Fish oil supplements came under scrutiny in 2006, when the Food Standards Agency in the UK and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported PCB levels that exceeded the European maximum limits in several fish oil brands, which required temporary withdrawal of these brands. To address the concern over contaminated fish oil supplements, the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) Program, a third-party testing and accreditation program for fish oil products, was created by Nutrasource Diagnostics Inc. in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
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.
Ample evidence from animal studies supports regular supplementation with omega-3 oils as a means of lowering long-term cardiovascular risk. This may be due to omega-3 fatty acids’ effects on reducing inflammation, lowering triglycerides, reducing blood pressure, improving endothelial function, inducing new blood vessel formation after heart attack or stroke, and favorable modification of obesity-related inflammatory molecules.35-39
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.
The biggest cause of omega-3 deficiency is the overconsumption of foods high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 comes from things like fried foods, fast foods and boxed foods that contain vegetables oils like soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil. When you consume too much omega-6, it can decrease your body’s ability to metabolize healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (36)
Krill oil is joining the toolkit for fighting arthritis, thanks to its exceptional anti-inflammatory properties resulting from its phospholipid form of omega-3s. A study in mice with experimental arthritis showed that krill oil supplements reduced arthritis scores and markedly diminished joint swelling. When examined under a microscope, the animals’ joints were remarkably free of inflammatory infiltrates of immune system cells.85
Weak bones (osteoporosis). Research suggests that taking fish oil alone or together with calcium and evening primrose oil slows the rate of bone loss and increases bone density at the thigh bone (femur) and spine in elderly people with osteoporosis. But taking fish oil does not slow bone loss in older people with osteoarthritis in the knee but without weak bones.
Fish oil contamination even among “molecularly distilled” brands and those aimed at children is a widespread problem. One study in California tested 10 common brands and found PCBs — toxic industrial pollutants that have contaminated our oceans — in all of them. Some had 70 times the PCBs of other ones and 240x the toxicity. In another study, researchers tested 13 over-the-counter children’s dietary supplements containing fish oil for PCBs. PCBs were detected in all products. Our family takes algae-derived omega-3 (DHA/EPA) capsules, which are bioequivalent to fish oil capsules. Algae are actually the source where fish get their omega-3 content, so we skip the contaminated middle man (or, fish, in this case) and the neurotoxins that come with them given how polluted our oceans are now. I highly recommend parents do their research on what studies show about fish oil contamination and not just trust the labels, as well as consider algae-derived omega-3 capsules as more healthful bioequivalent to fish oil.
4. Omega-3 has been found to save the lives of children going through short bowel syndrome (SBS), which is uncommon but impacts thousands of people in the United States. SBS can occur from birth (when a portion of the intestine fails to develop) or due to an infectious inflammatory disease striking premature newborns. In adults, it can be caused by surgery for Crohn's disease or injury.
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).
Not surprising, there are some areas in which both EPA and DHA appear to be equally beneficial. As an example, both are equally effective in reducing triglyceride levels (10). This is probably due to the relatively equivalent activation of the gene transcription factor (PPAR alpha) that causes the enhanced synthesis of the enzymes that oxidize fats in lipoprotein particles. There is also apparently equal activation of the anti-inflammatory gene transcription factor PPAR-gamma (11). Both seem to be equally effective in making powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids known as resolvins (12). Finally, although both have no effect on total cholesterol levels, DHA can increase the size of LDL particle to a greater extent than can EPA (10).
A March 2010 lawsuit filed by a California environmental group claimed that eight brands of fish oil supplements contained excessive levels of PCB's, including CVS/pharmacy, Nature Made, Rite Aid, GNC, Solgar, Twinlab, Now Health, Omega Protein and Pharmavite. The majority of these products were either cod liver or shark liver oils. Those participating in the lawsuit claim that because the liver is the major filtering and detoxifying organ, PCB content may be higher in liver-based oils than in fish oil produced from the processing of whole fish.
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.
We included 79 RCTs (112,059 participants) in this review update and found that 25 were at low summary risk of bias. Trials were of 12 to 72 months’ duration and included adults at varying cardiovascular risk, mainly in high‐income countries. Most studies assessed LCn3 supplementation with capsules, but some used LCn3‐ or ALA‐rich or enriched foods or dietary advice compared to placebo or usual diet.
A scientific review in 2014 evaluated study findings on omega-3 intake in relation to the prevention and treatment of breast cancer, the most prevalent cancer among women. The review found that EPA and DHA, as well as ALA, can differentially inhibit breast tumor development. According to this review, there is solid evidence to support the use of omega-3s as “a nutritional intervention in the treatment of breast cancer to enhance conventional therapeutics, or potentially lowering effective doses.” (16) Additionally, a 2016 study found that “very high fish consumption in early adulthood to midlife may be associated with decreased risk of breast cancer.” (17)
Irving, G. F., Freund-Levi, Y., Eriksdotter-Jonhagen, M., Basun, H., Brismar, K., Hjorth, E., Palmblad, J., Vessby, B., Vedin, I., Wahlund, L. O., and Cederholm, T. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation effects on weight and appetite in patients with Alzheimer's disease: the omega-3 Alzheimer's disease study. J Am Geriatr Soc 2009;57(1):11-17. View abstract.
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.
Harper, M., Thom, E., Klebanoff, M. A., Thorp, J., Jr., Sorokin, Y., Varner, M. W., Wapner, R. J., Caritis, S. N., Iams, J. D., Carpenter, M. W., Peaceman, A. M., Mercer, B. M., Sciscione, A., Rouse, D. J., Ramin, S. M., and Anderson, G. D. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation to prevent recurrent preterm birth: a randomized controlled trial. Obstet Gynecol 2010;115(2 Pt 1):234-242. View abstract.
Under these conditions, it may make sense to try fish oil even at higher doses than what I recommended. There is some evidence that krill oil will get the omega-3 fatty acids better into the brain in the psychiatric conditions that I listed. And there is some evidence that EPA-rich fish oils are better than DHA-rich fish oils for some of those psychiatric conditions as well. So there’s room to play around with the different possibilities if those things apply to you. But for the average case, limit the fish oil to 250 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined when you take it, but in all cases, go for food first, and go for fish oil only after you have exhausted those possibilities.
Several large trials have evaluated the effect of fish or fish oils on heart disease. In the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardio (known as the GISSI Prevention Trial), heart attack survivors who took a 1-gram capsule of omega-3 fats every day for three years were less likely to have a repeat heart attack, stroke, or die of sudden death than those who took a placebo. (2) Notably, the risk of sudden cardiac death was reduced by about 50 percent. In the more recent Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS), participants who took EPA plus a cholesterol-lowering statin were less likely to have a major coronary event (sudden cardiac death, fatal or nonfatal heart attack, unstable angina, or a procedure to open or bypass a narrowed or blocked coronary artery) than those who took a statin alone. (3)
This article had several limitations and the findings need to be considered with caution. First, our participant population is too heterogeneous because of our broad inclusion criteria, which might be true if considering current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or International Classification of Diseases diagnostic systems. However, the novel Research Domain Criteria consider anxiety to be one of the major domains in Negative Valence Systems. Trials should be conducted in populations in which anxiety is the main symptom irrespective of the presence or absence of diagnosis of anxiety disorder. Second, because of the limited number of recruited studies and their modest sample sizes, the results should not be extrapolated without careful consideration. Third, the significant heterogeneity among the included studies (Cochran Q, 178.820; df, 18; I2, 89.934%; P < .001) with potential influence by some outlier studies, such as the studies by Sohrabi et al56 and Yehuda et al,61 would be another major concern. Therefore, clinicians should pay attention to this aspect when applying the results of the current meta-analysis to clinical practice, particularly when considering the subgroups of these 2 studies (ie, subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses, with <2000 mg/d, with EPA <60%, and with placebo-controlled trials).
In a study published after the AHRQ report, scientists in Denmark gave high-dose fish oil supplements or placebos to 736 pregnant women during the third trimester of pregnancy. Children born to mothers who had taken fish oil were less likely to develop asthma or persistent wheezing in early childhood, and this was most noticeable in children whose mothers had low blood levels of EPA and DHA before they started to take the supplements. However, other studies that evaluated the effects of omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy on childhood asthma risk have had inconsistent results.
A group out of India conducted a study published in Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology based on the premise that “fish oil rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids has been preferred to chemosensitize tumor cells to anti-cancer drugs.” The study found that using 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) to treat colorectal cancer along with fish oil increased the survival rate in carcinogen-treated animals. Researchers also found that the fish oil ameliorated hematologic depression, along with gastrointestinal, hepatic and renal toxicity caused by the 5-FU. (15)
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The randomized trials assessing the efficacy of fish oil supplementation on secondary prevention of CAD lend further evidence to the findings that fish oil may protect from sudden cardiac death.36 The Diet and Reinfarction Trial (DART),37 one of the first randomized trials of fish oil in CAD, has been interpreted as potential support for fish oil’s role in sudden death reduction because the primary outcome of all-cause mortality occurred within 2 months of the trial’s onset.38 After such a short time span, it was believed that atherosclerosis would not be altered and therefore another mechanism was reducing mortality. This was further supported by the fact that nonfatal MIs were not reduced. Although the actual modes of death other than CAD-related deaths were not documented, it has been postulated to be secondary to a reduction in sudden death.39 The Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardico-Prevenzione40 (GISSI-Prevenzione) trial, a larger randomized trial of fish oil in CAD, has also been interpreted as evidence for fish oil’s protection against sudden death. Sudden death, however, was not a primary end point. Rather, the reduction in fatal events was driven by a reduction in cardiovascular death, which included coronary death, cardiac death, and sudden death.
Weimann, A., Bastian, L., Bischoff, W. E., Grotz, M., Hansel, M., Lotz, J., Trautwein, C., Tusch, G., Schlitt, H. J., and Regel, G. Influence of arginine, omega-3 fatty acids and nucleotide-supplemented enteral support on systemic inflammatory response syndrome and multiple organ failure in patients after severe trauma. Nutrition 1998;14(2):165-172. View abstract.
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.
Jump up ^ Wang C, Harris WS, Chung M, Lichtenstein AH, Balk EM, Kupelnick B, Jordan HS, Lau J (July 2006). "n−3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not alpha-linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease outcomes in primary- and secondary-prevention studies: a systematic review". The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 84 (1): 5–17. doi:10.1093/ajcn/84.1.5. PMID 16825676.
Despite this one study, you should still consider eating fish and other seafood as a healthy strategy. If we could absolutely, positively say that the benefits of eating seafood comes entirely from omega-3 fats, then downing fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish. But it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA.
There is also evidence that mothers who use EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding may protect their children against allergies. This may be due to the fact that fish-oil supplementation has been associated with decreased levels of body cells associated with inflammation and immune response (26). In a study about food allergy and IgE-associated eczema, the period prevalence of food allergy was lower in the maternal EPA+DHA supplementation group compared to placebo (P < 0.05), and the incidence of IgE-associated eczema was also lower in the maternal EPA+DHA supplementation group compared to placebo (P < 0.05) (27).
Rondanelli, M., Giacosa, A., Opizzi, A., Pelucchi, C., La, Vecchia C., Montorfano, G., Negroni, M., Berra, B., Politi, P., and Rizzo, A. M. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation on depressive symptoms and on health-related quality of life in the treatment of elderly women with depression: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. J.Am.Coll.Nutr. 2010;29(1):55-64. View abstract.
The health benefits of fish oil can be incredible for the body’s largest organ, the skin. This source of essential fats improves the health and beauty of human skin in several ways. Fish oil benefits and nourishes the skin with fats and contributes fat-soluble vitamins that help skin maintain a smooth, elastic texture. There is also evidence that fish oil prevents wrinkles and works against the aging process.
Mozaffarian D, Marchioli R, Macchia A, Silletta MG, Ferrazzi P, Gardner TJ, Latini R, Libby P, Lombardi F, O'Gara PT, Page RL, Tavazzi L, Tognoni G; OPERA Investigators. Fish oil and postoperative atrial fibrillation: the Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Prevention of Post-operative Atrial Fibrillation (OPERA) randomized trial. JAMA 2012;308(19):2001-11. View abstract.
Most people get far too little omega-3s in their diet. In fact, research consistently indicates that the majority of Americans have just slightly more than half the amount of EPA and DHA in their tissues than they need for optimum brain and body health. This is partly due to a high dietary intake of unhealthy fats combined with an inadequate intake of EPA and DHA.
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Not all forms of fish oil may be equally digestible. Of four studies that compare bioavailability of the glyceryl ester form of fish oil vs. the ethyl ester form, two have concluded the natural glyceryl ester form is better, and the other two studies did not find a significant difference. No studies have shown the ethyl ester form to be superior, although it is cheaper to manufacture.
However, this difference in the length of the carbon chain gives these two types of omega-3s significant characteristics. EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids, while ALA is a short-chain fatty acid. The long-chain fatty acids are more important for cellular health. Another omega-3 fat, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) can also be better synthesized by your body by elongating EPA.
The most widely available dietary source of EPA and DHA is oily fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, menhaden, and sardines. Oils from these fish have a profile of around seven times as much omega−3 as omega−6. Other oily fish, such as tuna, also contain n-3 in somewhat lesser amounts. Consumers of oily fish should be aware of the potential presence of heavy metals and fat-soluble pollutants like PCBs and dioxins, which are known to accumulate up the food chain. After extensive review, researchers from Harvard's School of Public Health in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2006)  reported that the benefits of fish intake generally far outweigh the potential risks. Although fish are a dietary source of omega−3 fatty acids, fish do not synthesize them; they obtain them from the algae (microalgae in particular) or plankton in their diets. In the case of farmed fish, omega-3 fatty acids is provided by fish oil; In 2009, 81% of the global fish oil production is used by aquaculture.
“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.”
Since EPA and DHA are both essential for health and appear together in nature, many studies have attempted to treat clinical conditions with combined EPA and DHA oils, but the outcomes have been varied, contradictory and disappointing. Consequently, researchers have started to investigate the individual actions of EPA and DHA in isolation, in numerous health conditions where an omega-3 deficiency is related to symptoms or known to play a causative role. The emerging evidence shows marked differences between how these two fatty acids affect us – not just at the cellular level but also the body as a whole.
Heart disease. Eating fish can be effective for keeping people with healthy hearts free of heart disease. People who already have heart disease might also be able to lower their risk of dying from heart disease by eating fish. The picture is less clear for fish oil supplements. For people who already take heart medications such as a "statin" and those who already eat a decent amount of fish, adding on fish oil might not offer any additional benefit.