Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in fish oil and certain marine algae. Because depression appears less common in nations where people eat large amounts of fish, scientists have investigated whether fish oils may prevent and/or treat depression and other mood disorders. Two omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — are thought to have the most potential to benefit people with mood disorders.
One day I was cooking pasta when the kitchen started to fill with the odor of fish. I happen to hate fish, so this was not a pleasant experience. It was also a mystery, since I never cook fish. A little detective work discovered that the offensive odor was coming from the pasta. Apparently I didn’t notice the “Now with Omega 3” label on the box when I purchased it. My daughter and I still refer to this as the “fish pasta incident”.
DHA is vital for early brain development and maintenance, while EPA seems to be closely related to behavior and mood. Together, both molecules provide critical neuroprotective benefits.11 These neuroprotective effects are important for the prevention of age-related brain shrinkage (cortical atrophy). Aging adults with brain shrinkage often experience memory loss, cognitive decline, and an increase in depression.12-14
Special attention should also be given to the fact that most women have major deficiencies of omega-3. A 1991 study at the Mayo Clinic focused on 19 "normal" pregnant women consuming "normal diets," and it showed that all were deficient in omega-3 fats. Another study compared Inuit (Eskimo) women to Canadian women, and it revealed omega-3 deficiency in the milk of the Canadian nursing moms.
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Human studies also confirm cognition and memory improvement with omega-3 supplementation. For example, a study showed that both fish oil and krill oil enhanced cognitive function in a group of older men by increasing oxygen delivery to their brains. Interestingly, for those taking krill oil this effect was more prominent than those taking fish oil, though both groups were significantly better than placebo.30 As we pointed out earlier, because the omega-3 DHA is bound to phospholipids in krill it may be more effectively incorporated into the critical cell membrane in brain cells.
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
Scientific studies have found that fish oil can help to prevent and kill various cancers, including colon, prostate and breast. (13a) Not only has research proven that it makes conventional cancer drugs more effective, but it’s also an effective stand-alone therapy in natural cancer treatment. Intravenous fish oil lipid emulsions, in particular, are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which exhibit anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects. (13b)
Luo, J Rizkalla SW Vidal H Oppert JM Colas C Boussairi A Guerre-Millo M Chapuis AS Chevalier A Durand G Slama G. Moderate intake of n-3 fatty acids for 2 months has no detrimental effect on glucose metabolism and could ameliorate the lipid profile in type 2 diabetic men. Results of a controlled study. Diabetes Care. 1998;21(5):717-724. View abstract.
High triglycerides. Most research shows that fish oil from supplements and food sources can reduce triglyceride levels. The effects of fish oil appear to be the greatest in people who have very high triglyceride levels. Also the amount of fish oil consumed seems to directly affect how much triglyceride levels are reduced. Some fish oil supplements including Lovaza, Omtryg, and Epanova have been approved by the FDA to lower triglycerides.