Fish oil is a commonly used dietary supplement, with sales in the U.S. alone reaching $976 million in 2009. Problems of quality have been identified in periodic tests by independent researchers of marketed supplements containing fish oil and other marine oils. These problems include contamination, inaccurate listing of EPA and DHA levels, spoilage and formulation issues.
A 2009 metastudy found that patients taking omega-3 supplements with a higher EPA:DHA ratio experienced fewer depressive symptoms. The studies provided evidence that EPA may be more efficacious than DHA in treating depression. However, this metastudy concluded that due to the identified limitations of the included studies, larger, randomized trials are needed to confirm these findings.
The three types of omega-3s are APA, EPA and DHA. The first is a medium-chain fatty acid and must be converted into EPA before being synthesized by the body, and only about 1 percent of the APA consumed is able to be converted. EPA and DHA are already in a form ready to be synthesized (and are the subject of most scientific research regarding omega-3s).
Guallar, E., Aro, A., Jimenez, F. J., Martin-Moreno, J. M., Salminen, I., van't Veer, P., Kardinaal, A. F., Gomez-Aracena, J., Martin, B. C., Kohlmeier, L., Kark, J. D., Mazaev, V. P., Ringstad, J., Guillen, J., Riemersma, R. A., Huttunen, J. K., Thamm, M., and Kok, F. J. Omega-3 fatty acids in adipose tissue and risk of myocardial infarction: the EURAMIC study. Arterioscler.Thromb.Vasc.Biol 1999;19(4):1111-1118. View abstract.
The GISSI-Heart Failure trial was the first blinded, randomized trial to assess the efficacy of fish oil supplements in patients with heart failure.51 The trial enrolled 7046 subjects with heart failure; 60% with New York Heart Association class II symptoms and 40% with a history of MI. The majority of patients were on a standard heart failure regimen, including angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers, beta-blockers, and spironolactone, but only 22% were on a statin. At an average of 3.9 years, the coprimary end points of death and death or hospital admission for cardiovascular reasons were reduced by approximately 9% with fish oil supplementation. Sudden cardiac death, a secondary end-point, showed a statistically nonsignificant relative risk reduction of 7% with fish oil. There was also a reduction in 2 other arrhythmia-related secondary end-points: first hospitalization for ventricular arrhythmia and presumed arrhythmic death.
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.
So back to fish oil in general. The major fish oil benefits include decreasing the risk of heart disease and stroke while also helping reduce symptoms of depression, hypertension, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain, arthritis and chronic skin ailments like eczema. (2) Fish oil intake has also been associated with aiding the body in weight loss, fertility, pregnancy and increased energy. Prescription fish oil has even been approved by the FDA to lower unhealthy high triglyceride levels. (3)
The current American diet has changed over time to be high in SFA and low in omega-3 fatty acids (12). This change in eating habits is centered on fast food containing high amounts of saturated fat, which has small amounts of essential omega-3 PUFA compared with food prepared in the home (13). Seafood sources such as fish and fish-oil supplements are the primary contributors of the 2 biologically important dietary omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA (14–16). This low intake of dietary EPA and DHA is thought to be associated with increased inflammatory processes as well as poor fetal development, general cardiovascular health, and risk of the development of Alzheimer's disease (AD).
According to the Cardiovascular Research Institute in Maastricht in Netherlands, “Epidemiological studies show that replacing fat with carbohydrates may even be worse [than the Western-type high-fat diet] and that various polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA) have beneficial rather than detrimental effects on CVD (cardiovascular disease) outcome.” This includes fish-oil fatty acids with anti-inflammatory properties, which can help prevent and reverse a plethora of cardiovascular diseases. (19)
A 2012 study involved children from 6 to 12 years of age with ADHD who were being treated with methylphenidate and standard behavior therapy for more than six months. The parents of these children reported no improvement in behavior and academic learning using these standard treatments. The researchers randomly gave some of the children an omega-3 and omega-6 acid supplementation or a placebo. They found “statistically significant improvement” for the omega group in the following categories: restlessness, aggressiveness, completing work and academic performance. (5)
Nakamura, N., Hamazaki, T., Ohta, M., Okuda, K., Urakaze, M., Sawazaki, S., Yamazaki, K., Satoh, A., Temaru, R., Ishikura, Y., Takata, M., Kishida, M., and Kobayashi, M. Joint effects of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors and eicosapentaenoic acids on serum lipid profile and plasma fatty acid concentrations in patients with hyperlipidemia. Int J Clin Lab Res 1999;29(1):22-25. View abstract.
We are now fortunate to understand how these fats work in combination and in isolation, how they are digested, absorbed and utilised in the body, so we are able to tailor different blends of EPA and DHA according to the health benefits we are seeking to achieve. At Igennus, we have long specialised in the role of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA in clinical nutrition, as a powerful tool in the patient’s ‘toolkit’ for helping to regulate inflammation by restoring several biological markers, known as the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and AA to EPA ratio. Before we discuss the therapeutic role of EPA in nutritional medicine, here’s a very brief summary of the role of both EPA and DHA in health throughout life.
Most U.S. adults fail to consume adequate amounts of foods rich in EPA and DHA on a regular basis (at least 8 ounces of fatty fish per week is recommended), and probably consume too many omega-6 fats in comparison (soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, etc.). This omega-3:omega-6 imbalance can have a negative effect on inflammation patterns and may also be implicated as a contributing factor to other processes related to cellular metabolism, hormone signaling, and even weight regulation.
Additionally, total polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) content was measured in every product. All product recorded PCB levels within the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 2 PPM limit for the edible parts of fish/shellfish as well as the stricter standards enacted by California’s Proposition 65, which requires products containing greater than 0.09 PPM of PCB content to bear a cancer warning. The worst offender, Now Foods Ultra Omega-3 Fish Oil, recorded 0.04 PPM of PCB content.
Bell, J. G., Miller, D., MacDonald, D. J., MacKinlay, E. E., Dick, J. R., Cheseldine, S., Boyle, R. M., Graham, C., and O'Hare, A. E. The fatty acid compositions of erythrocyte and plasma polar lipids in children with autism, developmental delay or typically developing controls and the effect of fish oil intake. Br J Nutr 2010;103(8):1160-1167. View abstract.
Today, some doctors are starting to measure the omega-3 index levels of their patients, just like they do with cholesterol levels. However, if your doctor does not offer this, several companies provide a quick and easy blood test you can conduct yourself, including OmegaQuant. This company is run by by Dr. William Harris, one of the scientists who initially developed the concept of the omega-3 index.
An 18-month study was published in 2014 that evaluated how borage seed oil — rich in GLA — and fish oil rich fared against each other in treating patients with rheumatoid arthritis. It was discovered that all three groups (one taking fish oil, one taking borage oil and one taking a combination of the two) “exhibited significant reductions” in disease activity, and no therapy outperformed the others. For all three, “meaningful clinical responses” were the same after nine months. (11)
Fish oil is a concentrated source of omega-3 fats, which are also called ω-3 fatty acids or n-3 fatty acids. To get more scientific, omega-3s are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs. Our bodies are able to make most of the fats we need need, but that’s not true for omega-3 fatty acids. When it comes to these essential fats, we need to get them from omega-3 foods or supplements.
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.