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or International Classification of Diseases diagnostic systems. However, the novel Research Domain Criteria consider anxiety to be one of the major domains in Negative Valence Systems. Trials should be conducted in populations in which anxiety is the main symptom irrespective of the presence or absence of diagnosis of anxiety disorder. Second, because of the limited number of recruited studies and their modest sample sizes, the results should not be extrapolated without careful consideration. Third, the significant heterogeneity among the included studies (Cochran Q, 178.820; df, 18; I2, 89.934%; P < .001) with potential influence by some outlier studies, such as the studies by Sohrabi et al56 and Yehuda et al,61 would be another major concern. Therefore, clinicians should pay attention to this aspect when applying the results of the current meta-analysis to clinical practice, particularly when considering the subgroups of these 2 studies (ie, subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses, with <2000 mg/d, with EPA <60%, and with placebo-controlled trials).
People used to believe that osteoporosis and osteoarthritis were the result of aging and reduced intake of calcium and milk products. Science has now shown that these bone and joint disorders are, in part, due to inflammation. Because of this, bones and joints are prime targets for the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 oils from both fish and krill.

An animal study involving the omega-3 ETA discovered that subjects experienced a drop in overall inflammation similar to that caused by NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), but without the dangerous gastrointestinal side effects. The study authors also pointed out that eicosapentaenoic acid seems to be even more potent than the conventional omega-3s found in fish oil supplements (EPA/DHA). (56)
Bianconi, L., Calo, L., Mennuni, M., Santini, L., Morosetti, P., Azzolini, P., Barbato, G., Biscione, F., Romano, P., and Santini, M. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for the prevention of arrhythmia recurrence after electrical cardioversion of chronic persistent atrial fibrillation: a randomized, double-blind, multicentre study. Europace. 2011;13(2):174-181. View abstract.
Eicosatetraenoic Acid (ETA): ETA is a lesser-known omega-3 fatty acid that also contains 20 carbons, like EPA, but only four bonds instead of five. It is found richly inroe oil and green-lipped mussel and is only recently being recognized for its potent health benefits. Not only is it anti-inflammatory, like the other omega-3s, but ETA can also limit your body’s production of the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (ARA). In fact, ETA redirects the enzyme that normally creates ARA to convert it to EPA instead!
^ Jump up to: a b MacLean CH, Newberry SJ, Mojica WA, Khanna P, Issa AM, Suttorp MJ, Lim YW, Traina SB, Hilton L, Garland R, Morton SC (2006-01-25). "Effects of omega−3 fatty acids on cancer risk: a systematic review". JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 295 (4): 403–15. doi:10.1001/jama.295.4.403. PMID 16434631. Retrieved 2006-07-07.
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.
Dry eye disease occurs when tears don’t provide enough moisture, causing eye discomfort and vision problems. Some studies show that getting more omega-3s from foods or supplements—mainly EPA and DHA—helps relieve symptoms of dry eye disease. But a large, recent study found that the symptoms of people with dry eye disease who took fish oil supplements of 2,000 mg EPA plus 1,000 mg DHA daily for 1 year did not improve any more than those who took a placebo (a dummy pill). More research on the effects of omega-3s on dry eye disease is needed.
Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.
Animal studies show potent reduction of liver fat stores, glucose levels, and cholesterol levels in mice supplemented with krill oil while being fed a high fat diet.64,65 While many of these effects are seen with fish oil as well, studies show that krill oil, with its unique phospholipid structure, had the added benefit of increasing fat-burning in mitochondria while reducing new glucose production in the liver.66,67 As with so many other complex disease processes, utilizing multiple pathways to reduce disease is a highly effective strategy.67
Fish oil combined with fenofibrate has not been studied extensively in randomized controlled trials. Data to date, however, suggest that the combination is safe and effective.63,64 A recent randomized controlled trial of 100 patients with severe hypertriglyceridemia and HIV on highly active antiretroviral therapy showed that a regimen of fenofibrate and 3 g/d of fish oil for 8 weeks was well tolerated. The median baseline triglyceride level of 650 mg/dL was reduced by 65%.63 Another recent randomized, 2 month, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, which was set up to assess the safety and efficacy of fenofibrate with 4 g of fish oil, showed that in the 81 patients assigned to combination therapy, triglyceride levels were reduced by 61%. Therapy was well-tolerated without significant adverse reactions at 8 weeks or at the end of a 2-year open label extension.64 The combination of fish oil and niacin requires further study.
First, always remember that it’s the omega-3s that count. When making your purchase, be sure to determine the amount of omega-3s per serving. Many doctors often recommend 1000 to 1200 mg of fish oil because that amount of fish oil contains the total amount of omega-3s the doctor wants you to consume. 1000 mg or 1200 mg of fish oil doesn’t equal 1000 or 1200 mg of omega-3s. A standard 1000 mg fish oil softgel provides around 300 mg of omega-3s (and even less of the important EPA and DHA), and to meet the 500 mg EPA and DHA recommendation, a minimum of two softgels would be necessary. Make sure to read the “Supplement Facts” label to determine the amount of EPA and DHA in a fish oil/omega-3 supplement.

After the age of five, the development of the brain and CNS starts to reduce and the body’s need for DHA reduces. This is a good time to increase EPA in the diet, as studies show that EPA can help with childhood behaviour and academic performance, as well as focus, attention and reducing aggression. Dry skin conditions, asthma and allergies are also common in children and good levels of EPA at this time can help reduce the inflammation associated with these issues.
Fish oil can be obtained from eating fish or by taking supplements. Fish that are especially rich in the beneficial oils known as omega-3 fatty acids include mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon, cod liver, whale blubber, and seal blubber. Two of the most important omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish oil are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Make sure to see separate listings on EPA and DHA, as well as Cod Liver Oil, and Shark Liver Oil.
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