The number of presenters and the amount of information stuffed into an action-packed few days at times felt overwhelming, even for two dedicated omega-3 enthusiasts like us. But one important message did hit home: The omega-3 index could be a helpful indicator of various health risks, and we should all be paying closer attention to this measurement.
“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.”
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)
EPA and DHA are vital nutrients and may be taken to maintain healthy function of the following: brain and retina: DHA is a building block of tissue in the brain and retina of the eye. It helps with forming neural transmitters, such as phosphatidylserine, which is important for brain function. DHA is found in the retina of the eye and taking DHA may be necessary for maintaining healthy levels of DHA for normal eye function.
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.
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).
Given the wide-ranging importance and benefits of marine omega-3 fatty acids, it is important to eat fish or other seafood one to two times per week, particularly fatty (dark meat) fish that are richer in EPA and DHA. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant and nursing mothers. From the third trimester until the second year of life, a developing child needs a steady supply of DHA to form the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Many women shy away from eating fish because of concerns that mercury and other possible contaminants might harm their babies, (9) yet the evidence for harm from lack of omega-3 fats is far more consistent, and a balance of benefit vs. risk is easily obtained. (To learn more about the controversy over contaminants in fatty fish, read Fish: Friend or Foe.)
Thanks to fatdog11 for that informative post about PCB’s in fish-oil supplements. Are these same toxicity levels found in fish themselves, or possibly are these levels so high only in highly concentrated fish-oil products? Also, can fatdog11 please inform us more about algae-derived omega-3. What are the DHA and EPA levels in these capsules? What is the cost, and where can they be purchased?
Egert, S., Somoza, V., Kannenberg, F., Fobker, M., Krome, K., Erbersdobler, H. F., and Wahrburg, U. Influence of three rapeseed oil-rich diets, fortified with alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid or docosahexaenoic acid on the composition and oxidizability of low-density lipoproteins: results of a controlled study in healthy volunteers. Eur J Clin Nutr 2007;61(3):314-325. View abstract.
To avoid fish oil supplements containing mercury or other harmful contaminants, purchase supplements from a reputable source that clearly tests for these health-hazardous contaminants in its products. These tests should be ideally conducted by a third-party, and a certificate of analysis should indicate the levels of purity from environmental toxins.
In some cases, fish oil pills may cause loose stools, nausea, diarrhea, and decreased appetite, fat in the stools, vomiting or constipation. These side effects can be minimized by taking a fish oil capsule that is coated, which is designed to help eliminate the "fish burps" many users complain about. Starting with low doses of the supplement and working up to a full dose can also help minimize side effects. You can also pair fish oil supplements with meals so that they enter your body more slowly, minimizing the risk of side effects occurring.
Fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes. Earlier, in 2007, the American Heart Association had recommended the consumption of 1 gram of fish oil daily, preferably by eating fish, for patients with coronary artery disease, but cautioned pregnant and nursing women to avoid eating fish with high potential for mercury contaminants including mackerel, shark, and swordfish. (Optimal dosage was related to body weight.)
Our scientists also focused on each oil’s freshness, measured by the degree of oxidation. Oxidation occurs in two phases: primary (measured by peroxide values) and secondary (measured by p-anisidine values). Total oxidation is formalized into a quantitative score, TOTOX. While Labdoor conducted tests of both primary and secondary oxidation, advances in rancidity testing confirm that added flavors–particularly added citrus flavors prevalent in liquid formulations–skew p-anisidine values and result in false positive outcomes. Until analytical techniques measuring p-anisidine values that are able to account for added flavors are established, Labdoor will use peroxide values as the primary indicator of freshness. All products recorded measurable levels of oxidation, with the average product recording a peroxide values of 3.7 meq/kg. 14/51 products recorded peroxide levels at or above the upper limit (10 meq/kg).
About the only exception are wild-caught Alaskan salmon and very small fish like sardines. The highest concentrations of mercury are found in large carnivorous fish like tuna, sea bass, and marlin. You may need to be especially cautious of canned tuna as well, as independent testing by the Mercury Policy Project found that the average mercury concentration in canned tuna is far over the "safe limits" of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The US National Institutes of Health lists three conditions for which fish oil and other omega-3 sources are most highly recommended: hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride level), preventing secondary cardiovascular disease, and hypertension (high blood pressure). It then lists 27 other conditions for which there is less evidence. It also lists possible safety concerns: "Intake of 3 grams per day or greater of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding, although there is little evidence of significant bleeding risk at lower doses. Very large intakes of fish oil/omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke."
The FDA product label on Lovaza warns of potential bleeding complications with the coadministration of anticoagulants. This warning is based on observational studies that suggested a prolonged bleeding time in populations ingesting high levels of fish oil77 and on in vitro studies that demonstrated an effect on pro-thrombotic mediators such as a reduction in thromboxane A2 production78 and platelet activation factor.79 The same trend, however, has not been clearly demonstrated in measurements of clotting times or in factors of fibrinolysis.80 In addition, in randomized clinical trials of patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery, percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty, endarterectomy and diagnostic angiography, no adverse bleeding related events have been demonstrated.81 For example, in a trial of 500 patients randomized to pretreatment with 6.9 g of DHA and EPA preparation 2 weeks before balloon percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (where all the patients received 325 mg/d of aspirin and heparin bolus periprocedure), no difference was seen in bleeding complications.82 Similar results were seen in a trial of 610 patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery, randomized to either placebo or 4 g/d of fish oil and then further randomized to aspirin or warfarin (dosed to an international normalized ratio [INR] goal of 2.5–4.2). At 1 year, the number of bleeding complications was not increased.15 The effect of fish oil on INR values has not been studied extensively, but a small, randomized trial showed that fish oil did not alter the Coumadin dosing regimen.83 There is very little evidence that a lower target INR is necessary in patients receiving chronic warfarin therapy and fish oil.
A lot of the benefit of fish oil seems to come from the omega-3 fatty acids that it contains. Interestingly, the body does not produce its own omega-3 fatty acids. Nor can the body make omega-3 fatty acids from omega-6 fatty acids, which are common in the Western diet. A lot of research has been done on EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 acids that are often included in fish oil supplements.