The European Journal of Neuroscience published a study in 2013 showing that fish oil reversed all anxiety-like and depression-like behavior changes induced in rats. This is an interesting study because it stresses the importance of supplementing with fish oil at “critical periods of brain development.” (10) This is exactly why I recommend giving fish oil to our kids from early on to help them so they won’t develop anxiety or depression later in life.
Fish oil seems to be a subject of controversy. Some people swear by it, and there are thousands of clinical trials out now trying to study what the latest and greatest thing about the supplement is. The Natural Standard does a really good job collecting and gathering data for those who are interested in delving through what fish oil may or may not be doing to us. Definitive answers, however, may take a little while to get.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Fish oil is LIKELY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Taking fish oil during pregnancy does not seem to affect the fetus or baby while breast-feeding. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant, and nursing mothers should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (also called golden bass or golden snapper), as these may contain high levels of mercury. Limit consumption of other fish to 12 ounces/week (about 3 to 4 servings/week). Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when dietary sources are consumed in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury.
Hernandez, D., Guerra, R., Milena, A., Torres, A., Garcia, S., Garcia, C., Abreu, P., Gonzalez, A., Gomez, M. A., Rufino, M., Gonzalez-Posada, J., Lorenzo, V., and Salido, E. Dietary fish oil does not influence acute rejection rate and graft survival after renal transplantation: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Nephrol.Dial.Transplant. 2002;17(5):897-904. View abstract.
Sala-Vila A, Díaz-López A, Valls-Pedret C, et al.; Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED) Investigators. Dietary marine ?-3 fatty acids and incident sight-threatening retinopathy in middle-aged and older individuals with type 2 diabetes: Prospective investigation from the PREDIMED trial. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2016;134(10):1142-1149. View abstract.
Meta‐analysis and sensitivity analyses suggested little or no effect of increasing LCn3 on all‐cause mortality (RR 0.98, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.03, 92,653 participants; 8189 deaths in 39 trials, high‐quality evidence), cardiovascular mortality (RR 0.95, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.03, 67,772 participants; 4544 CVD deaths in 25 RCTs), cardiovascular events (RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.94 to 1.04, 90,378 participants; 14,737 people experienced events in 38 trials, high‐quality evidence), coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality (RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.79 to 1.09, 73,491 participants; 1596 CHD deaths in 21 RCTs), stroke (RR 1.06, 95% CI 0.96 to 1.16, 89,358 participants; 1822 strokes in 28 trials) or arrhythmia (RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.05, 53,796 participants; 3788 people experienced arrhythmia in 28 RCTs). There was a suggestion that LCn3 reduced CHD events (RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.88 to 0.97, 84,301 participants; 5469 people experienced CHD events in 28 RCTs); however, this was not maintained in sensitivity analyses – LCn3 probably makes little or no difference to CHD event risk. All evidence was of moderate GRADE quality, except as noted.
Joensen, A. M., Schmidt, E. B., Dethlefsen, C., Johnsen, S. P., Tjonneland, A., Rasmussen, L. H., and Overvad, K. Dietary intake of total marine n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid and docosapentaenoic acid and the risk of acute coronary syndrome - a cohort study. Br J Nutr 2010;103(4):602-607. View abstract.
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A tremendous body of research has been conducted on these important nutrients since it was first discovered in the 1950s that fish oil offered many health benefits and that these benefits were attributable to a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3. Despite the volumes of research on omega-3s, it is only in recent years (within the last 15 years or so) that the actions of EPA and DHA have come to be understood individually. Researchers now often investigate the actions of EPA and DHA individually rather than together, no longer simply under the generic label omega-3 as they are widely referred to.
If you find yourself in a position where you are just not eating any of these foods, and you want to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, then I think fish oil is okay, but I would limit not the amount of fish oil but the amount listed on the label of EPA and DHA combined. I would limit that amount to around 250 milligrams per day because I don’t think most people need more than that. Some signs that you might not be getting enough omega-3 fatty acids include chronic low-grade inflammation, poor visual acuity, slower mental processing, trouble learning, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease and psychiatric conditions, like depression, anxiety, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, ADHD.

Today, the average American has a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, when a healthy ratio is more ideally around 2:1. Put in other numerical terms, the typical American diet tends to contain 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. (35) This shows just how deficient most of us are and why supplementing with fish oil is so beneficial.
A report by the Harvard Medical School studied five popular brands of fish oil, including Nordic Ultimate, Kirkland and CVS. They found that the brands had "negligible amounts of mercury, suggesting either that mercury is removed during the manufacturing of purified fish oil or that the fish sources used in these commercial preparations are relatively mercury-free".[66]
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Bemelmans, W. J., Broer, J., Feskens, E. J., Smit, A. J., Muskiet, F. A., Lefrandt, J. D., Bom, V. J., May, J. F., and Meyboom-de Jong, B. Effect of an increased intake of alpha-linolenic acid and group nutritional education on cardiovascular risk factors: the Mediterranean Alpha-linolenic Enriched Groningen Dietary Intervention (MARGARIN) study. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;75(2):221-227. View abstract.
A new Cochrane systematic review, published today in the Cochrane Library, combines the results of seventy-nine randomised trials involving 112,059 people. These studies assessed effects of consuming additional omega 3 fat, compared to usual or lower omega 3, on diseases of the heart and circulation. Twenty-five studies were assessed as highly trustworthy because they were well designed and conducted.
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And in osteoarthritis, when a DHA/EPA formulation was added to chondroitin sulfate, people experienced more complete relief of symptoms such as stiffness and pain. One study found a significant increase in walking speed in people who supplemented with fish oil versus those who did not.79,80 As with the beneficial results seen in people with bone loss, these positive findings may have been the result of the decreased inflammatory destruction of joint cartilage.81
Hernandez, D., Guerra, R., Milena, A., Torres, A., Garcia, S., Garcia, C., Abreu, P., Gonzalez, A., Gomez, M. A., Rufino, M., Gonzalez-Posada, J., Lorenzo, V., and Salido, E. Dietary fish oil does not influence acute rejection rate and graft survival after renal transplantation: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Nephrol.Dial.Transplant. 2002;17(5):897-904. 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.
The supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated oils prominent in fatty cold water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. In many observational studies, people who regularly consumed fish two or more times a week were less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths than those who ate fish infrequently or not at all.
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.
“This idea has since been pretty discredited; we really don’t know if the Eskimos got heart disease or not,” said Malden C. Nesheim, emeritus professor of nutrition at Cornell University, who chaired an Institute of Medicine committee assessing the risks and benefits of seafood in the early 2000s. “I’ve been an omega-3 skeptic since doing this study.”

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The evidence that fish oil consumption should be used for primary prevention of CAD is based on observational studies. The only randomized trial for primary prevention, the JELIS trial, showed a moderate relative risk reduction and was conducted in a very specific group. Nevertheless, to date, there has been no strong signal suggesting any serious adverse effects of having high DHA and EPA oils in the diet. We agree with the national guidelines that one should consume moderate amounts of fish oil— either in supplement or through the dietary intake of fatty fish with low mercury levels.

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.
It seems that infancy and childhood are some of the most important periods of time in a person’s life to get plenty omega-3s in their diet, probably because of the amount of long-chain fatty acids found in the brain and retina. It’s crucial for developing babies and children to get a good amount of DHA and EPA so their brains and eyes develop fully and properly. (78)
As always with such trials, you can never prove zero benefit (or zero risk), but an essentially negative trial or meta-analysis sets statistical limits on the size of any remaining plausible effect. What we can now say with a fairly high degree of confidence is that any health benefit from consuming omega-3 fatty acids is tiny, probably too small to warrant supplementing (or adding it to pasta).
The hypotriglyceridemic effect of fish oil is well established and is related to both dose and baseline triglyceride level. Patients with triglycerides <90 mg/dL will be negligibly affected unless very high doses of omega-3 FA are used.67,68 However, in patients with triglycerides >200 mg/dL, who are treated with 4 g/d of fish oil, a 30% reduction in triglycerides is expected.17,69 For patients with triglycerides >500 mg/dL who are at risk for pancreatitis, the National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel III guidelines recommend using fish oil supplements as an adjunctive therapy to fibrates and nicotinic acid.70 Lovaza capsules have been shown to be effective, safe, and comparable to gemfibrozil in treating triglycerides at this range.71,72 The official label recommendation for Lovaza is for patients with triglycerides >500 mg/dL.73
I now suspect that those thousands of gel-covered capsules I’ve swallowed over the years may have done little more than enrich the pockets of supplement producers and sellers. A number of extensive analyses have been conducted, some supporting and others refuting the value of fish oils to the cardiovascular system, along with studies of other purported health benefits that also have had mixed results.

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.