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.
Fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes. Earlier, in 2007, the American Heart Association had recommended the consumption of 1 gram of fish oil daily, preferably by eating fish, for patients with coronary artery disease, but cautioned pregnant and nursing women to avoid eating fish with high potential for mercury contaminants including mackerel, shark, and swordfish. (Optimal dosage was related to body weight.)
Wohl, D. A., Tien, H. C., Busby, M., Cunningham, C., Macintosh, B., Napravnik, S., Danan, E., Donovan, K., Hossenipour, M., and Simpson, R. J., Jr. Randomized study of the safety and efficacy of fish oil (omega-3 fatty acid) supplementation with dietary and exercise counseling for the treatment of antiretroviral therapy-associated hypertriglyceridemia. Clin.Infect.Dis. 11-15-2005;41(10):1498-1504. View abstract.
^ Jump up to: a b MacLean CH, Newberry SJ, Mojica WA, Khanna P, Issa AM, Suttorp MJ, Lim YW, Traina SB, Hilton L, Garland R, Morton SC (2006-01-25). "Effects of omega−3 fatty acids on cancer risk: a systematic review". JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 295 (4): 403–15. doi:10.1001/jama.295.4.403. PMID 16434631. Retrieved 2006-07-07.
Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are common toxins in seafood. Although the U.S. banned the use of PCBs and DDT in 1976, these and other chemicals are still used in half the world's commercial chemical processes. Substances like these can hang around in the air, soil, and water for many years. They end up in the bodies of fish and animals.
The omega-3 index is also important because it is inversely related to one’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio — another important measurement (3). A lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio (meaning, you consume a balanced amount of these two fatty acid families) is associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease, to name a few (4). Of course, most people get far too much omega-6 and too little omega-3, thanks to the plethora of highly processed foods in the Western diet.
However, this difference in the length of the carbon chain gives these two types of omega-3s significant characteristics. EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids, while ALA is a short-chain fatty acid. The long-chain fatty acids are more important for cellular health. Another omega-3 fat, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) can also be better synthesized by your body by elongating EPA.
It seems that infancy and childhood are some of the most important periods of time in a person’s life to get plenty omega-3s in their diet, probably because of the amount of long-chain fatty acids found in the brain and retina. It’s crucial for developing babies and children to get a good amount of DHA and EPA so their brains and eyes develop fully and properly. (78)
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
The use of DHA by persons with epilepsy could decrease the frequency of their seizures. Studies have shown that children with epilepsy had a major improvement, i.e. decrease in the frequency of their seizures, but another study showed mixed results with 57 adults taking DHA supplementation. The 57 subjects demonstrated a decreased frequency of seizures for the first six weeks of the study, but for some, it was just a temporary improvement (R).
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).
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.
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.
Matsumura K, Noguchi H, Nishi D, Hamazaki K, Hamazaki T, Matsuoka YJ. Effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on psychophysiological symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in accident survivors: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Affect Disord. 2017;224:27-31. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2016.05.054PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Good for you for eating healthily! Sadly, many people do not like omega-3 containing foods such as fish, and for these people, supplementation may be a good alternative to obtain omega-3. As a clinical investigator, my research focuses on study supplements, which is what I was asked to cover in this article. I’m all for healthy eating, but not everyone can afford it or wants to eat certain foods, and this is perhaps why supplements are so popular.
Maternal nutrition guidelines have always stressed a diet including sufficient caloric and protein requirements, but recently fatty acids have also been deemed important (17). This is partially due to the fact that EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been associated with multiple benefits for the infant (Table 1). During pregnancy, the placenta transfers nutrients, including DHA, from the mother to the fetus (18). The amount of omega-3 fatty acid in the fetus is correlated with the amount ingested by the mother, so it is essential that the mother has adequate nutrition (19). The 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services dietary guidelines recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should “consume 8 to 12 ounces of seafood per week from a variety of seafood types” (12). Ingesting 8–12 oz of seafood per week, depending on the type of fish, is equivalent to ∼300–900 mg EPA+DHA per day. Unfortunately, this amount is not being met by most mothers in the United States and Canada, which means that infants many not be receiving adequate amounts of these vital nutrients in the womb (20).
It is believed that regular consumption of fish oil aids in boosting your immune system, thereby enabling you to resist the occurrence of common diseases like colds, cough, and the flu. Omega-3 fatty acids present in fish oil bolster the immune system by affecting the activity and amount of cytokines and eicosanoids present in our body. Researchers have also studied the effect of a fish meal and fish oil on the immune system of pigs and found that fish oil aided in the growth of the animals. Similar research conducted on mice at Taichung Veterans General Hospital, Taiwan, also gave positive results.
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.
Eicosatetraenoic Acid (ETA): ETA is a lesser-known omega-3 fatty acid that also contains 20 carbons, like EPA, but only four bonds instead of five. It is found richly inroe oil and green-lipped mussel and is only recently being recognized for its potent health benefits. Not only is it anti-inflammatory, like the other omega-3s, but ETA can also limit your body’s production of the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (ARA). In fact, ETA redirects the enzyme that normally creates ARA to convert it to EPA instead!
EPA, which is eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA, which is docosahexaenoic acid, are two types of omega-3 fatty acids that are most commonly found in seafood. These polyunsaturated fats are known to have preventative health benefits and have been studied for their role in treating certain chronic conditions. In addition to dietary sources, certain supplements such as fish oil, are also rich in EPA and DHA.
Cast about for healthy canned tuna. Think all tuna is created equal? Think again. Choose canned light tuna instead of tuna steaks or albacore tuna. It tends to have less mercury. Albacore may contain three times the mercury of chunk light tuna. Check fish guides for the latest information about foods low in toxins but high in omega-3. Two good online sources are:
In general, most health organizations agree 250–500 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined each day is a reasonable amount to support healthy individuals. However, people with heart problems (or those with a high risk of heart disease), depression, anxiety and cancer (and possibly more conditions) may benefit from higher doses — up to 4,000 milligrams per day for some heart-related conditions. (5)
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
A report by the Harvard Medical School studied five popular brands of fish oil, including Nordic Ultimate, Kirkland and CVS. They found that the brands had "negligible amounts of mercury, suggesting either that mercury is removed during the manufacturing of purified fish oil or that the fish sources used in these commercial preparations are relatively mercury-free".
Omega−3 fatty acids are formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves and algae. While seaweeds and algae are the source of omega−3 fatty acids present in fish, grass is the source of omega−3 fatty acids present in grass fed animals. When cattle are taken off omega−3 fatty acid rich grass and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on omega−3 fatty acid deficient grain, they begin losing their store of this beneficial fat. Each day that an animal spends in the feedlot, the amount of omega−3 fatty acids in its meat is diminished.
Giacco, R., Cuomo, V., Vessby, B., Uusitupa, M., Hermansen, K., Meyer, B. J., Riccardi, G., and Rivellese, A. A. Fish oil, insulin sensitivity, insulin secretion and glucose tolerance in healthy people: is there any effect of fish oil supplementation in relation to the type of background diet and habitual dietary intake of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids? Nutr.Metab Cardiovasc.Dis. 2007;17(8):572-580. View abstract.
Scientific studies have found that fish oil can help to prevent and kill various cancers, including colon, prostate and breast. (13a) Not only has research proven that it makes conventional cancer drugs more effective, but it’s also an effective stand-alone therapy in natural cancer treatment. Intravenous fish oil lipid emulsions, in particular, are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which exhibit anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects. (13b)
High triglycerides. Research suggests that fish oil from supplements and food sources can reduce triglyceride levels. The effects of fish oil appear to be the greatest in people who have very high triglyceride levels. Also the amount of fish oil consumed seems to directly affect how much triglyceride levels are reduced. One particular fish oil supplement called Lovaza has been approved by the FDA to lower triglycerides. A one-gram capsule of Lovaza contains 465 milligrams of EPA and 375 milligrams of DHA. But, a small study suggests that taking fish oil daily for 8 weeks might not reduce triglycerides in adolescents.
Recently another Omega-3 fatty acid, DPA (Docosapentaenoic Acid) has been discussed more frequently in the scientific community, as a new and very potent Omega-3 fatty acid. Previously thought to work in through EPA and DHA we are now learning it has very distinct functions in the body. All three of these polyunsaturated fats play an important role in the functioning of our bodies.