Chemical structure of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega−3 fatty acid, (18:3Δ9c,12c,15c, which means a chain of 18 carbons with 3 double bonds on carbons numbered 9, 12, and 15). Although chemists count from the carbonyl carbon (blue numbering), biologists count from the n (ω) carbon (red numbering). Note that, from the n end (diagram right), the first double bond appears as the third carbon-carbon bond (line segment), hence the name "n-3". This is explained by the fact that the n end is almost never changed during physiological transformations in the human body, as it is more energy-stable, and other compounds can be synthesized from the other carbonyl end, for example in glycerides, or from double bonds in the middle of the chain.
Omega-3s are generally safe and well tolerated. Stomach upset and “fishy taste” have been the most common complaints, but they are less frequent now thanks to manufacturing methods that reduce impurities. Past concerns about omega-3s increasing the risk of bleeding have been largely disproven, but caution is still advised in people taking blood thinners or who are about to undergo surgery. As mentioned, caution is needed in people with bipolar disorder to prevent cycling to mania. Because omega-3s are important to brain development, and pregnancy depletes omega-3 in expectant mothers, supplementation should theoretically benefit pregnant women and their children. Fish consumption in pregnancy is supported by the FDA, but because we do not have long-term data on safety or optimal dosing of omega-3s in pregnancy, expectant mothers should consider omega-3 supplements judiciously.
The randomized trials assessing the efficacy of fish oil supplementation on secondary prevention of CAD lend further evidence to the findings that fish oil may protect from sudden cardiac death.36 The Diet and Reinfarction Trial (DART),37 one of the first randomized trials of fish oil in CAD, has been interpreted as potential support for fish oil’s role in sudden death reduction because the primary outcome of all-cause mortality occurred within 2 months of the trial’s onset.38 After such a short time span, it was believed that atherosclerosis would not be altered and therefore another mechanism was reducing mortality. This was further supported by the fact that nonfatal MIs were not reduced. Although the actual modes of death other than CAD-related deaths were not documented, it has been postulated to be secondary to a reduction in sudden death.39 The Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardico-Prevenzione40 (GISSI-Prevenzione) trial, a larger randomized trial of fish oil in CAD, has also been interpreted as evidence for fish oil’s protection against sudden death. Sudden death, however, was not a primary end point. Rather, the reduction in fatal events was driven by a reduction in cardiovascular death, which included coronary death, cardiac death, and sudden death.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to play a role in atherosclerosis and peripheral arterial disease (PAD). It is thought that both EPA and DHA improve plaque stability, decrease endothelial activation, and improve vascular permeability, thereby decreasing the chance of experiencing a cardiovascular event (41). It was found that EPA supplementation is associated with significantly higher amounts of EPA in the carotid plaque than placebo (P < 0.0001), which may lead to decreased plaque inflammation and increased stability (42). PAD, a manifestation of atherosclerosis, is characterized by buildup of plaque in the arteries of the leg and can eventually lead to complete blockage of the arteries. EPA+DHA supplementation has been shown to improve endothelial function in patients with PAD by decreasing plasma levels of soluble thrombomodulin from a median value of 33.0 μg/L to 17.0 μg/L (P = 0.04) and improve brachial artery flow–mediated dilation from 6.7% to 10.0% (P = 0.02) (43). Patients who had PAD and were supplemented with EPA experienced a significantly lower major coronary event HR than those who did not take EPA (HR: 0.44; 95% CI: 0.19–0.97; P = 0.041) (44).
Gorjao, R., Verlengia, R., Lima, T. M., Soriano, F. G., Boaventura, M. F., Kanunfre, C. C., Peres, C. M., Sampaio, S. C., Otton, R., Folador, A., Martins, E. F., Curi, T. C., Portiolli, E. P., Newsholme, P., and Curi, R. Effect of docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil supplementation on human leukocyte function. Clin Nutr 2006;25(6):923-938. View abstract.
One meta-analysis concluded that omega−3 fatty acid supplementation demonstrated a modest effect for improving ADHD symptoms. A Cochrane review of PUFA (not necessarily omega−3) supplementation found "there is little evidence that PUFA supplementation provides any benefit for the symptoms of ADHD in children and adolescents", while a different review found "insufficient evidence to draw any conclusion about the use of PUFAs for children with specific learning disorders". Another review concluded that the evidence is inconclusive for the use of omega−3 fatty acids in behavior and non-neurodegenerative neuropsychiatric disorders such as ADHD and depression.
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.
The various enzymes (COX and LOX) that make inflammatory eicosanoids can accommodate both AA and EPA, but again due to the greater spatial size of DHA, these enzymes will have difficulty in converting DHA into eicosanoids. This makes DHA a poor substrate for these key inflammatory enzymes. Thus DHA again has little effect on cellular inflammation whereas EPA can have a powerful impact.
The European Journal of Neuroscience published a study in 2013 showing that fish oil reversed all anxiety-like and depression-like behavior changes induced in rats. This is an interesting study because it stresses the importance of supplementing with fish oil at “critical periods of brain development.” (10) This is exactly why I recommend giving fish oil to our kids from early on to help them so they won’t develop anxiety or depression later in life.
The omega-3 index may also be helpful for assessing health risks beyond cardiovascular disease. Studies are currently investigating the relationship between omega-3 index levels and mental health issues, like depression (15, 16, 17), cognitive functioning (18, 19), body weight (20), as well as eye health issues, like macular degeneration (21), to name just a few.
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.
Studies have also found that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are associated with improved survival rates for heart attack victims. A study published in the medical journal Circulation found that people who took a high dose of fish oil each for six months following the occurrence of a heart attack actually improved their hearts’ overall functioning and also reduced biomarkers of systemic inflammation. (20)
Scaly, itchy skin (eczema). Research shows that fish oil does not improve eczema. Most research also shows that taking fish oil during pregnancy doesn't PREVENT eczema in the child. Giving fish oil to an infant also doesn't seem to prevent eczema in children. But children who eat fish at least once weekly from the age of 1-2 years seem to have a lower risk of developing eczema.