Several studies suggest that people suffering symptoms of depression and/or anxiety see improvement after adding an omega-3 supplement to their routine, even in double-blinded, randomized, controlled trials. (29, 30, 31, 32, 33) At least one study comparing a common depression medication found omega-3 supplements to be just as effective in combating depression symptoms. (34)
Rogers, P. J., Appleton, K. M., Kessler, D., Peters, T. J., Gunnell, D., Hayward, R. C., Heatherley, S. V., Christian, L. M., McNaughton, S. A., and Ness, A. R. No effect of n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (EPA and DHA) supplementation on depressed mood and cognitive function: a randomised controlled trial. Br J Nutr 2008;99(2):421-431. View abstract.
Most brands of fish oil have been proven safe, free of detectable traces of mercury, and do not contain unsafe levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a toxin and pollutant believed to pose various health threats. To avoid contaminants in an unrefined supplement, it's best to choose a fish-oil supplement made from small, oily fish like anchovy, sardines or menhaden.
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)
Fish oil contains two very important omega-3 PUFAs. I’m talking about docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are sometimes called the marine omega-3s because they mainly come from fish. Some of the best fish to eat to obtain fish oil from in your diet include wild-caught salmon, herring, white fish, sardines and anchovies.
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.
A study published in Brain Research shows how far-reaching fish oil can be for people with diabetes. Researches found that fish oil can help reduce the risk of diabetics from developing cognitive deficit because it protects the hippocampus cells from being destroyed. The study also showed that fish oil could help reduce oxidative stress, which plays a central role in the development of diabetes complications, both microvascular and cardiovascular. (22)
Subgroup meta-analysis of the anxiolytic effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) based on different EPA percentages. The anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs were significant in the subgroup with an EPA percentage less than 60% (k, 11; Hedges g = 0.485; 95% CI, 0.017 to 0.954; P = .04) but not significant in the subgroups with an EPA percentage of at least 60% (k, 9; Hedges g, 0.092; 95% CI, –0.102 to 0.285; P = .35).
For rheumatoid arthritis, one systematic review found consistent, but modest, evidence for the effect of marine n−3 PUFAs on symptoms such as "joint swelling and pain, duration of morning stiffness, global assessments of pain and disease activity" as well as the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The American College of Rheumatology has stated that there may be modest benefit from the use of fish oils, but that it may take months for effects to be seen, and cautions for possible gastrointestinal side effects and the possibility of the supplements containing mercury or vitamin A at toxic levels. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has concluded that "[n]o dietary supplement has shown clear benefits for rheumatoid arthritis", but that there is preliminary evidence that fish oil may be beneficial, but needs further study.
Fish oil is useful in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, Raynaud’s symptoms and similar conditions. Using the fish oil can help in reducing the need for large dosages of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). The Royal Adelaide Hospital and the University of Newcastle, located in Australia, have reported that fish oil has shown positive effects in the treatment of arthritis. In cases of osteoarthritis, fish oil can be helpful in reducing the impact of enzymes that destroy cartilage.
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.
All people need to consume omega-3 fats regularly. The recommended daily intake for adults is 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females, according to the National Institutes of Health. The omega-3 family encompasses numerous fatty acids, but three primary forms are eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid. The first two forms primarily occur in fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna. The third can be found in plant oils, including flaxseed, soybean, walnut, and canola oils.
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.
Although there are no randomized data on fish oil consumption and protection from sudden death, observational studies have linked omega-3 FA with the prevention of sudden death. In a population-based, case-control study of sudden cardiac death victims, the mean red blood cell membrane omega-3 FA level of the lowest quartile, when compared with the mean level of the third quartile, was associated with a relative risk reduction of 70%.33 A similar finding was appreciated in a nested, prospective, case-control study of the Physician Health Study cohort of 22,000 healthy males. In the 119 patients that succumbed to sudden death, baseline omega-3 FA blood levels were significantly lower than in matched controls.34 Finally, in an analysis of data from the Nurses Health Study, a cohort study of 84,688 women, an inverse association was shown between fish consumption and CAD-related death. The investigators concluded that the reduction in CAD deaths was likely due to a reduction in sudden deaths, as there was no difference in the rate of MI when comparing high and low fish consumption.35
Additional side effects of fish oil supplements which have been reported include headache, short-term memory loss, depression, somatic disorders, and increased risk of colon cancer, nasopharyngitis, worsening of asthma symptoms, hemolytic anemia, decreased physical activity, increased appetite, a general uncomfortable feeling or increased blood pressure. The percentage of users that develop these side effects is not known. If these side effects become severe it is recommended that you stop using fish oil supplements.
Results of studies investigating the role of LCPUFA supplementation and LCPUFA status in the prevention and therapy of atopic diseases (allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, atopic dermatitis and allergic asthma) are controversial; therefore, at the present stage of our knowledge (as of 2013) we cannot state either that the nutritional intake of n−3 fatty acids has a clear preventive or therapeutic role, or that the intake of n-6 fatty acids has a promoting role in context of atopic diseases.
For slowing weight loss in patients with cancer: 30 mL of a specific fish oil product (ACO Omega-3, Pharmacia, Stockholm, Sweden) providing 4.9 grams of EPA and 3.2 grams of DHA daily for 4 weeks has been used. 7.5 grams of fish oil daily providing EPA 4.7 grams and DHA 2.8 grams has been used for about 6 weeks. In addition, two cans of a fish oil nutritional supplement containing 1.09 grams of EPA and 0.96 grams of DHA per can have been used daily for up to 7 weeks.
In fact, dietary fat intake has been among the most widely studied dietary risk factors for breast and prostate cancers. Two studies from 2002 explain how omega-3 can protect against breast cancer. BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are two tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair DNA damage, a process that also prevents tumor development.
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.
In addition, there was no significant difference in the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms between participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs and those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the adolescent subgroup (aged <18 years) (k, 3; Hedges g, 0.020; 95% CI, –0.209 to 0.250; P = .86),48,53,57 in the adult subgroup (aged ≥18 years but <60 years) (k, 11; Hedges g, 0.388; 95% CI, –0.012 to 0.788; P = .06),33,35,36,47,49-51,54-56,59 or in the elderly subgroup (aged ≥60 years) (k, 3; Hedges g, –0.112; 95% CI, –0.406 to 0.181; P = .45).52,58,60 These insignificant results might be due to the smaller sample sizes in each subgroup.
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.†
Fish oil is also commonly used to treat conditions such as Rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, ADHD, menstrual pain, hardening of the arteries or kidney problems. These conditions can be improved by improving blood flow, which omega-3 fatty acids in the blood stream. There is also some evidence that fish oil may help with conditions such as chest pain, liver disease, migraine prevention, gum infections, breast pain, and muscle soreness due to exercise, skin rashes and stomach ulcers.
The conversion of ALA to EPA and further to DHA in humans has been reported to be limited, but varies with individuals. Women have higher ALA-to-DHA conversion efficiency than men, which is presumed to be due to the lower rate of use of dietary ALA for beta-oxidation. One preliminary study showed that EPA can be increased by lowering the amount of dietary linoleic acid, and DHA can be increased by elevating intake of dietary ALA.
If, however, we want to target the actions and benefits of either fat for more intensive support or clinical use, we need to alter the natural 1.5:1 EPA:DHA ratio found in most omega-3 sources such as fish oil – which is when concentrated supplements are especially useful. Certain forms of omega-3 called ethyl-ester and re-esterified triglyceride give nature a helping hand – allowing us to achieve targeted ratios of specific fatty acids at high concentration and physiologically active doses.
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.)
The systematic review suggests that eating more ALA through food or supplements probably has little or no effect on cardiovascular deaths or deaths from any cause. However, eating more ALA probably reduces the risk of heart irregularities from 3.3 to 2.6%. The review team found that reductions in cardiovascular events with ALA were so small that about 1000 people would need to increase consumption of ALA for one of them to benefit. Similar results were found for cardiovascular death. They did not find enough data from the studies to be able to measure the risk of bleeding or blood clots from using ALA.
Your body can convert some ALA into EPA and then DHA, but not enough to meet all your body’s needs but the best way to assure you are getting enough heart healthy fats is to eat foods high in the omega 3 fats, and if you can’t or don’t get enough of these necessary fats in your diet, you might consider taking an omega 3 supplement to boost these needed fats. More on this later.
High blood pressure. Fish oil seems to slightly lower blood pressure in people with moderate to very high blood pressure. Some types of fish oil might also reduce blood pressure in people with slightly high blood pressure, but results are inconsistent. Fish oil seems to add to the effects of some, but not all, blood pressure-lowering medications. However, it doesn't seem to reduce blood pressure in people with uncontrolled blood pressure who are already taking blood pressure-lowering medications.