Since EPA and DHA are both essential for health and appear together in nature, many studies have attempted to treat clinical conditions with combined EPA and DHA oils, but the outcomes have been varied, contradictory and disappointing. Consequently, researchers have started to investigate the individual actions of EPA and DHA in isolation, in numerous health conditions where an omega-3 deficiency is related to symptoms or known to play a causative role. The emerging evidence shows marked differences between how these two fatty acids affect us – not just at the cellular level but also the body as a whole.
Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. If you keep up with the latest nutrition news, you may have a pretty good sense of what they offer. But, if you're like many people, you still can't tell your omega-3s from your omega-6s -- and you sure as heck can't pronounce eicosapentaenoic acid. That's OK. Our fishing expedition turned up some interesting facts to share about omega-3 fatty acids and fish.
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 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.
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.
Cochrane lead author, Dr. Lee Hooper from the University of East Anglia, UK said: “We can be confident in the findings of this review which go against the popular belief that long-chain omega 3 supplements protect the heart. This large systematic review included information from many thousands of people over long periods. Despite all this information, we don’t see protective effects.
Irish AB, Viecelli AK, Hawley CM, et al; Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oils) and Aspirin in Vascular Access Outcomes in Renal Disease (FAVOURED) Study Collaborative Group. Effect of fish oil supplementation and aspirin use on arteriovenous fistula failure in patients requiring hemodialysis: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(2):184-193. View abstract.
Brand Names: Animi-3, Cardio Omega Benefits, Divista, Dry Eye Omega Benefits, EPA Fish Oil, Fish Oil, Fish Oil Ultra, Flex Omega Benefits, Icar Prenatal Essential Omega-3, Lovaza, Marine Lipid Concentrate, MaxEPA, MaxiTears Dry Eye Formula, MaxiVision Omega-3 Formula, Mi-Omega NF, Mom's Omega Advantage, Omega Essentials, Sea-Omega, Sea-Omega 30, TheraTears Nutrition, TherOmega, Vascazen
Infant development. There is some evidence that mothers who eat fish or take fish oil supplements during pregnancy may improve some aspects of their baby's mental development. Taking fish oil during breast-feeding does not have this effect. However, feeding infants formula fortified with fish oil appears to improve some aspect of the baby's vision by the age of 2 months.
Mozaffarian D, Marchioli R, Macchia A, Silletta MG, Ferrazzi P, Gardner TJ, Latini R, Libby P, Lombardi F, O'Gara PT, Page RL, Tavazzi L, Tognoni G; OPERA Investigators. Fish oil and postoperative atrial fibrillation: the Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Prevention of Post-operative Atrial Fibrillation (OPERA) randomized trial. JAMA 2012;308(19):2001-11. View abstract.
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For several years now, the fish oil and Alzheimer’s disease connection has been studied with consistent results. The essential fatty acids vital for brain function that are found in fish oil can not only slow cognitive decline, but can help prevent brain atrophy in older adults. A study published in the FASEB Journal looked at the health effects of four- to 17-month dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. The findings once again confirm the potential for fish oil to be used as a weapon to fend off the onset of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. (8)
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.
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.
EPA and DHA stand for eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid respectively. These fatty acids are omega-3 fats, which are found in cold water fish. EPA DHA are highly unsaturated fats because they contain six and five double bonds on their long structural chains. These polyunsaturated fats play a very important role with the function of our bodies.
In fact, dietary fat intake has been among the most widely studied dietary risk factors for breast and prostate cancers. Two studies from 2002 explain how omega-3 can protect against breast cancer. BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are two tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair DNA damage, a process that also prevents tumor development.
Back in 2013, a study came out that made a lot of people concerned about fish oil supplements and cancer. The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, showed that men who consume the largest amount of fish oil had a 71 percent higher risk of high-grade prostate cancer and a 43 percent increase in all types of prostate cancer. The study was conducted on 2,227 men, of which 38 percent of the men already had prostate cancer. (39)
Omega-3 FA most likely reduce serum triglyceride levels by modulating very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and chylomicron metabolism. There is a consistent finding in the literature that the end effect of fish oil is decreased hepatic secretion of VLDL17—the major endogenous source of triglycerides. This effect occurs most likely through multiple mechanisms, including: (1) decreased synthesis of triglycerides because these omega-3 FA may not be the preferred substrates of the enzyme diacylglycerol O-acyltransferase,18 or they may interact with nuclear transcription factors that control lipogenesis19; cellular metabolism consequently shifts toward a decrease in triglyceride synthesis and an increase in FA oxidation; and (2) the promotion of apolipoprotein B degradation in the liver through the stimulation of an autophagic process.20 This means that fewer VLDL particles can be assembled and secreted. Fish oil may also accelerate VLDL and chylomicron clearance21 by inducing lipoprotein lipase activity.22
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!
The number of presenters and the amount of information stuffed into an action-packed few days at times felt overwhelming, even for two dedicated omega-3 enthusiasts like us. But one important message did hit home: The omega-3 index could be a helpful indicator of various health risks, and we should all be paying closer attention to this measurement.
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.
Unintended weight loss is a problem that many patients with AD may face, and EPA+DHA supplementation has had a positive effect on weight gain in patients with AD. In a study using EPA+DHA supplementation, patients' weight significantly increased by 0.7 kg in the EPA+DHA treatment group at 6 mo (P = 0.02) and by 1.4 kg at 12 mo (P < 0.001) and was observed mainly in patients with a BMI <23 at the study start (54). This means that those patients with a lower BMI preferentially gained weight compared with those patients already with a higher BMI.
Some research indicates that people who eat more seafood may have a reduced risk of cognitive decline. However, omega-3 supplements haven’t been shown to help prevent cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease or to improve symptoms of these conditions. For example, a large NIH-sponsored study completed in 2015 indicated that taking EPA and DHA supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older adults. The people studied were participants in a larger eye disease study, and all of them had age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
There’s evidence that points to the mechanism behind the effects of fish oil on body composition, showing that fat burning at rest is increased with 6 grams/day of fish oil supplementation, and additional research suggests that higher omega-3 levels may be helpful for enhancing satiety during weight loss efforts. Other evidence suggests that fat loss may be a side-effect of the reduction in inflammation that fish oil can help with. Any way you look at it, supporting your dietary habits with 4 or more grams of fish oil per day is probably a good idea!
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to increase platelet responsiveness to subtherapeutic anticoagulation therapies, including aspirin. Recently, it was noted that patient response to aspirin for anticoagulation therapy is widely variable (45), and, thus, the number of patients with a low response to aspirin or aspirin resistance is estimated to range from <1% to 45%, depending on many variables. However, in patients with stable coronary artery disease taking low-dose aspirin, EPA+DHA supplementation has been proven to be as effective as aspirin dose escalation to 325 mg/d for anticoagulation benefits (45). The antiplatelet drug clopidogrel has also been associated with hyporesponsiveness in some patients. This could be attributed to poor patient compliance, differences in genes and platelet reactivity, variability of drug metabolism, and drug interactions. More importantly, in 1 study, patients receiving standard dual antiplatelet therapy (aspirin 75 mg/d and clopidogrel 600-mg loading dose followed by 75 mg/d) were assigned to either EPA+DHA supplementation or placebo. After 1 mo of treatment, the P2Y12 receptor reactivity index (an indicator of clopidogrel resistance) was significantly lower, by 22%, for patients taking EPA+DHA compared with patients taking placebo (P = 0.020) (46).
Gajos G1, Rostoff P, Undas A, et al. 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 Apr 20;55(16):1671-8. View abstract.
Omega 3 fatty acids are monounsaturated fats that come from food sources—primarily cold water fish (eg, salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel, and herring)—that contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Other fatty acids are derived from plant-derived sources of food—including nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds (eg, flax, chia, sunflower)—that have primarily ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).
Another study conducted by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital examined the relationship between fish oil supplementation and indicators of cognitive decline. The subjects of the study were older adults: 229 cognitively normal individuals, 397 patients with mild cognitive impairment and 193 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They were assessed with neuropsychological tests and brain magnetic resonance imaging every six months while taking fish oil supplements. The study found that the adults taking fish oil (who had not yet developed Alzheimer’s and did not have genetic risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s known as APOE ε4) experienced significantly less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage than adults not taking fish oil. (9)
Thusgaard, M., Christensen, J. H., Morn, B., Andersen, T. S., Vige, R., Arildsen, H., Schmidt, E. B., and Nielsen, H. Effect of fish oil (n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids) on plasma lipids, lipoproteins and inflammatory markers in HIV-infected patients treated with antiretroviral therapy: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Scand.J.Infect.Dis. 2009;41(10):760-766. View abstract.
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After a large number of lab studies found that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in slowing or reversing the growth of hormonal cancers, namely prostate and breast cancer cells, animal and human epidemiological studies have been conducted to see whether this effect occurred in real-life scenarios. The evidence is somewhat conflicting in some reports, but there is some evidence to suggest breast and prostate cancers may be potentially slowed (or the risk reduced) in people who eat a lot of oily fish and possibly those who supplement with omega-3. (66, 67, 68)
“This systematic review did find moderate evidence that ALA, found in plant oils (such as rapeseed or canola oil) and nuts (particularly walnuts) may be slightly protective of some diseases of the heart and circulation. However, the effect is very small, 143 people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person developing arrhythmia. One thousand people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person dying of coronary heart disease or experiencing a cardiovascular event. ALA is an essential fatty acid, an important part of a balanced diet, and increasing intakes may be slightly beneficial for prevention or treatment of cardiovascular disease."
The chemical structures of EPA and DHA are very similar and they compete for uptake and processing resources. During digestion, the triglyceride molecules in standard fish oil are broken down into a mono glycerol and two free fatty acids, small enough to be absorbed into cells of the gut lining. More often than not, DHA is the fatty acid that remains attached to the glycerol backbone, meaning in essence that DHA gets a ‘free pass’ into the gut, while the remaining free fatty acids (more often EPA) must reattach onto a glycerol molecule or risk being oxidised and used as fuel. The implication of this is that DHA levels in our cells are often concentrated at the expense of EPA after absorption when taking EPA and DHA in the standard ratio of 1.5 to 1.
De Truchis, P., Kirstetter, M., Perier, A., Meunier, C., Zucman, D., Force, G., Doll, J., Katlama, C., Rozenbaum, W., Masson, H., Gardette, J., and Melchior, J. C. Reduction in triglyceride level with N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in HIV-infected patients taking potent antiretroviral therapy: a randomized prospective study. J.Acquir.Immune.Defic.Syndr. 3-1-2007;44(3):278-285. View abstract.
In many cases, people are recommended to consume fish oil because it is an easy way to get additional omega-3 fatty acids into their diet. Omega-3 fats can be used to reduce swelling or to prevent blood clots which could cause major cardiovascular damage. There are many other conditions which can be decreased or improved with the use of fish oil. In most cases fish oil is used to help reduce high triglycerides which can cause serious conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
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.