We are now fortunate to understand how these fats work in combination and in isolation, how they are digested, absorbed and utilised in the body, so we are able to tailor different blends of EPA and DHA according to the health benefits we are seeking to achieve. At Igennus, we have long specialised in the role of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA in clinical nutrition, as a powerful tool in the patient’s ‘toolkit’ for helping to regulate inflammation by restoring several biological markers, known as the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and AA to EPA ratio. Before we discuss the therapeutic role of EPA in nutritional medicine, here’s a very brief summary of the role of both EPA and DHA in health throughout life.
Jump up ^ Miller M, Stone NJ, Ballantyne C, Bittner V, Criqui MH, Ginsberg HN, Goldberg AC, Howard WJ, Jacobson MS, Kris-Etherton PM, Lennie TA, Levi M, Mazzone T, Pennathur S (May 2011). "Triglycerides and cardiovascular disease: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association". Circulation. 123 (20): 2292–333. doi:10.1161/CIR.0b013e3182160726. PMID 21502576.
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
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)
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).
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.
Weight loss. Some research shows that eating fish improves weight loss and decreases blood sugar in people who are overweight with high blood pressure. Early research also shows that taking a specific fish oil supplement (Hi-DHA, NuMega) lowers body fat when combined with exercise. But other evidence suggests that taking another specific fish oil supplement (Lovaza) does not lower body weight in overweight people.
Fish oils might slow blood clotting. Taking fish oils along with medications that also slow clotting might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding.
Marine and freshwater fish oil vary in contents of arachidonic acid, EPA and DHA. The various species range from lean to fatty and their oil content in the tissues has been shown to vary from 0.7% to 15.5%. They also differ in their effects on organ lipids. Studies have revealed that there is no relation between total fish intake or estimated omega−3 fatty acid intake from all fish, and serum omega−3 fatty acid concentrations. Only fatty fish intake, particularly salmonid, and estimated EPA + DHA intake from fatty fish has been observed to be significantly associated with increase in serum EPA + DHA.
The three types of omega−3 fatty acids involved in human physiology are α-linolenic acid (ALA), found in plant oils, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both commonly found in marine oils. Marine algae and phytoplankton are primary sources of omega−3 fatty acids. Common sources of plant oils containing ALA include walnut, edible seeds, clary sage seed oil, algal oil, flaxseed oil, Sacha Inchi oil, Echium oil, and hemp oil, while sources of animal omega−3 fatty acids EPA and DHA include fish, fish oils, eggs from chickens fed EPA and DHA, squid oils, and krill oil. Dietary supplementation with omega−3 fatty acids does not appear to affect the risk of death, cancer or heart disease. Furthermore, fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes or any vascular disease outcomes.
Cardiovascular disease is the cause of 38% of all deaths in the United States, many of which are preventable (28). Chronic inflammation is thought to be the cause of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease (29). EPA and DHA are thought to have antiinflammatory effects and a role in oxidative stress (30) and to improve cellular function through changes in gene expression (31). In a study that used human blood samples, EPA+DHA intake changed the expression of 1040 genes and resulted in a decreased expression of genes involved in inflammatory and atherogenesis-related pathways, such as nuclear transcription factor κB signaling, eicosanoid synthesis, scavenger receptor activity, adipogenesis, and hypoxia signaling (31). Circulating markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), TNF α, and some ILs (IL-6, IL-1), correlate with an increased probability of experiencing a cardiovascular event (32). Inflammatory markers such as IL-6 trigger CRP to be synthesized by the liver, and elevated levels of CRP are associated with an increased risk of the development of cardiovascular disease (33). A study of 89 patients showed that those treated with EPA+DHA had a significant reduction in high-sensitivity CRP (66.7%, P < 0.01) (33). The same study also showed a significant reduction in heat shock protein 27 antibody titers (57.69%, P < 0.05), which have been shown to be overexpressed in heart muscle cells after a return of blood flow after a period of ischemia (ischemia-reperfusion injury) and may potentially have a cardioprotective effect (33).
This fact sheet by the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your healthcare providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health. Any mention in this publication of a specific product or service, or recommendation from an organization or professional society, does not represent an endorsement by ODS of that product, service, or expert advice.
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.
Widenhorn-Müller K, Schwanda S, Scholz E, Spitzer M, Bode H. Effect of supplementation with long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on behavior and cognition in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized placebo-controlled intervention trial. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2014;91(1-2):49-60. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2014.04.004PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
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.
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)
The strongest evidence for a beneficial effect of omega-3 fats has to do with heart disease. These fats appear to help the heart beat at a steady clip and not veer into a dangerous or potentially fatal erratic rhythm. (1) Such arrhythmias cause most of the 500,000-plus cardiac deaths that occur each year in the United States. Omega-3 fats also lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis. (1)
A lot of the benefit of fish oil seems to come from the omega-3 fatty acids that it contains. Interestingly, the body does not produce its own omega-3 fatty acids. Nor can the body make omega-3 fatty acids from omega-6 fatty acids, which are common in the Western diet. A lot of research has been done on EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 acids that are often included in fish oil supplements.