Only fish and breast milk contain all the members of the omega-3 family, including its two main stars, EPA and DHA. Because Americans as a rule consume far too few omega-3s from fish or fish oil, it’s no surprise that the majority of Americans have low omega-3 index levels as well. A recent study of global omega-3 index levels found that an estimated 95% of Americans (with the exception of folks from Alaska) had an omega-3 index of 4 or below, putting them in the high risk category (5, 6, 7).
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)
Dr. Holub has provided the questions and answers for several emails he has received over the years regarding omega-3 fatty acids for health. If you have a question regarding omega-3, it is likely that Dr. Holub has answered it either here in this section, or elsewhere on the site (e.g. check the scientific overview section for general questions regarding omega-3). To quickly find your answer, please use our search bar located in the top right section of this page. After searching our site, and you still cannot find the answer to your question, we invite you to ask Dr. Holub a question here.
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."
Birch, E. E., Carlson, S. E., Hoffman, D. R., Fitzgerald-Gustafson, K. M., Fu, V. L., Drover, J. R., Castaneda, Y. S., Minns, L., Wheaton, D. K., Mundy, D., Marunycz, J., and Diersen-Schade, D. A. The DIAMOND (DHA Intake And Measurement Of Neural Development) Study: a double-masked, randomized controlled clinical trial of the maturation of infant visual acuity as a function of the dietary level of docosahexaenoic acid. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(4):848-859. View abstract.
Krauss-Etschmann, S., Hartl, D., Rzehak, P., Heinrich, J., Shadid, R., Del, Carmen Ramirez-Tortosa, Campoy, C., Pardillo, S., Schendel, D. J., Decsi, T., Demmelmair, H., and Koletzko, B. V. Decreased cord blood IL-4, IL-13, and CCR4 and increased TGF-beta levels after fish oil supplementation of pregnant women. J.Allergy Clin.Immunol. 2008;121(2):464-470. View abstract.
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).
Omega-3 fatty acids get a fair amount of time in the press and a great deal of respect at this point. But do you know what omega-3s are? What omega-3 benefits could convince you to add more oily fish (or maybe a supplement) to your diet? Are omega-3 foods really that big of a deal when it comes to eating a nutrient-dense diet? Could you be deficient in these fatty acids?
Jump up ^ Crowe, Francesca L.; Appleby, Paul N.; Travis, Ruth C.; Barnett, Matt; Brasky, Theodore M.; Bueno-de-Mesquita, H. Bas; Chajes, Veronique; Chavarro, Jorge E.; Chirlaque, Maria-Dolores (2014-09-01). "Circulating fatty acids and prostate cancer risk: individual participant meta-analysis of prospective studies". Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 106 (9): dju240. doi:10.1093/jnci/dju240. ISSN 1460-2105. PMC 4188122. PMID 25210201.
Dioxins and PCBs may be carcinogenic at low levels of exposure over time. These substances are identified and measured in one of two categories, dioxin-like PCBs and total PCBs. While the U.S. FDA has not set a limit for PCBs in supplements, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA (GOED) has established a guideline allowing for no more than 3 picograms of dioxin-like PCBs per gram of fish oil. In 2012, samples from 35 fish oil supplements were tested for PCBs. Trace amounts of PCBs were found in all samples, and two samples exceeded the GOED‘s limit. Although trace amounts of PCBs contribute to overall PCB exposure, Consumerlab.com claims the amounts reported by tests it ordered on fish oil supplements are far below those found in a single typical serving of fish.
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.
A tremendous body of research has been conducted on these important nutrients since it was first discovered in the 1950s that fish oil offered many health benefits and that these benefits were attributable to a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3. Despite the volumes of research on omega-3s, it is only in recent years (within the last 15 years or so) that the actions of EPA and DHA have come to be understood individually. Researchers now often investigate the actions of EPA and DHA individually rather than together, no longer simply under the generic label omega-3 as they are widely referred to.
Fish oil supplements are available as liquids or capsules. Some capsules are enteric-coated to pass through the stomach before dissolving in the small intestine, thus helping prevent indigestion and "fish burps". Poorly manufactured enteric-coated products have the potential to release ingredients too early. ConsumerLab.com, a for-profit supplement testing company, reported that 1 of the 24 enteric-coated fish oil supplements it evaluated released ingredients prematurely.
(How much omega-3 is necessary to increase one’s omega-3 index? Studies show it can take between 1800 – 2000 mg of EPA/DHA daily to move a person’s index by 4 – 5 percentage points (12). Importantly, this is a much larger dose than you’d get swallowing one or two regular fish oil capsules and could well explain why many traditional omega-3 products fail to deliver results.)
They also found that taking more long-chain omega 3 fats (including EPA and DHA), primarily through supplements probably makes little or no difference to risk of cardiovascular events, coronary heart deaths, coronary heart disease events, stroke or heart irregularities. Long-chain omega 3 fats probably did reduce some blood fats, triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. Reducing triglycerides is likely to be protective of heart diseases, but reducing HDL has the opposite effect. The researchers collected information on harms from the studies, but information on bleeding and blood clots was very limited.
A 2008 meta-study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found fish oil supplementation did not demonstrate any preventative benefit to cardiac patients with ventricular arrhythmias. A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, covering 20 studies and 68,680 patients, found that Omega-3 Fatty Acid supplementation did not reduce the chance of death, cardiac death, heart attack or stroke.
Badia-Tahull, M. B., Llop-Talaveron, J. M., Leiva-Badosa, E., Biondo, S., Farran-Teixido, L., Ramon-Torrell, J. M., and Jodar-Masanes, R. A randomised study on the clinical progress of high-risk elective major gastrointestinal surgery patients treated with olive oil-based parenteral nutrition with or without a fish oil supplement. Br.J.Nutr. 2010;104(5):737-741. View abstract.
Marine and freshwater fish oil vary in contents of arachidonic acid, EPA and DHA. The various species range from lean to fatty and their oil content in the tissues has been shown to vary from 0.7% to 15.5%. They also differ in their effects on organ lipids. Studies have revealed that there is no relation between total fish intake or estimated omega−3 fatty acid intake from all fish, and serum omega−3 fatty acid concentrations. Only fatty fish intake, particularly salmonid, and estimated EPA + DHA intake from fatty fish has been observed to be significantly associated with increase in serum EPA + DHA.
Gajos G1, Rostoff P, Undas A, et al. Effects of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids on responsiveness to dual antiplatelet therapy in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention: the OMEGA-PCI (OMEGA-3 fatty acids after pci to modify responsiveness to dual antiplatelet therapy) study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2010 Apr 20;55(16):1671-8. View abstract.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to increase platelet responsiveness to subtherapeutic anticoagulation therapies, including aspirin. Recently, it was noted that patient response to aspirin for anticoagulation therapy is widely variable (45), and, thus, the number of patients with a low response to aspirin or aspirin resistance is estimated to range from <1% to 45%, depending on many variables. However, in patients with stable coronary artery disease taking low-dose aspirin, EPA+DHA supplementation has been proven to be as effective as aspirin dose escalation to 325 mg/d for anticoagulation benefits (45). The antiplatelet drug clopidogrel has also been associated with hyporesponsiveness in some patients. This could be attributed to poor patient compliance, differences in genes and platelet reactivity, variability of drug metabolism, and drug interactions. More importantly, in 1 study, patients receiving standard dual antiplatelet therapy (aspirin 75 mg/d and clopidogrel 600-mg loading dose followed by 75 mg/d) were assigned to either EPA+DHA supplementation or placebo. After 1 mo of treatment, the P2Y12 receptor reactivity index (an indicator of clopidogrel resistance) was significantly lower, by 22%, for patients taking EPA+DHA compared with patients taking placebo (P = 0.020) (46).
Researchers are taking a hard look at a different sort of balance, this one between possible effects of marine and plant omega-3 fats on prostate cancer. Results from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and others show that men whose diets are rich in EPA and DHA (mainly from fish and seafood) are less likely to develop advanced prostate cancer than those with low intake of EPA and DHA. (6) At the same time, some-but not all-studies show an increase in prostate cancer and advanced prostate cancer among men with high intakes of ALA (mainly from supplements). However, this effect is inconsistent. In the very large Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, for example, there was no link between ALA intake and early, late, or advanced prostate cancer. (7)
Evidence in the population generally does not support a beneficial role for omega−3 fatty acid supplementation in preventing cardiovascular disease (including myocardial infarction and sudden cardiac death) or stroke. A 2018 meta-analysis found no support that daily intake of one gram of omega-3 fatty acid in individuals with a history of coronary heart disease prevents fatal coronary heart disease, nonfatal myocardial infarction or any other vascular event. However, omega−3 fatty acid supplementation greater than one gram daily for at least a year may be protective against cardiac death, sudden death, and myocardial infarction in people who have a history of cardiovascular disease. No protective effect against the development of stroke or all-cause mortality was seen in this population. Eating a diet high in fish that contain long chain omega−3 fatty acids does appear to decrease the risk of stroke. Fish oil supplementation has not been shown to benefit revascularization or abnormal heart rhythms and has no effect on heart failure hospital admission rates. Furthermore, fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes.
Maclean, C. H., Mojica, W. A., Morton, S. C., Pencharz, J., Hasenfeld, Garland R., Tu, W., Newberry, S. J., Jungvig, L. K., Grossman, J., Khanna, P., Rhodes, S., and Shekelle, P. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on lipids and glycemic control in type II diabetes and the metabolic syndrome and on inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, renal disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, and osteoporosis. Evid.Rep.Technol.Assess.(Summ.) 2004;(89):1-4. View abstract.
It exists in nature in three forms, one derived from land plants and two derived from marine sources. In the body, omega-3 is highly concentrated in the brain; it is critical to the formation and maintenance of nerve cell membranes. Research shows that in the nervous system, omega-3s foster the development of brain circuitry and the processing of information. They also play important roles in stabilizing mood and staving off cognitive decline. Low levels of omega-3s are linked to poor memory and depression. Omega-3 fats are also critical for the formation of anti-inflammatory molecules in the body.
Meta-analyses (research that combines and analyzes results of multiple studies) generally suggest that the omega-3s are effective, but the findings are not unanimous because of variability between doses, ratios of EPA to DHA, and other study design issues. The most effective preparations appear to have at least 60% EPA relative to DHA. While DHA is thought to be less effective as an antidepressant, it may have protective effects against suicide. Recent work at Massachusetts General Hospital and Emory University suggests that depressed individuals who are overweight and have elevated inflammatory activity may be particularly good candidates for EPA treatment.
Sala-Vila A, Díaz-López A, Valls-Pedret C, et al.; Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED) Investigators. Dietary marine ?-3 fatty acids and incident sight-threatening retinopathy in middle-aged and older individuals with type 2 diabetes: Prospective investigation from the PREDIMED trial. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2016;134(10):1142-1149. View abstract.
Your retina contains quite a bit of DHA, making it necessary for that fatty acid to function. (90) The National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, concludes that there is “consistent evidence” suggesting long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids DHA and EPA are necessary for retinal health and may help protect the eyes from disease. (91)
The omega-3 PUFA EPA and DHA are important throughout life and are a dietary necessity found predominantly in fish and fish-oil supplements. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are essential for proper fetal development, and supplementation during pregnancy has also been linked to decreased immune responses in infants including decreased incidence of allergies in infants. Omega-3 fatty acid consumption has been associated with improved cardiovascular function in terms of antiinflammatory properties, PAD, reduced major coronary events, and improved antiplatelet effects in the face of aspirin resistance or clopidogrel hyporesponsiveness. Patients with AD have been shown to be deficient in DHA, and supplementing them with EPA+DHA not only reverses this deficiency, but may also improve cognitive functioning in patients with very mild AD. With increasing rates of pediatric allergies, cardiovascular disease, and AD in the United States, EPA and DHA may be a safe and inexpensive link to a healthier life. Further research should be conducted in humans to assess a variety of clinical outcomes including quality of life and mental status. In addition, because potent lipid mediator metabolites of EPA and DHA are of great interest currently, their influence on these important outcomes should be assessed because current evidence suggests that their antiinflammatory and tissue-protective effects are nearly 1000 times greater than those of EPA and DHA (7).
The human body can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or raw materials. That isn’t the case for omega-3 fatty acids (also called omega-3 fats and n-3 fats). These are essential fats—the body can’t make them from scratch but must get them from food. Foods high in Omega-3 include fish, vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables.
Have you also investigated the efficacy of purslane as a souce of Omega 3. Purslane (Portulaca olearacea) is a big part of the mountain vegetable diet of the Tujia minority in western Hunan (delicious), for example, and is consumed globally. Was glad to find it in local farmer’s market in California, and even happier to learn about its health benefits including Omega 3. The fish oil capsules are so huge… much better to sprinkle purslane or stir fry it…
Thusgaard, M., Christensen, J. H., Morn, B., Andersen, T. S., Vige, R., Arildsen, H., Schmidt, E. B., and Nielsen, H. Effect of fish oil (n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids) on plasma lipids, lipoproteins and inflammatory markers in HIV-infected patients treated with antiretroviral therapy: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Scand.J.Infect.Dis. 2009;41(10):760-766. View abstract.
Cashew nuts are a versatile, creamy nut, eaten on their own as a snack or used as a base for many vegan cheese substitutes. RXBAR, a healthy alternative to the standard sugar-loaded snack bar, uses cashews for several of its flavor varieties. And with delicious (and kid-friendly!) flavors like gingerbread, chocolate chip, or “Berry Blast,” these bars are a tasty way to add more cashews to any diet.
Widenhorn-Müller K, Schwanda S, Scholz E, Spitzer M, Bode H. Effect of supplementation with long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on behavior and cognition in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized placebo-controlled intervention trial. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2014;91(1-2):49-60. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2014.04.004PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Several recent clinical studies, especially those focusing on the benefits of omega-3 in inflammatory conditions, have investigated the actions of pure-EPA in protecting against excess inflammation in the body. EPA works in several different ways. Firstly, it is the precursor to a number of immune messengers, collectively called ‘eicosanoids’ (series-3 prostaglandins, series-3 thromboxanes and series-5 leukotrienes,) all of which have anti-inflammatory roles.
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.