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)
36. Marchioli R, Barzi F, Bomba E, Chieffo C, Di Gregorio D, Di Mascio R, Franzosi MG, Geraci E, Levantesi G, Maggioni AP, et al. 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. 2002;105:1897–903. [PubMed]
If you get your omega-3 index measured, you’ll know if your current efforts are sufficient. And this knowledge is especially important given that even health-conscious people are not always self-aware. One survey found that in a group of people with omega-3 index levels in the intermediate risk range, some 30% believed they were consuming enough omega-3s (11). One registered dietitian wrote a compelling story about exactly this experience. She discovered she was in the intermediate range, in spite of her intentions to eat enough fish.
Those foods provide enormous amounts of other nutrients that are good for you. nSo it is way better to eat those foods than to take fish oil. With that said, some people find it very difficult to get vitamin A or vitamin D, and particularly for vitamin A, cod liver oil may be a very important source of that vitamin. Cod liver oil is a form of fish oil that happens to be high in the fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin A is best found in liver. It’s better in my opinion to eat liver once a week, but there are a lot of people out there who are not going to eat liver once a week. So if you are using cod liver oil to get the vitamins that you can’t get from food—and I should point out that vitamin A can also be derived from plant foods, but many people genetically or for other reasons don’t derive it very well from plant foods.
In some cases, fish oil pills may cause loose stools, nausea, diarrhea, and decreased appetite, fat in the stools, vomiting or constipation. These side effects can be minimized by taking a fish oil capsule that is coated, which is designed to help eliminate the "fish burps" many users complain about. Starting with low doses of the supplement and working up to a full dose can also help minimize side effects. You can also pair fish oil supplements with meals so that they enter your body more slowly, minimizing the risk of side effects occurring.
The biggest cause of omega-3 deficiency is the overconsumption of foods high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 comes from things like fried foods, fast foods and boxed foods that contain vegetables oils like soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil. When you consume too much omega-6, it can decrease your body’s ability to metabolize healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (36)
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.
Jatoi, A., Rowland, K., Loprinzi, C. L., Sloan, J. A., Dakhil, S. R., MacDonald, N., Gagnon, B., Novotny, P. J., Mailliard, J. A., Bushey, T. I., Nair, S., and Christensen, B. An eicosapentaenoic acid supplement versus megestrol acetate versus both for patients with cancer-associated wasting: a North Central Cancer Treatment Group and National Cancer Institute of Canada collaborative effort. J.Clin.Oncol. 6-15-2004;22(12):2469-2476. View abstract.
Dioxins and PCBs may be carcinogenic at low levels of exposure over time. These substances are identified and measured in one of two categories, dioxin-like PCBs and total PCBs. While the U.S. FDA has not set a limit for PCBs in supplements, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA (GOED) has established a guideline allowing for no more than 3 picograms of dioxin-like PCBs per gram of fish oil. In 2012, samples from 35 fish oil supplements were tested for PCBs. Trace amounts of PCBs were found in all samples, and two samples exceeded the GOED‘s limit. Although trace amounts of PCBs contribute to overall PCB exposure, Consumerlab.com claims the amounts reported by tests it ordered on fish oil supplements are far below those found in a single typical serving of fish.
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.
Ample evidence from animal studies supports regular supplementation with omega-3 oils as a means of lowering long-term cardiovascular risk. This may be due to omega-3 fatty acids’ effects on reducing inflammation, lowering triglycerides, reducing blood pressure, improving endothelial function, inducing new blood vessel formation after heart attack or stroke, and favorable modification of obesity-related inflammatory molecules.35-39
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.
Belalcazar, L. M., Reboussin, D. M., Haffner, S. M., Reeves, R. S., Schwenke, D. C., Hoogeveen, R. C., Pi-Sunyer, F. X., and Ballantyne, C. M. Marine omega-3 fatty acid intake: associations with cardiometabolic risk and response to weight loss intervention in the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study. Diabetes Care 2010;33(1):197-199. View abstract.
Protects Vision: Our eyes' retinas are a membranous structures and the whole eye is covered in a soft double layer of membranes, making your eyes' health dependent on the liver (who knew?). The liver helps metabolize fat-soluble vitamins that feed and maintain those membranes. If you're deficient in DHA, it affects how we see by delaying the system that converts light into neural energy in the retina.
In recent years, many people – particularly those who strictly follow a vegetarian or vegan diet – have believed that they do not have to consume animal products to get omega-3s, as long as they are consuming high amounts of plant-based omega-3s. But, as I mentioned before, most of the health benefits that you can get from omega-3 fats are linked to animal-based EPA and DHA fats – not plant-based ALA. They are simply NOT interchangeable.
EPA is the precursor to DHA in the body and can be converted to DHA with the enzyme delta-6 desaturase, but this process is inefficient in many people (much like the inefficiency of short-chain omega-3s to long-chain). For those individuals taking pure EPA products as well as those taking our EPA-rich products, we still recommend eating oily fish at least once each week to provide a natural source of DHA. Fish provides a unique nutritional package, supplying the diet with important amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and antioxidants, including vitamins and minerals needed to process fats, so eating fish will also support the natural enzyme-dependent EPA to DHA conversion.
It is also believed that women who do not have a sufficient intake of EPA and DHA in their diet suffer from depression after childbirth, as there is a transfer of some amount of brain mass from the mother to the child in the last stages of pregnancy. Thus, it is very beneficial to consume fish oil either by eating fish or taking fish oil supplements, tablets, capsules, or pills during pregnancy for the overall development of the child and the well-being of the mother. However, it should be noted that fish oil obtained from the liver of the fish, example – cod liver oil, should not be consumed during pregnancy as cod liver oil is high in retinol and vitamin A, which are usually known to cause birth defects.
DHA is especially vital for infant and child brain and nervous system development, as well as visual function. In older children, high DHA levels have been shown to improve learning ability, while deficiencies have been linked to learning problems and ADHD. And in adults, some studies have shown that DHA helps protect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Henneicke-von Zepelin, H. H., Mrowietz, U., Farber, L., Bruck-Borchers, K., Schober, C., Huber, J., Lutz, G., Kohnen, R., Christophers, E., and Welzel, D. Highly purified omega-3-polyunsaturated fatty acids for topical treatment of psoriasis. Results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled multicentre study. Br J Dermatol 1993;129(6):713-717. View abstract.
“This systematic review did find moderate evidence that ALA, found in plant oils (such as rapeseed or canola oil) and nuts (particularly walnuts) may be slightly protective of some diseases of the heart and circulation. However, the effect is very small, 143 people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person developing arrhythmia. One thousand people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person dying of coronary heart disease or experiencing a cardiovascular event. ALA is an essential fatty acid, an important part of a balanced diet, and increasing intakes may be slightly beneficial for prevention or treatment of cardiovascular disease."
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)
Infant development. There is some evidence that mothers who eat fish or take fish oil supplements during pregnancy may improve some aspects of their baby's mental development. Taking fish oil during breast-feeding does not have this effect. However, feeding infants formula fortified with fish oil appears to improve some aspect of the baby's vision by the age of 2 months.