Omega-3 fatty acids get a fair amount of time in the press and a great deal of respect at this point. But do you know what omega-3s are? What omega-3 benefits could convince you to add more oily fish (or maybe a supplement) to your diet? Are omega-3 foods really that big of a deal when it comes to eating a nutrient-dense diet? Could you be deficient in these fatty acids?
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ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means that you need it but you must get this fat from your diet because your body is unable to produce it. In general, omega 3 fats are a crucial component of all cell membranes, including the eye (retina) and brain as well as aiding in the process of energy production to support functions involving the heart, lungs, immune system, and hormones (endocrine system), work properly.1
The results of several small studies had suggested that taking omega-3 supplements might help relieve symptoms of dry eye disease. However, a 2018 NIH-sponsored study that tested omega-3 supplements for a full year in a larger group (535 study participants) with moderate-to-severe dry eye disease found that the supplements were no more helpful than a placebo (an inactive substance).
Dry eye. Some clinical research shows that eating more fish oil is linked to a lower risk of getting dry eye syndrome in women. Other research shows that taking a specific fish oil product (PRN Dry Eye Omega Benefits softgels) daily modestly improves symptoms of dry eye such as pain, blurred vision, and sensitivity. Other research using other forms of fish oil products suggests that taking these supplements for 4-12 weeks modest improves some dry eye symptoms. However, the sensation of eye dryness is not always improved. Other research also shows that taking a specific combination products containing fish oil and other ingredients might improve some dry eye symptoms; however, this research is conflicted and poor quality.
Abnormal rapid heart rhythms (ventricular arrhythmias). Population research suggests that eating a lot of fish has no effect on the risk for abnormal rapid heart rhythms. Clinical research is inconsistent. Some research shows that taking fish oil daily does not affect the risk for abnormal heart rhythms. But other research shows that taking fish oil for 11 months delays the development of the condition. However, overall, taking fish oil does not seem to reduce the risk of death in people with abnormal rapid heart rhythms.
Foods such as meat, eggs, fish and nuts contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which the body converts into endocannabinoids – cannabinoids that the body produces naturally, said Aditi Das, a University of Illinois professor of comparative biosciences and biochemistry, who led the study. Cannabinoids in marijuana and endocannabinoids produced in the body can support the body’s immune system and therefore are attractive targets for the development of anti-inflammatory therapeutics, she said.
Excessive amounts of chemicals. Using excessive amounts of fish products such as shark, farm raised salmon or mackerel can be dangerous. These products may be exposed to excessive amounts of chemicals such as mercury which can build up in the body and cause negative effects. While it is healthy to consume fish, it is important to seek out quality sources to avoid exposure to these chemicals. Using a supplement to get high levels of omega-3s into your system is also recommended because these products are produced in such a way that they will not expose you to unsafe chemicals.
Makrides et al. (25) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 2399 (n = 1197 supplemented, n = 1202 placebo; 726 children were followed up with) DHA (fish-oil capsules providing 800 mg/d DHA) Supplementation did not result in lower levels of postpartum depression in mothers or improved cognitive and language development in offspring during early childhood
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Omega-3s are important components of the membranes that surround each cell in your body. DHA levels are especially high in retina (eye), brain, and sperm cells. Omega-3s also provide calories to give your body energy and have many functions in your heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system, and endocrine system (the network of hormone-producing glands).
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.
Typical Western diets provide ratios of between 10:1 and 30:1 (i.e., dramatically higher levels of omega−6 than omega−3). The ratios of omega−6 to omega−3 fatty acids in some common vegetable oils are: canola 2:1, hemp 2–3:1, soybean 7:1, olive 3–13:1, sunflower (no omega−3), flax 1:3, cottonseed (almost no omega−3), peanut (no omega−3), grapeseed oil (almost no omega−3) and corn oil 46:1.
These conversions occur competitively with omega−6 fatty acids, which are essential closely related chemical analogues that are derived from linoleic acid. They both utilize the same desaturase and elongase proteins in order to synthesize inflammatory regulatory proteins. The products of both pathways are vital for growth making a balanced diet of omega−3 and omega−6 important to an individual's health. A balanced intake ratio of 1:1 was believed to be ideal in order for proteins to be able to synthesize both pathways sufficiently, but this has been controversial as of recent research.
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.
46. Gajos G, Rostoff P, Undas A, Piwowarska W. Effects of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids on responsiveness to dual antiplatelet therapy in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention: the OMEGA-PCI (OMEGA-3 fatty acids after pci to modify responsiveness to dual antiplatelet therapy) study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2010;55:1671–8. [PubMed]
AD is a devastating disease for which there are limited treatment options and no cure. Memory loss is an early indicator of the disease, which is progressive, and leads to the inability of the patient to care for him- or herself and eventually to death (47). Currently, the number of individuals with AD is estimated to be 26.6 million and is expected to increase to 106.2 million by 2050 (48). There have been many studies conducted regarding the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and AD (Table 2). DHA is present in large amounts in neuron membrane phospholipids, where it is involved in proper function of the nervous system, which is why it is thought to play a role in AD (49). A case-control study consisting of 148 patients with cognitive impairment [Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) score <24] and 45 control patients (MMSE score ≥24) showed that serum cholesteryl ester-EPA and -DHA levels were significantly lower (P < 0.05 and P < 0.001, respectively) in all MMSE score quartiles of patients with AD compared with control values (49). Another study found that a diet characterized by higher intakes of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salad dressing, nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, cruciferous vegetables, fruits, dark and green leafy vegetables), and a lower intake of foods low in omega-3 fatty acids (high-fat dairy products, red meat, organ meat, butter) was strongly associated with a lower AD risk (50). Image analysis of brain sections of an aged AD mouse model showed that overall plaque burden was significantly reduced by 40.3% in mice with a diet enriched with DHA (P < 0.05) compared with placebo. The largest reductions (40–50%) were seen in brain regions that are thought to be involved with AD, the hippocampus and parietal cortex (51). A central event in AD is thought to be the activation of multiple inflammatory cells in the brain. Release of IL-1B, IL-6, and TNF α from microglia cells may lead to dysfunction of the neurons in the brain (52). In 1 study, AD patients treated with EPA+DHA supplementation increased their plasma concentrations of EPA and DHA, which were associated with reduced release of inflammatory factors IL-1B, IL-6, and granulocyte colony–stimulating factor from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (53).
Between the ages of five and 65, the majority of the body’s needs can be met by using EPA-rich oils and eating fish, marine products, organic greens and pastured animal products. EPA levels are under constant demand and low EPA levels in adolescents and adults correlates strongly with development of mental health issues, including depression, dyslexia and dyspraxia, heart problems, joint and bone conditions, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as MS and Parkinson’s. EPA also protects our genes and cell cycle, as well as helping to keep our stress response regulated, so an adequate supply of EPA throughout adult life can help prevent a range of chronic illness.
At SelfHacked, it’s our goal to offer our readers all the tools possible to get optimally healthy. When I was struggling with chronic health issues I felt stuck because I didn’t have any tools to help me get better. I had to spend literally thousands of hours trying to read through studies on pubmed to figure out how the body worked and how to fix it.
A number of trials have found that omega-3 PUFAs might reduce anxiety under serious stressful situations. Case-controlled studies have shown low peripheral omega-3 PUFA levels in patients with anxiety disorders.27-31 A cohort study found that high serum EPA levels were associated with protection against posttraumatic stress disorder.32 In studies of therapeutic interventions, while a randomized clinical trial of adjunctive EPA treatment in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder revealed that EPA augmentation had no beneficial effect on symptoms of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsiveness,33 a randomized clinical trial involving participants with substance abuse showed that EPA and DHA administration was accompanied by significant decreases in anger and anxiety scores compared with placebo.34 In addition, a randomized clinical trial found that omega-3 PUFAs had additional effects on decreasing depressive and anxiety symptoms in patients with acute myocardial infarction,35 and a randomized clinical trial demonstrated that omega-3 PUFAs could reduce inflammation and anxiety among healthy young adults facing a stressful major examination.36 Despite the largely positive findings of these trials, the clinical application of the findings is unfortunately limited by their small sample sizes.
The way that fish oil does that is to interfere with carbohydrate metabolism, and in insulin-resistant people or in people with specific genetic differences that might predispose them to having very high triglycerides, you do benefit from interfering that pathway with the fish oil, but I would actually try a low-carbohydrate diet in a lot of those situations to see if that helps with lowering triglycerides, or in the case of insulin resistance, I would try to address the insulin resistance at its root cause.
Today the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved form of dietary omega-3 FA supplement is Lovaza (omega-3-acid ethyl esters; GlaxoSmithKline), which contains 375 mg of DHA and 465 mg of EPA per 1 g capsule. The myriad of dietary supplements of fish oil, including Kosher capsules, vary from comparable content to insignificant amounts, and for the most part can include other fats and cholesterols. In comparison, to achieve approximately 1 g of EPA and DHA in a meal, 12 ounces of canned light tuna, 2 to 3 ounces of sardines, 1.5 to 2.5 ounces of farmed Atlantic salmon, or 20 ounces of farmed catfish must be consumed (Table 1).65 Unfortunately, potentially high levels of harmful pollutants offset this source of omega-3 FA. The FDA action level for unacceptably high mercury content in fish is 1.0 μg/g. The mercury level in most fish is at or below 0.1 μg/g, but tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel have high levels of mercury. The majority of fish species also contain <100 ng/g of polychlorinated biphenyls, which is below the FDA action level of 2000 ng/g. Dioxins, which do not have FDA action levels, are present in the majority of marine life.66
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.
Since 2004, scientists have been suggesting that the omega-3 index be used as a way to measure a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, in a similar way to how cholesterol levels are used today (1). A recent study funded by the National Institutes for Health even indicated that the omega-3 index could be a better predictor of death risk than serum cholesterol levels (2).
However, the researchers do have some good news. They concluded that omega 3 fatty acids do appear to reduce the type of blood cholesterol known as triglycerides, but that supplements probably are not useful for preventing or improving heart and circulatory problems. And, upping your intake of plant-based omega 3s high in ALA (ie, walnuts, flaxseed and flax oil, chia seeds) may help your heart somewhat.2
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.
Unsafe for children. Fish oil supplements are not considered safe for children. Too much of this fat in their system can lead to a chemical imbalance in the brain which could stunt healthy growth and development. Because of this, and the possible exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls, methylmercury and other toxins which are found in some sources of fish, it is not recommended that women who are pregnant take excessive amounts of fish oil. Servings of fish should be limited to six ounces per week and they should refrain from using fish oil or other fatty acid supplement pills. Children should not consume more than two ounces of fish per week to avoid overexposure to these chemicals. Now you know although fish oil can benefit human beings a lot, fish oil side effects should never be neglected for the sake of your safety.
There are numerous omega-3 sources with varying proportions of EPA and DHA, and the balance of EPA and DHA in a supplement influences the actions of these fats in the body. For more information about the different types of omega-3 sources and which are most suited for your individual needs, read our page on the different types of omega-3 supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids are frequently in the news regarding their health benefits (or doubts in some cases). Two types of omega-3s in particular - eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docohexaenoic acid (DHA) – are known to be essential fatty acids. “Essential” refers to the fact that our cells need these fatty acids in order to function normally. But the body cannot make them from other fats, which means it’s “essential” we supply them in our diet or through supplementation.
Fearon, K. C., Von Meyenfeldt, M. F., Moses, A. G., Van Geenen, R., Roy, A., Gouma, D. J., Giacosa, A., Van Gossum, A., Bauer, J., Barber, M. D., Aaronson, N. K., Voss, A. C., and Tisdale, M. J. Effect of a protein and energy dense n-3 fatty acid enriched oral supplement on loss of weight and lean tissue in cancer cachexia: a randomised double blind trial. Gut 2003;52(10):1479-1486. View abstract.
Human studies also confirm cognition and memory improvement with omega-3 supplementation. For example, a study showed that both fish oil and krill oil enhanced cognitive function in a group of older men by increasing oxygen delivery to their brains. Interestingly, for those taking krill oil this effect was more prominent than those taking fish oil, though both groups were significantly better than placebo.30 As we pointed out earlier, because the omega-3 DHA is bound to phospholipids in krill it may be more effectively incorporated into the critical cell membrane in brain cells.
The National High Blood Pressure Education Program in the United States has cautioned against inaccurate publicity of fish oil as an effective means of lowering high blood pressure in patients suffering from hypertension. According to its report, fish oil supplements lower blood pressure in a very small way in hypertensive patients. Research conducted at the Channing Laboratory in Boston has revealed that moderate doses of fish oil supplements have little effect on the condition of high blood pressure in normotensive people.
Saito, Y., Yokoyama, M., Origasa, H., Matsuzaki, M., Matsuzawa, Y., Ishikawa, Y., Oikawa, S., Sasaki, J., Hishida, H., Itakura, H., Kita, T., Kitabatake, A., Nakaya, N., Sakata, T., Shimada, K., and Shirato, K. Effects of EPA on coronary artery disease in hypercholesterolemic patients with multiple risk factors: sub-analysis of primary prevention cases from the Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS). Atherosclerosis 2008;200(1):135-140. View abstract.