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.
Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
Why would someone foul a perfectly good box of rotini with omega 3 oils? This is based on the belief that omega 3 fatty acids reduce heart disease and vascular risk, probably through reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. This is a plausible claim, but as we see over and over again in medicine, plausibility (while nice) is insufficient as a basis for clinical claims.
Finally, it is often assumed since there are not high levels of EPA in the brain, that it is not important for neurological function. Actually it is key for reducing neuro-inflammation by competing against AA for access to the same enzymes needed to produce inflammatory eicosanoids. However, once EPA enters into the brain it is rapidly oxidized (2,3). This is not the case with DHA (4). The only way to control cellular inflammation in the brain is to maintain high levels of EPA in the blood. This is why all the work on depression, ADHD, brain trauma, etc. have demonstrated EPA to be superior to DHA (5).
After the age of five, the development of the brain and CNS starts to reduce and the body’s need for DHA reduces. This is a good time to increase EPA in the diet, as studies show that EPA can help with childhood behaviour and academic performance, as well as focus, attention and reducing aggression. Dry skin conditions, asthma and allergies are also common in children and good levels of EPA at this time can help reduce the inflammation associated with these issues.
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.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that everyone eats fish (particularly fatty, coldwater fish) at least twice a week. Salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, lake trout, and tuna are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids. While foods are your best bet for getting omega-3s in your diet, fish oil supplements are also available for those who do not like fish. The heart-healthy benefits of regular doses of fish oil supplements are unclear, so talk to your doctor to see if they're right for you. If you have heart disease or high triglyceride levels, you may need even more omega-3 fatty acids. Ask your doctor if you should take higher doses of fish oil supplements to get the omega-3s you need.
Second, quality matters. It is important to purchase fish oil from a reputable manufacturer that follows Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and takes the necessary steps to purify the oil. In choosing a brand like Nature Made®, the #1 Pharmacist Recommended Omega-3/Fish Oil Brand*, you can rest assured knowing Nature Made has a strong commitment to making quality supplements so you can experience the benefits of fish oil.
In my opinion, the key benefit of DHA lies in its unique spatial characteristics. As mentioned earlier, the extra double bond (six in DHA vs. five in EPA) and increased carbon length (22 carbons in DHA vs. 20 in EPA) means that DHA takes up takes up a lot more space than does EPA in the membrane. Although this increase in spatial volume makes DHA a poor substrate for phospholipase A2 as well as the COX and LOX enzymes, it does a great job of making membranes (especially those in the brain) a lot more fluid as the DHA sweeps out a much greater volume in the membrane than does EPA. This increase in membrane fluidity is critical for synaptic vesicles and the retina of the eye as it allows receptors to rotate more effectively thus increasing the transmission of signals from the surface of the membrane to the interior of the nerve cells. This is why DHA is a critical component of these highly fluid portions of the nerves (7). On the other hand, the myelin membrane is essentially an insulator so that relatively little DHA is found in that part of the membrane.
However, in both observational studies and controlled clinical trials, eating fish was shown to foster optimal development of a baby’s brain and nervous system, prompting advice that pregnant women and nursing mothers eat more fish rich in omega-3s while avoiding species that may contain mercury or other contaminants like PCBs sometimes found in freshwater fish.
There is some evidence that omega−3 fatty acids are related to mental health, including that they may tentatively be useful as an add-on for the treatment of depression associated with bipolar disorder. Significant benefits due to EPA supplementation were only seen, however, when treating depressive symptoms and not manic symptoms suggesting a link between omega−3 and depressive mood. There is also preliminary evidence that EPA supplementation is helpful in cases of depression. The link between omega−3 and depression has been attributed to the fact that many of the products of the omega−3 synthesis pathway play key roles in regulating inflammation (such as prostaglandin E3) which have been linked to depression. This link to inflammation regulation has been supported in both in vitro and in vivo studies as well as in meta-analysis studies. The exact mechanism in which omega−3 acts upon the inflammatory system is still controversial as it was commonly believed to have anti-inflammatory effects.
EPA, which is eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA, which is docosahexaenoic acid, are two types of omega-3 fatty acids that are most commonly found in seafood. These polyunsaturated fats are known to have preventative health benefits and have been studied for their role in treating certain chronic conditions. In addition to dietary sources, certain supplements such as fish oil, are also rich in EPA and DHA.
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.
Several other analyses of the evidence have been done in the last few years (2012 or later), and like the 2018 analysis and the AHRQ report, most found little or no evidence for a protective effect of omega-3 supplements against heart disease. However, some earlier analyses suggested that omega-3s could be helpful. The difference between the newer conclusions and the older ones may reflect two changes over time:
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.
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Abnormal cholesterol or fat levels in the blood (dyslipidemia). There is conflicting evidence about the effects of fish oil on cholesterol and fat levels in the blood. Some research shows that taking fish oil can lower triglyceride levels, low density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol, and increase high density lipoprotein (HDL or "good") cholesterol in people with abnormal cholesterol levels. However, other research shows that taking fish oil daily does not have this effect.