The Japanese notably have the lowest levels of coronary heart disease mortality and atherosclerosis among developed nations — a phenomena that has been largely subscribed to diet. However, even within Japan, a 10-year study of over 41,000 people found that higher intakes of omega-3s were associated with lower risks of nonfatal coronary events (8). A more recent study also found that Japanese with higher omega-3 index levels (10%) had a lower risk of fatal coronary heart disease than those with a lower omega-3 index levels (8%) (9). The study begs the question of whether maybe even the Japanese have room to improve their omega-3 intake and whether 8% should be considered the lower limit of a desirable range.
If you’ve been paying attention to health headlines over the last few decades, you’ve likely heard about essential fatty acids (EFAs) — specifically omega-3s and omega-6s. These nutrients play many vital roles in supporting our overall health, including increasing nutrient absorption, ensuring proper growth and development of the brain and nervous system, and reducing the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease. Click here for a guide to understanding omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and how they influence your health.
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.
Haberka, M., Mizia-Stec, K., Mizia, M., Janowska, J., Gieszczyk, K., Chmiel, A., Zahorska-Markiewicz, B., and Gasior, Z. N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids early supplementation improves ultrasound indices of endothelial function, but not through NO inhibitors in patients with acute myocardial infarction: N-3 PUFA supplementation in acute myocardial infarction. Clin.Nutr. 2011;30(1):79-85. View abstract.
Of great clinical importance, EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been associated with longer gestation and increased concentrations of EPA and DHA in fetal tissues (21). In 2005, preterm births accounted for 12.7% of all births in the United States, increasing the likelihood of health complications (22). Carrying a baby to term is very important because prematurity is the cause of various infant diseases and can lead to death; preterm delivery is an underlying factor for 85% of the deaths of normally formed infants (23). One mechanism by which EPA and DHA may decrease the incidence of preterm birth is by decreasing prostaglandin E2 and prostaglandin F2α production, therefore reducing inflammation within the uterus, which could be associated with preterm labor (21, 24). Several studies investigated EPA and DHA intake during pregnancy and its correlation with longer gestation. Conclusions were that EPA+DHA supplementation during pregnancy delayed the onset of delivery to term or closer to term; however, supplementation did not delay delivery to the point of being post-term (20, 23, 25). This supports the evidence that EPA+DHA ingestion leads to optimal pregnancy length. EPA+DHA supplementation reduced the HR of preterm delivery by 44% (95% CI: 14–64%) in those who consumed relatively low amounts of fish and 39% (95% CI: 16–56%) in those who consumed medium amounts of fish; however, a level of statistical significance was not met (P = 0.10) (23). The Judge et al. (20) study found that women who had DHA supplementation from gestation week 24 until full-term delivery carried their infants significantly (P = 0.019) longer than did the women in the placebo group. One study found that DHA supplementation after gestation week 21 led to fewer preterm births (<34 wk of gestation) in the DHA group compared with the control group (1.09% vs. 2.25%; adjusted RR, 0.49; 95% CI: 0.25–0.94; P = 0.03). Also, mean birth weight was 68 g heavier (95% CI: 23–114 g; P = 0.003) and fewer infants were of low birth weight in the DHA group compared with the control group (3.41% vs. 5.27%; adjusted RR, 0.65; 95% CI: 0.44–0.96; P = 0.03) (25).
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.
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.
In a study published after the AHRQ report, scientists in Denmark gave high-dose fish oil supplements or placebos to 736 pregnant women during the third trimester of pregnancy. Children born to mothers who had taken fish oil were less likely to develop asthma or persistent wheezing in early childhood, and this was most noticeable in children whose mothers had low blood levels of EPA and DHA before they started to take the supplements. However, other studies that evaluated the effects of omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy on childhood asthma risk have had inconsistent results.
Fish oil has the ability to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) due to its high concentration of fatty acids. For children suffering from hyperactivity, dyslexia, dyspraxia, inability to complete tasks, emotional instability, wavering attitude, poor coordination, short attention span, short-term memory weakness, low concentration, tendency to interrupt others, recklessness, hastiness, impetuosity, impulsiveness, low IQ, or learning disorders, fish oil is a proven remedy. Research conducted at the University of South Australia and CSIRO has shown that when children suffering from ADHD were given doses of fish oil and evening primrose capsules for 15 weeks, they showed significant improvements in their behavior. Since, human brain consists of about 60% fats, especially essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6, it helps to improve the functions of the brain.
Oe, H., Hozumi, T., Murata, E., Matsuura, H., Negishi, K., Matsumura, Y., Iwata, S., Ogawa, K., Sugioka, K., Takemoto, Y., Shimada, K., Yoshiyama, M., Ishikura, Y., Kiso, Y., and Yoshikawa, J. Arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases coronary flow velocity reserve in Japanese elderly individuals. Heart 2008;94(3):316-321. View abstract.
From the time of your pregnancy through your child's later life, omega-3 fats DHA and EPA have a radically important role in her brain health and other functions. I recommend supplementing with krill oil before and during pregnancy, and while you breastfeed. Babies receive DHA through your breast milk, so continuing breastfeeding through the first year will give your child a great headstart for health and success.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 3 g/day of EPA and DHA combined, including up to 2 g/day from dietary supplements. Higher doses are sometimes used to lower triglycerides, but anyone taking omega-3s for this purpose should be under the care of a healthcare provider because these doses could cause bleeding problems and possibly affect immune function. Any side effects from taking omega-3 supplements in smaller amounts are usually mild. They include an unpleasant taste in the mouth, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, stomach discomfort, diarrhea, headache, and smelly sweat.
Not surprising, there are some areas in which both EPA and DHA appear to be equally beneficial. As an example, both are equally effective in reducing triglyceride levels (10). This is probably due to the relatively equivalent activation of the gene transcription factor (PPAR alpha) that causes the enhanced synthesis of the enzymes that oxidize fats in lipoprotein particles. There is also apparently equal activation of the anti-inflammatory gene transcription factor PPAR-gamma (11). Both seem to be equally effective in making powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids known as resolvins (12). Finally, although both have no effect on total cholesterol levels, DHA can increase the size of LDL particle to a greater extent than can EPA (10).
A, Subgroup meta-analysis of the anxiolytic effect of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) based on an underlying specific clinical diagnosis or not. The anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs was not significant in the subgroup of participants without specific clinical conditions (k, 5; Hedges g, –0.008; 95% CI, –0.266 to 0.250; P = .95) but was significant in the subgroup of participants with specific clinical diagnoses (k, 14; Hedges g, 0.512; 95% CI, 0.119-0.906; P = .01). Furthermore, the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms of omega-3 PUFAs were significantly stronger in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without specific clinical conditions (P = .03). B, Subgroup meta-analysis of the anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs based on different mean omega-3 PUFA dosages. The anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs was not significant in subgroups of mean omega-3 PUFA dosages less than 2000 mg/d (k, 9; Hedges g, 0.457; 95% CI, –0.077 to 0.991; P = .09) but was significant in the subgroup of mean omega-3 PUFA dosage of at least 2000 mg/d (k, 11; Hedges g, 0.213; 95% CI, 0.031-0.395; P = .02).
The studies examining the possible benefits of omega-3s continue. Researchers are looking at a range of health outcomes and the impact of a heart healthy diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids on a range of chronic disease. For instance, Dr. Hooper's team is beginning to evaluate the effects that omega-3 fats may have on diabetes, dementia, and some cancers.
The competition between EPA and DHA during digestion and absorption and the fact that DHA appears to ‘block’ the therapeutic actions of EPA can therefore be an issue if we are looking to optimise the benefits associated with EPA (Martins 2009; Bloch & Qawasmi et al, 2011; Sublette et al, 2011). High dose, high concentration and high ratio EPA supplements increase the effectiveness in depression studies, and pure EPA-only is optimal. Depression is also a condition with an inflammatory basis, so this is likely another significant reason for EPA being the key player – its antagonistic relationship with the inflammatory omega-3 AA (arachidonic acid) is very effective at reducing inflammation.
Fish oil is also used for diabetes, prediabetes, asthma, a movement and coordination disorder called dyspraxia, dyslexia, eczema, autism, obesity, weak bones (osteoporosis), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis, psoriasis, an autoimmune disease called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis, gum disease, Lyme disease, sickle cell disease, and preventing weight loss caused by some cancer drugs.