A 2008 meta-study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found fish oil supplementation did not demonstrate any preventative benefit to cardiac patients with ventricular arrhythmias. A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, covering 20 studies and 68,680 patients, found that Omega-3 Fatty Acid supplementation did not reduce the chance of death, cardiac death, heart attack or stroke.
It can be challenging to get the appropriate intake of EPA and DHA through diet alone, even though EPA and DHA are produced by water plants such as algae and are prevalent in marine animals. A shorter chain omega-3 fatty acid, α-linolenic acid (ALA),6 is a prominent component of our diet as it is found in many land plants that are commonly eaten, but it does not provide the health benefits seen with EPA and DHA. Although it is possible for the body to convert ALA to EPA and DHA by enlongase and desaturase enzymes, research suggests that only a small amount can be synthesized in the body from this process (8). For example, 1 study suggested that only ∼2 to 10% of ALA is converted to EPA or DHA (9), and other studies found even less: Goyens et al. (10) found an ALA conversion of ∼7% for EPA, but only 0.013% for DHA; Hussein et al. (11) found an ALA conversion of only 0.3% for EPA and <0.01% for DHA.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found primarily in fish oil, this is the ultimate form of fatty acid in humans. Most people get far too little of this all-important fatty acid, especially since the conversion of ALA to DHA is slow and minimally yielding. Getting a daily dose of of DHA (600 to 1000 mg) from supplements is preferable to reap the health benefits. You have a choice of taking a fish oil supplement or one derived from algae or krill, a shrimp-like crustacean.
One of the most well-known benefits of omega-3s are the way they positively affect risk factors associated with heart disease. That’s one reason the American Heart Association is very clear about encouraging people to get enough in their diets. (8) Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death worldwide, but communities who eat diets rich in fish have remarkably low instances of these diseases, which is at least partially due to their high omega-3 consumption. (9, 10)
The two key omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in these omega-3s. Some plants are rich in another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert to DHA and EPA. Good sources of these are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil.
The ultimate goal of using omega-3 fatty acids is the reduction of cellular inflammation. Since eicosanoids derived from arachidonic acid (AA), an omega-6 fatty acid, are the primary mediators of cellular inflammation, EPA becomes the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids to reduce cellular inflammation for a number of reasons. First, EPA is an inhibitor of the enzyme delta-5-desaturase (D5D) that produces AA (1). The more EPA you have in the diet, the less AA you produce. This essentially chokes off the supply of AA necessary for the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids (prostaglandins, thromboxanes, leukotrienes, etc.). DHA is not an inhibitor of this enzyme because it can’t fit into the active catalytic site of the enzyme due to its larger spatial size. As an additional insurance policy, EPA also competes with AA for the enzyme phospholipase A2 necessary to release AA from the membrane phospholipids (where it is stored). Inhibition of this enzyme is the mechanism of action used by corticosteroids. If you have adequate levels of EPA to compete with AA (i.e. a low AA/EPA ratio), you can realize many of the benefits of corticosteroids but without their side effects. That’s because if you don’t release AA from the cell membrane then you can’t make inflammatory eicosanoids. Because of its increased spatial dimensions, DHA is not a good competitor of phospholipase A2 relative to EPA. On the other hand, EPA and AA are very similar spatially so they are in constant competition for the phospholipase A2 enzyme just as both fatty acids are in constant competition for the delta-5 desaturase enzyme. This is why measuring the AA/EPA ratio is such a powerful predictor of the state of cellular inflammation in your body.
A healthy balance of dietary omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids is a prerequisite for normal immune function, cognitive health, and cardiovascular health. Among other factors, sufficient dietary levels of EPA, DHA or other omega 3 fatty acids are also important in the regulation of normal blood lipoprotein and healthy cholesterol metabolism. Fish oil supplements can also lower elevated triglyceride levels, improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of heart disease.†
Muñoz MA, Liu W, Delaney JA, Brown E, Mugavero MJ, Mathews WC, Napravnik S, Willig JH, Eron JJ, Hunt PW, Kahn JO, Saag MS, Kitahata MM, Crane HM. Comparative effectiveness of fish oil versus fenofibrate, gemfibrozil, and atorvastatin on lowering triglyceride levels among HIV-infected patients in routine clinical care. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2013;64(3):254-60. View abstract.
A number of trials have found that omega-3 PUFAs might reduce anxiety under serious stressful situations. Case-controlled studies have shown low peripheral omega-3 PUFA levels in patients with anxiety disorders.27-31 A cohort study found that high serum EPA levels were associated with protection against posttraumatic stress disorder.32 In studies of therapeutic interventions, while a randomized clinical trial of adjunctive EPA treatment in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder revealed that EPA augmentation had no beneficial effect on symptoms of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsiveness,33 a randomized clinical trial involving participants with substance abuse showed that EPA and DHA administration was accompanied by significant decreases in anger and anxiety scores compared with placebo.34 In addition, a randomized clinical trial found that omega-3 PUFAs had additional effects on decreasing depressive and anxiety symptoms in patients with acute myocardial infarction,35 and a randomized clinical trial demonstrated that omega-3 PUFAs could reduce inflammation and anxiety among healthy young adults facing a stressful major examination.36 Despite the largely positive findings of these trials, the clinical application of the findings is unfortunately limited by their small sample sizes.
Omega-3 [(n-3)] long-chain PUFA, including EPA and DHA, are dietary fats with an array of health benefits (1). They are incorporated in many parts of the body including cell membranes (2) and play a role in antiinflammatory processes and in the viscosity of cell membranes (3, 4). EPA and DHA are essential for proper fetal development and healthy aging (5). DHA is a key component of all cell membranes and is found in abundance in the brain and retina (6). EPA and DHA are also the precursors of several metabolites that are potent lipid mediators, considered by many investigators to be beneficial in the prevention or treatment of several diseases (7).
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.
What makes omega-3 fats special? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
Secondary prevention fish oil studies demonstrate a significant reduction in MI. But unfortunately, both the observational and randomized trials were conducted in an era before the widespread use of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, and therefore, the incremental benefit is still unknown. Nevertheless, in patients receiving antiplatelet and anticoagulant therapy in addition to fish oil supplementation (even at doses as high as 4 g per day), no serious adverse complications have been reported.
Children: Fish oil is POSSIBLY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Fish oil has been used safely through feeding tubes in infants for up to 9 months. But young children should not eat more than two ounces of fish per week. Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when consumed from dietary sources in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury. Eating contaminated fish frequently can cause brain damage, mental retardation, blindness and seizures in children.
ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means that you need it but you must get this fat from your diet because your body is unable to produce it. In general, omega 3 fats are a crucial component of all cell membranes, including the eye (retina) and brain as well as aiding in the process of energy production to support functions involving the heart, lungs, immune system, and hormones (endocrine system), work properly.1
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Jump up ^ Kwak SM, Myung SK, Lee YJ, Seo HG (May 2012). "Efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplements (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials". Archives of Internal Medicine. 172 (9): 686–94. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.262. PMID 22493407.
Studies don’t seem to mention blood content of omega 6, or saturated fats–the overall balnce of triglycerides, so they seem to have been done in a “vacuum”. At least, the data is so presented. Also, high protein may be an issue not being tested, but hovering in the background of the participants’ diets. Many “miracle cures”, and I wish it wasnt so, are being not only “debunked”, but “proven” outright dangerous.
Keck, P. E., Jr., Mintz, J., McElroy, S. L., Freeman, M. P., Suppes, T., Frye, M. A., Altshuler, L. L., Kupka, R., Nolen, W. A., Leverich, G. S., Denicoff, K. D., Grunze, H., Duan, N., and Post, R. M. Double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials of ethyl-eicosapentanoate in the treatment of bipolar depression and rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Biol.Psychiatry 11-1-2006;60(9):1020-1022. View abstract.
Cast about for healthy canned tuna. Think all tuna is created equal? Think again. Choose canned light tuna instead of tuna steaks or albacore tuna. It tends to have less mercury. Albacore may contain three times the mercury of chunk light tuna. Check fish guides for the latest information about foods low in toxins but high in omega-3. Two good online sources are:
The effect of fish oil consumption on prostate cancer is controversial, as one study showed decreased risk with higher blood levels of DPA, whereas another reported increased risk of more aggressive prostate cancer with higher blood levels of combined EPA and DHA. Some evidence indicated an association between high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and an increased prostate cancer risk.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential nutrients that have potential preventive and therapeutic effects on psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression,7-15 as well as comorbid depression and anxiety in physically ill patients,16-19 patients with coronary heart disease,20,21 and pregnant women.22,23 Preclinical data support the effectiveness of omega-3 PUFAs as treatment for anxiety disorders. Song et al24,25 found that an EPA-rich diet could reduce the development of anxiety-like behaviors in rats as well as normalize dopamine levels in the ventral striatum. In addition, Yamada et al26 showed that a high dietary omega-3 to omega-6 PUFA ratio reduced contextual fear behaviors in mice and that these effects were abolished by a cannabinoid CB1 receptor antagonist.
Further, according to subgroup results based on the presence of specific clinical diagnoses or not, the association of omega-3 PUFA treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms was significantly higher in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions. Among 6 studies included in a meta-analysis of the effect of omega-3 PUFAs on depressive symptoms, the analysis showed a nearly null effect of omega-3 PUFAs on depressive symptoms in healthy participants.73 Although the reason for the null effect of omega-3 PUFAs on anxiety and depressive symptoms remains unclear, certain pathophysiological conditions might be required for omega-3 PUFAs to exert an association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms.
Finally, it is often assumed since there are not high levels of EPA in the brain, that it is not important for neurological function. Actually it is key for reducing neuro-inflammation by competing against AA for access to the same enzymes needed to produce inflammatory eicosanoids. However, once EPA enters into the brain it is rapidly oxidized (2,3). This is not the case with DHA (4). The only way to control cellular inflammation in the brain is to maintain high levels of EPA in the blood. This is why all the work on depression, ADHD, brain trauma, etc. have demonstrated EPA to be superior to DHA (5).
Thank you for your kind comment. As pointed out above, the main limitation of our meta-analysis is the heterogeneity, which we address several times in our main manuscript. We included studies with several different situations and participants with different underlying diseases, which would also result in wide heterogeneity in our meta-analysis. Based upon our post-hoc analysis, there was some common characteristics among the six trials with nominally significant results, including specific clinical diagnoses (5/6) and, placebo-control (4/6), which had also previously been addressed in our subgroup meta-analysis. Therefore, we suggested future placebo-controlled trials investigating the treatment effect of omega-3 in participants with specific clinical diagnoses should be warranted. In addition, improving underlying specific clinical diagnoses (5/6), good quality (placebo-control (4/6), low drop-out rate (zero in Exp/control groups: 4/6)), and long treatment duration (>= 12 weeks: 4/6) are all good indicators of high quality.
Fish oil can be obtained from eating fish or by taking supplements. Fish that are especially rich in the beneficial oils known as omega-3 fatty acids include mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon, cod liver, whale blubber, and seal blubber. Two of the most important omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish oil are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Make sure to see separate listings on EPA and DHA, as well as Cod Liver Oil, and Shark Liver Oil.