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.
There have been numerous clinical trials looking mainly at death, stroke, and cardiac outcomes related to omega 3 consumption, either in food or in supplements. Now the Cochrane Library has published the largest systematic review of these studies to date. Unfortunately, the review shows little benefit from consuming omega 3 fatty acid. This is a fairly extensive review with good statistical power:
Brain function and vision rely on dietary intake of DHA to support a broad range of cell membrane properties, particularly in grey matter, which is rich in membranes. A major structural component of the mammalian brain, DHA is the most abundant omega−3 fatty acid in the brain. It is under study as a candidate essential nutrient with roles in neurodevelopment, cognition, and neurodegenerative disorders.
A Pregnancy Prerequisite: Omega-3 fatty acids directly affect brain development, making it crucial for expectant mothers. Additionally, research indicates they decrease a mother's risk of depression. When the mother doesn't have enough of these essential fatty acids, the baby borrows from her. Some prenatal vitamins now include omega-3s, so be sure to check the label or grab a handful of walnuts each day.
Another small study had all volunteers consume the same exact control diet and substituted fish oil for visible fats (things like butter and cream). The volunteers consumed six grams of fish oil each day for three weeks. They found that body fat mass decreased with the intake of fish oil. The researchers conclude that dietary fish oil reduces body fat and stimulates the use of fatty acids for the production of energy in healthy adults. (33a)
Fatty predatory fish like sharks, swordfish, tilefish, and albacore tuna may be high in omega-3 fatty acids, but due to their position at the top of the food chain, these species may also accumulate toxic substances through biomagnification. For this reason, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting consumption (especially for women of childbearing age) of certain (predatory) fish species (e.g. albacore tuna, shark, king mackerel, tilefish and swordfish) due to high levels of the toxic contaminant mercury. Dioxin, PCBs and chlordane are also present. Fish oil is used as a component in aquaculture feed. More than 50 percent of the world's fish oil used in aquaculture feed is fed to farmed salmon.
Dr. Holub has provided the questions and answers for several emails he has received over the years regarding omega-3 fatty acids for health. If you have a question regarding omega-3, it is likely that Dr. Holub has answered it either here in this section, or elsewhere on the site (e.g. check the scientific overview section for general questions regarding omega-3). To quickly find your answer, please use our search bar located in the top right section of this page. After searching our site, and you still cannot find the answer to your question, we invite you to ask Dr. Holub a question here.
If, however, we want to target the actions and benefits of either fat for more intensive support or clinical use, we need to alter the natural 1.5:1 EPA:DHA ratio found in most omega-3 sources such as fish oil – which is when concentrated supplements are especially useful. Certain forms of omega-3 called ethyl-ester and re-esterified triglyceride give nature a helping hand – allowing us to achieve targeted ratios of specific fatty acids at high concentration and physiologically active doses.
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).
The human body can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or raw materials. That isn’t the case for omega-3 fatty acids (also called omega-3 fats and n-3 fats). These are essential fats—the body can’t make them from scratch but must get them from food. Foods high in Omega-3 include fish, vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables.
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.
Hernandez, D., Guerra, R., Milena, A., Torres, A., Garcia, S., Garcia, C., Abreu, P., Gonzalez, A., Gomez, M. A., Rufino, M., Gonzalez-Posada, J., Lorenzo, V., and Salido, E. Dietary fish oil does not influence acute rejection rate and graft survival after renal transplantation: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Nephrol.Dial.Transplant. 2002;17(5):897-904. View abstract.
Maximizing the benefits you get from omega-3s is highly dependent on how they are absorbed and transported throughout your body. Although these fatty acids are water soluble, they cannot be easily transported into your blood in their free form. Therefore, they need to be packaged in lipoprotein vehicles for them to be better absorbed into your bloodstream.
Yamagishi, K., Iso, H., Date, C., Fukui, M., Wakai, K., Kikuchi, S., Inaba, Y., Tanabe, N., and Tamakoshi, A. Fish, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and mortality from cardiovascular diseases in a nationwide community-based cohort of Japanese men and women the JACC (Japan Collaborative Cohort Study for Evaluation of Cancer Risk) Study. J.Am.Coll.Cardiol. 9-16-2008;52(12):988-996. View abstract.
In the United States, the Institute of Medicine publishes a system of Dietary Reference Intakes, which includes Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for individual nutrients, and Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDRs) for certain groups of nutrients, such as fats. When there is insufficient evidence to determine an RDA, the institute may publish an Adequate Intake (AI) instead, which has a similar meaning, but is less certain. The AI for α-linolenic acid is 1.6 grams/day for men and 1.1 grams/day for women, while the AMDR is 0.6% to 1.2% of total energy. Because the physiological potency of EPA and DHA is much greater than that of ALA, it is not possible to estimate one AMDR for all omega−3 fatty acids. Approximately 10 percent of the AMDR can be consumed as EPA and/or DHA. The Institute of Medicine has not established a RDA or AI for EPA, DHA or the combination, so there is no Daily Value (DVs are derived from RDAs), no labeling of foods or supplements as providing a DV percentage of these fatty acids per serving, and no labeling a food or supplement as an excellent source, or "High in..." As for safety, there was insufficient evidence as of 2005 to set an upper tolerable limit for omega−3 fatty acids, although the FDA has advised that adults can safely consume up to a total of 3 grams per day of combined DHA and EPA, with no more than 2 g from dietary supplements.
56. Davidson MH, Stein EA, Bays HE, et al. COMBination of prescription Omega-3 with Simvastatin (COMBOS) Investigators. Efficacy and tolerability of adding prescription omega-3 fatty acids 4 g/d to simvastatin 40 mg/d in hypertriglyceridemic patients: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Clin Ther. 2007;29:1354–1367. [PubMed]
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).
Wright, S. A., O'Prey, F. M., McHenry, M. T., Leahey, W. J., Devine, A. B., Duffy, E. M., Johnston, D. G., Finch, M. B., Bell, A. L., and McVeigh, G. E. A randomised interventional trial of omega-3-polyunsaturated fatty acids on endothelial function and disease activity in systemic lupus erythematosus. Ann.Rheum.Dis. 2008;67(6):841-848. View abstract.
Although results from studies regarding the disease processes of AD seem to be promising, there are conflicting data regarding the use of omega-3 fatty acids in terms of cognitive function. Neuropsychiatric symptoms accompany AD from early stages and tend to increase with the progression of the disease (55). An analysis of 174 patients randomized to a placebo group or to a group with mild to moderate AD (MMSE score ≥15) treated with daily DHA (1.7 g) and EPA (0.6 g) found that at 6 mo, the decline in cognitive function did not differ between the groups. Yet, in a subgroup with very mild cognitive dysfunction (n = 32, MMSE score >27), they observed a significant reduction in the MMSE decline rate in the DHA+EPA-supplemented group compared with the placebo group (47). Another study that looked at DHA supplementation in individuals with mild to moderate AD used the Alzheimer's Disease Assessment Scale–Cognitive subscale, which evaluates cognitive function on a 70-point scale in terms of memory, attention, language, orientation, and praxis. This study found that DHA supplementation had no beneficial effect on cognition during the 18-mo trial period for the DHA group vs. placebo (56).
Jump up ^ Siscovick DS, Barringer TA, Fretts AM, Wu JH, Lichtenstein AH, Costello RB, Kris-Etherton PM, Jacobson TA, Engler MB, Alger HM, Appel LJ, Mozaffarian D (2017). "Omega−3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (Fish Oil) Supplementation and the Prevention of Clinical Cardiovascular Disease: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association". Circulation. 135 (15): e867–84. doi:10.1161/CIR.0000000000000482. PMID 28289069.
Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
Luo, J Rizkalla SW Vidal H Oppert JM Colas C Boussairi A Guerre-Millo M Chapuis AS Chevalier A Durand G Slama G. Moderate intake of n-3 fatty acids for 2 months has no detrimental effect on glucose metabolism and could ameliorate the lipid profile in type 2 diabetic men. Results of a controlled study. Diabetes Care. 1998;21(5):717-724. View abstract.
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.
A scientific review in 2014 evaluated study findings on omega-3 intake in relation to the prevention and treatment of breast cancer, the most prevalent cancer among women. The review found that EPA and DHA, as well as ALA, can differentially inhibit breast tumor development. According to this review, there is solid evidence to support the use of omega-3s as “a nutritional intervention in the treatment of breast cancer to enhance conventional therapeutics, or potentially lowering effective doses.” (16) Additionally, a 2016 study found that “very high fish consumption in early adulthood to midlife may be associated with decreased risk of breast cancer.” (17)
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.
4. Omega-3 has been found to save the lives of children going through short bowel syndrome (SBS), which is uncommon but impacts thousands of people in the United States. SBS can occur from birth (when a portion of the intestine fails to develop) or due to an infectious inflammatory disease striking premature newborns. In adults, it can be caused by surgery for Crohn's disease or injury.
The 'essential' fatty acids were given their name when researchers found that they are essential to normal growth in young children and animals. The omega−3 fatty acid DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is found in high abundance in the human brain. It is produced by a desaturation process, but humans lack the desaturase enzyme, which acts to insert double bonds at the ω6 and ω3 position. Therefore, the ω6 and ω3 polyunsaturated fatty acids cannot be synthesized and are appropriately called essential fatty acids.
Cancer. Research on the effects of fish oil in preventing cancer has produced conflicting results. Some population research suggests that eating fish or having higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil is linked to a lower risk of different cancers, including oral cancer, pharyngeal cancer, esophageal cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer. But other research suggests that eating fish does not reduce the risk of cancer.