Humans are unable to place double bonds beyond position 9 on long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA), making the omega-3 FA synthesized in plants and in marine microalgae essential elements to the human diet.1 Fish contain high levels of 2 omega-3 FA, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; C20:5 n-3), and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]; C22:6 n-3)2,3 (Fig. 1). Many claims about the role of these omega-3 FA have been made in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. For instance, fish oil is seen as having a therapeutic role in coronary artery disease (CAD), heart failure, fatal and nonfatal arrhythmias, as well as offering an alternative or adjunct to the standard therapy for hypertriglyceridemia and diabetes. This review will highlight the potential mechanisms of fish oil on cardiovascular disease and provide an update of clinical trial results. The established uses in the treatment of hypertriglyceridemia and sources of omega-3 FA—both dietary and drug therapy—will be iterated, along with its potential application in combination with standard hypolipidemic agents. Finally, the limitations of current data will be addressed, as well as suggested recommendations for clinical use.
A group out of India conducted a study published in Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology based on the premise that “fish oil rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids has been preferred to chemosensitize tumor cells to anti-cancer drugs.” The study found that using 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) to treat colorectal cancer along with fish oil increased the survival rate in carcinogen-treated animals. Researchers also found that the fish oil ameliorated hematologic depression, along with gastrointestinal, hepatic and renal toxicity caused by the 5-FU. (15)
Omega-3 is a group of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, perhaps most notably found in fatty fish. As science parses the biological actions of nutrients, it turns out that omega-3 fats do many good things for the body and the brain. Known as an "essential" fatty acid, meaning the body must take it in from food sources, omega-3 is important to human metabolism.
Gorjao, R., Verlengia, R., Lima, T. M., Soriano, F. G., Boaventura, M. F., Kanunfre, C. C., Peres, C. M., Sampaio, S. C., Otton, R., Folador, A., Martins, E. F., Curi, T. C., Portiolli, E. P., Newsholme, P., and Curi, R. Effect of docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil supplementation on human leukocyte function. Clin Nutr 2006;25(6):923-938. View abstract.
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)
In our analysis, most of the included studies showed a positive Hedges g toward a beneficial effect of omega-3 PUFAs in anxiety reduction, although not all findings were statistically significant. However, after merging of these effect sizes from all of the included studies, the main result showed significant findings in our meta-analysis. Despite the significant heterogeneity, no significant publication bias was found among these 19 studies.
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).
To our knowledge, this is the first systematic review and meta-analysis to examine the anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs in individuals with anxiety symptoms. The overall findings revealed modest anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs in individuals with various neuropsychiatric or major physical illnesses. Although participants and diagnoses were heterogeneous, the main finding of this meta-analysis was that omega-3 PUFAs were associated with significant reduction in anxiety symptoms compared with controls; this effect persisted vs placebo controls. Furthermore, the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms of omega-3 PUFA were significantly higher in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions.
A six week, double-blind study on fish oil supplementation for body composition showed that the group taking 4 grams/day of fish oil (contained 1600mg if EPA & 800mg of DHA) experienced a significant increase in lean body mass and significant decrease in fat mass compared to a group that took safflower oil (an omega-6 oil). The fish oil group also saw a tendency for decreases in cortisol, a hormone associated with belly fat gain when elevated.
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Doses for depression range from less than 1 g/day to 10 g/day, but most studies use doses between 1 and 2 g/day. In my practice, I recommend 1 to 2 g/day of an EPA+DHA combination, with at least 60% EPA, for major depression. I am more cautious in patients with bipolar depression, because the omega-3s may bring on mania, as can most antidepressants. In these individuals, I recommend using omega-3 cautiously, and preferably in combination with a prescription mood stabilizer.
Consumers of oily fish should be aware of the potential presence of heavy metals and fat-soluble pollutants like PCBs and dioxins, which are known to accumulate up the food chain. After extensive review, researchers from Harvard's School of Public Health in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2006) reported that the benefits of fish intake generally far outweigh the potential risks.
Capanni, M., Calella, F., Biagini, M. R., Genise, S., Raimondi, L., Bedogni, G., Svegliati-Baroni, G., Sofi, F., Milani, S., Abbate, R., Surrenti, C., and Casini, A. Prolonged n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation ameliorates hepatic steatosis in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: a pilot study. Aliment.Pharmacol.Ther. 4-15-2006;23(8):1143-1151. View abstract.
Why would someone foul a perfectly good box of rotini with omega 3 oils? This is based on the belief that omega 3 fatty acids reduce heart disease and vascular risk, probably through reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. This is a plausible claim, but as we see over and over again in medicine, plausibility (while nice) is insufficient as a basis for clinical claims.
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
A certain kidney disease called IgA nephropathy. Some research shows that long-term but not short-term use of fish oil can slow the loss of kidney function in high-risk patients with IgA nephropathy. Fish oil might have greater effects when taken at higher doses. Also, it might be most effective in people with IgA nephropathy who have higher levels of protein in the urine.