In addition to depression, chronic stress leads to loss of volume of the hippocampus—and also causes enlargement of the amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates anxiety and anger.24 When rats were supplemented with omega-3s during exposure to stress, they showed lower corticosterone levels (a marker of stress), and improved learning on a maze—indicating that the omega-3s helped preserve memory and reduce anxiety.24
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.
A healthy balance of dietary omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids is a prerequisite for normal immune function, cognitive health, and cardiovascular health. Among other factors, sufficient dietary levels of EPA, DHA or other omega 3 fatty acids are also important in the regulation of normal blood lipoprotein and healthy cholesterol metabolism. Fish oil supplements can also lower elevated triglyceride levels, improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of heart disease.†
Additional side effects of fish oil supplements which have been reported include headache, short-term memory loss, depression, somatic disorders, and increased risk of colon cancer, nasopharyngitis, worsening of asthma symptoms, hemolytic anemia, decreased physical activity, increased appetite, a general uncomfortable feeling or increased blood pressure. The percentage of users that develop these side effects is not known. If these side effects become severe it is recommended that you stop using fish oil supplements.
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.
Results In total, 1203 participants with omega-3 PUFA treatment (mean age, 43.7 years; mean female proportion, 55.0%; mean omega-3 PUFA dosage, 1605.7 mg/d) and 1037 participants without omega-3 PUFA treatment (mean age, 40.6 years; mean female proportion, 55.0%) showed an association between clinical anxiety symptoms among participants with omega-3 PUFA treatment compared with control arms (Hedges g, 0.374; 95% CI, 0.081-0.666; P = .01). Subgroup analysis showed that the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms was significantly greater in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions. The anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs was significantly better than that of controls only in subgroups with a higher dosage (at least 2000 mg/d) and not in subgroups with a lower dosage (<2000 mg/d).
Hooper, L., Thompson, R. L., Harrison, R. A., Summerbell, C. D., Ness, A. R., Moore, H. J., Worthington, H. V., Durrington, P. N., Higgins, J. P., Capps, N. E., Riemersma, R. A., Ebrahim, S. B., and Davey, Smith G. Risks and benefits of omega 3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review. BMJ 4-1-2006;332(7544):752-760. View abstract.
Fish oil is also extremely beneficial for pregnant women and their children. Throughout pregnancy and also while breastfeeding, a woman’s omega-3 needs are even higher than usual. According to the American Pregnancy Association, most U.S. women are deficient in EPA and especially DHA going into pregnancy and get even more depleted during pregnancy, as the placenta supplies the fetus with DHA from the mother’s tissue. Omega-3 DHA is a critical building block of the fetal brain, eyes and nervous system. Once the baby is born, omega-3s continue to be vital to healthy brain development and immune function. (30)
Lok CE, Moist L, Hemmelgarn BR, Tonelli M, Vazquez MA, Dorval M, Oliver M, Donnelly S, Allon M, Stanley K; Fish Oil Inhibition of Stenosis in Hemodialysis Grafts (FISH) Study Group. Effect of fish oil supplementation on graft patency and cardiovascular events among patients with new synthetic arteriovenous hemodialysis grafts: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2012;307(17):1809-16. View abstract.
High blood pressure. Fish oil seems to slightly lower blood pressure in people with moderate to very high blood pressure. Some types of fish oil might also reduce blood pressure in people with slightly high blood pressure, but results are inconsistent. Fish oil seems to add to the effects of some, but not all, blood pressure-lowering medications. However, it doesn't seem to reduce blood pressure in people with uncontrolled blood pressure who are already taking blood pressure-lowering medications.