Depression. There is inconsistent evidence on the effect of taking fish oil for depression. Some research shows that taking fish oil along with an antidepressant might help improve symptoms in some people. Other research shows that taking fish oil does not improve depression symptoms. The conflicting results may be due to the amount of EPA and DHA in the supplement or the severity of depression before treatment.
Research conducted by Professor Peter Howe at the University of South Australia has shown that fish oil improves the efficacy of exercise in attempts to reduce weight. Volunteers who were given fish oil in their diet showed greater weight loss as compared to those who did not regularly consume it. Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help to promote the weight loss, so a combination of physical workout and intake of this oil helps in reducing body fat significantly faster.
Recent studies have shown that the consumption of fish oil (or, more specifically, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) can improve fertility in both men and women. DHA, which is a byproduct of omega-3 fatty acids, plays a key role in the mobility of sperm and health of sperm in men. Low blood levels of DHA have been linked to decreased fertility. Animal studies have found that the DHA in fish is vital to changing dysfunctional round-headed sperm into strong swimmers with cone-shaped heads packed with egg-opening proteins. (29)
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): This plant-based omega-3 is found in green, leafy vegetables, flaxseeds, chia seeds and canola, walnut and soybean oils (although those rancid oils are not ones I generally recommend). ALA is known as a short-chain omega-3, meaning your body has to convert it into longer-chained EPA and DHA to synthesize it. This process is rather inefficient and only about one percent of the ALA you consume is converted to the long-chain version your body needs (although this percentage is slightly higher for women).
What's more, ALA is just a precursor to EPA and DHA. You need certain enzymes to elongate and desaturate ALA so it can become long-chained omega-3s. Unfortunately, this does not work in some people, particularly those who are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, leading to very low conversion rates – only 1 percent of ALA is converted to EPA/DHA. In some, the conversion can even dip as low as 0.1 to 0.5 percent!
Omega-3s have been studied for other conditions, with either inconclusive or negative results. These conditions include allergies, atopic eczema (an allergic skin condition), cystic fibrosis, diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), intermittent claudication (a circulatory problem), nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and osteoporosis.
More than 30 clinical trials have tested different omega-3 preparations in people with depression. Most studies have used omega-3s as add-on therapy for people who are taking prescription antidepressants with limited or no benefit. Fewer studies have examined omega-3 therapy alone. Clinical trials typically use EPA alone or a combination of EPA plus DHA, at doses from 0.5 to 1 gram per day to 6 to 10 grams per day. To give some perspective, 1 gram per day would correspond to eating three salmon meals per week.
If we want to deliver the benefits associated with EPA therapeutically, it is essential to optimise digestion and uptake. If we take EPA and DHA in their natural 1.5:1 ratio, it’s an uphill struggle for EPA because we know that DHA is more effectively absorbed and assimilated into cells. Delivering the benefits of EPA (for example, for cognitive function, mood and depression, inflammation regulation, heart health, skin health and so on), requires doses of EPA in excess of DHA, which determines the type of benefits obtained and the degree of the beneficial outcomes. The higher the ratio of EPA to DHA (meaning higher doses of EPA in relation to DHA), the more likely that EPA will be digested and absorbed, ready to meet the body’s high demands for this important nutrient.
Omega 3 is a type of fat. Small amounts of omega 3 fats are essential for good health, and they can be found in the food that we eat. The main types of omega 3 fatty acids are; alphalinolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is normally found in fats from plant foods, such as nuts and seeds (walnuts and rapeseed are rich sources). EPA and DHA, collectively called long chain omega 3 fats, are naturally found in fatty fish, such as salmon and fish oils including cod liver oil.
Fortier, M., Tremblay-Mercier, J., Plourde, M., Chouinard-Watkins, R., Vandal, M., Pifferi, F., Freemantle, E., and Cunnane, S. C. Higher plasma n-3 fatty acid status in the moderately healthy elderly in southern Quebec: higher fish intake or aging-related change in n-3 fatty acid metabolism? Prostaglandins Leukot.Essent.Fatty Acids 2010;82(4-6):277-280. View abstract.
ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning that your body can’t make it, so you must get it from the foods and beverages you consume. Your body can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, but only in very small amounts. Therefore, getting EPA and DHA from foods (and dietary supplements if you take them) is the only practical way to increase levels of these omega-3 fatty acids in your body.
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.
It’s uncertain whether omega-3 fatty acid supplements are helpful for depression. Although some studies have had promising results, a 2015 evaluation of 26 studies that included more than 1,400 people concluded that if there is an effect, it may be too small to be meaningful. Other analyses have suggested that if omega-3s do have an effect, EPA may be more beneficial than DHA and that omega-3s may best be used in addition to antidepressant medication rather than in place of it.
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.
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.
van der Meij, B. S., Langius, J. A., Smit, E. F., Spreeuwenberg, M. D., von Blomberg, B. M., Heijboer, A. C., Paul, M. A., and van Leeuwen, P. A. Oral nutritional supplements containing (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids affect the nutritional status of patients with stage III non-small cell lung cancer during multimodality treatment. J.Nutr. 2010;140(10):1774-1780. View abstract.
Hanwell, H. E., Kay, C. D., Lampe, J. W., Holub, B. J., and Duncan, A. M. Acute fish oil and soy isoflavone supplementation increase postprandial serum (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids and isoflavones but do not affect triacylglycerols or biomarkers of oxidative stress in overweight and obese hypertriglyceridemic men. J Nutr 2009;139(6):1128-1134. View abstract.
Funding/Support: The work was supported in part by grant 17H04253, Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; grant 30-A-17 from the National Cancer Center Research and Development Fund; grants MOST106-2314-B-039-027-MY, 106-2314-B-038-049, 106-2314-B-039-031, 106-2314-B-039-035, 104-2314-B-039-022-MY2, and 104-2314-B-039-050-MY3 from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan; grant HRI-EX105-10528NI from the National Health Research Institutes, Taiwan; and grants CRS-106-063, DMR-107-202, and DMR-107-204 from the China Medical University, Taiwan.
Makrides et al. (25) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 2399 (n = 1197 supplemented, n = 1202 placebo; 726 children were followed up with) DHA (fish-oil capsules providing 800 mg/d DHA) Supplementation did not result in lower levels of postpartum depression in mothers or improved cognitive and language development in offspring during early childhood
Two psychiatrists (P.-T.T. and T.-Y.C.) separately performed a systematic literature search of the PubMed, Embase, ProQuest, ScienceDirect, Cochrane Library, ClinicalKey, Web of Science, and ClinicalTrials.gov databases to March 4, 2018. Because we presumed some clinical trials would use investigating scales for some other mood symptoms but also contain symptoms of anxiety, we tried to use some nonspecific medical subject heading terms to include those clinical trials. Therefore, we used the following keywords: omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid; and anxiety, anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder. After removing duplicate studies, the same 2 authors screened the search results according to the title and abstract to evaluate eligibility. List of potentially relevant studies were generated for a full-text review. Any inconsistencies were discussed with a third author to achieve final consensus. To expand the list of potentially eligible articles, we performed a manual search of the reference lists of review articles in this area.12,38,39
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.