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.
Evidence suggests that omega−3 fatty acids modestly lower blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) in people with hypertension and in people with normal blood pressure. Some evidence suggests that people with certain circulatory problems, such as varicose veins, may benefit from the consumption of EPA and DHA, which may stimulate blood circulation and increase the breakdown of fibrin, a protein involved in blood clotting and scar formation. Omega−3 fatty acids reduce blood triglyceride levels but do not significantly change the level of LDL cholesterol or HDL cholesterol in the blood. The American Heart Association position (2011) is that borderline elevated triglycerides, defined as 150–199 mg/dL, can be lowered by 0.5-1.0 grams of EPA and DHA per day; high triglycerides 200–499 mg/dL benefit from 1-2 g/day; and >500 mg/dL be treated under a physician's supervision with 2-4 g/day using a prescription product.
Flaxseed (or linseed) (Linum usitatissimum) and its oil are perhaps the most widely available botanical source of the omega−3 fatty acid ALA. Flaxseed oil consists of approximately 55% ALA, which makes it six times richer than most fish oils in omega−3 fatty acids. A portion of this is converted by the body to EPA and DHA, though the actual converted percentage may differ between men and women.
Sorgi, P. J., Hallowell, E. M., Hutchins, H. L. & Sears, B. (2007, January 17). Effects of an open-label pilot study with high-dose EPA/DHA concentrates on plasma phospholipids and behavior in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nutrition Journal 6(16). Retrieved from http://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-6-16
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)
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.
According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches in the United States, fish oil supplements are the nonvitamin/nonmineral natural product most commonly taken by both adults and children. The survey findings indicated that about 7.8 percent of adults (18.8 million) and 1.1 percent of children age 4 to 17 (664,000) had taken a fish oil supplement in the previous 30 days.
This systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials conducted on participants with clinical anxiety symptoms provides the first meta-analytic evidence, to our knowledge, that omega-3 PUFA treatment may be associated with anxiety reduction, which might not only be due to a potential placebo effect, but also from some associations of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms. The beneficial anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs might be stronger in participants with specific clinical diagnoses than in those without specific clinical conditions. Larger and well-designed clinical trials should be performed with high-dose omega-3 PUFAs, provided as monotherapy and as adjunctive treatment to standard therapy.
First, always remember that it’s the omega-3s that count. When making your purchase, be sure to determine the amount of omega-3s per serving. Many doctors often recommend 1000 to 1200 mg of fish oil because that amount of fish oil contains the total amount of omega-3s the doctor wants you to consume. 1000 mg or 1200 mg of fish oil doesn’t equal 1000 or 1200 mg of omega-3s. A standard 1000 mg fish oil softgel provides around 300 mg of omega-3s (and even less of the important EPA and DHA), and to meet the 500 mg EPA and DHA recommendation, a minimum of two softgels would be necessary. Make sure to read the “Supplement Facts” label to determine the amount of EPA and DHA in a fish oil/omega-3 supplement.
Grigg, L. E., Kay, T. W., Valentine, P. A., Larkins, R., Flower, D. J., Manolas, E. G., O'Dea, K., Sinclair, A. J., Hopper, J. L., and Hunt, D. Determinants of restenosis and lack of effect of dietary supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid on the incidence of coronary artery restenosis after angioplasty. J Am Coll Cardiol. 3-1-1989;13(3):665-672. View abstract.
Fish oil combined with fenofibrate has not been studied extensively in randomized controlled trials. Data to date, however, suggest that the combination is safe and effective.63,64 A recent randomized controlled trial of 100 patients with severe hypertriglyceridemia and HIV on highly active antiretroviral therapy showed that a regimen of fenofibrate and 3 g/d of fish oil for 8 weeks was well tolerated. The median baseline triglyceride level of 650 mg/dL was reduced by 65%.63 Another recent randomized, 2 month, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, which was set up to assess the safety and efficacy of fenofibrate with 4 g of fish oil, showed that in the 81 patients assigned to combination therapy, triglyceride levels were reduced by 61%. Therapy was well-tolerated without significant adverse reactions at 8 weeks or at the end of a 2-year open label extension.64 The combination of fish oil and niacin requires further study.
Human growth and intellectual development – DHA plays a very important role during fetal development, early infancy and old age. High concentrations of DHA are found in the brain and increase 300 to 500 percent in an infant’s brain during the last trimester of pregnancy. Adding DHA to a pregnant mother’s diet may be beneficial for the fetus’s brain development. Elderly people should also take EPA DHA, because as we get older, our bodies form less EPA and DHA, which may cause less mental focus and cognitive function. Taking EPA DHA also may help with mental abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
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.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential nutrients that have potential preventive and therapeutic effects on psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression,7-15 as well as comorbid depression and anxiety in physically ill patients,16-19 patients with coronary heart disease,20,21 and pregnant women.22,23 Preclinical data support the effectiveness of omega-3 PUFAs as treatment for anxiety disorders. Song et al24,25 found that an EPA-rich diet could reduce the development of anxiety-like behaviors in rats as well as normalize dopamine levels in the ventral striatum. In addition, Yamada et al26 showed that a high dietary omega-3 to omega-6 PUFA ratio reduced contextual fear behaviors in mice and that these effects were abolished by a cannabinoid CB1 receptor antagonist.
Fish oil has been shown to have a direct electrophysiological effect on the myocardium. Initial experience with animal ischemia models demonstrated that the ventricular fibrillation threshold was increased in both animals fed or infused with omega-3 FA.23,24 This progressed to a demonstration, on a cellular and ion channel level, that omega-3 FA reduce both sodium currents and L-type calcium currents.25–29 It is hypothesized that during ischemia, a reduction in the sodium ion current protects hyperexcitable tissue, and a reduction in the calcium ion current reduces arrhythmogenic depolarizing currents.30
Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are common toxins in seafood. Although the U.S. banned the use of PCBs and DDT in 1976, these and other chemicals are still used in half the world's commercial chemical processes. Substances like these can hang around in the air, soil, and water for many years. They end up in the bodies of fish and animals.
Fish oil contains two very important omega-3 PUFAs. I’m talking about docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are sometimes called the marine omega-3s because they mainly come from fish. Some of the best fish to eat to obtain fish oil from in your diet include wild-caught salmon, herring, white fish, sardines and anchovies.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 3 g/day of EPA and DHA combined, including up to 2 g/day from dietary supplements. Higher doses are sometimes used to lower triglycerides, but anyone taking omega-3s for this purpose should be under the care of a healthcare provider because these doses could cause bleeding problems and possibly affect immune function. Any side effects from taking omega-3 supplements in smaller amounts are usually mild. They include an unpleasant taste in the mouth, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, stomach discomfort, diarrhea, headache, and smelly sweat.
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.
Gajos, G., Zalewski, J., Rostoff, P., Nessler, J., Piwowarska, W., & Undas, A. (2011, May 26). Reduced thrombin formation and altered fibrin clot properties induced by polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids on top of dual antiplatelet therapy in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention (OMEGA-PCI Clot). Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 111.228593. Retrieved from http://atvb.ahajournals.org/content/early/2011/05/26/ATVBAHA.111.228593.abstract
Belalcazar, L. M., Reboussin, D. M., Haffner, S. M., Reeves, R. S., Schwenke, D. C., Hoogeveen, R. C., Pi-Sunyer, F. X., and Ballantyne, C. M. Marine omega-3 fatty acid intake: associations with cardiometabolic risk and response to weight loss intervention in the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study. Diabetes Care 2010;33(1):197-199. View abstract.
Giacco, R., Cuomo, V., Vessby, B., Uusitupa, M., Hermansen, K., Meyer, B. J., Riccardi, G., and Rivellese, A. A. Fish oil, insulin sensitivity, insulin secretion and glucose tolerance in healthy people: is there any effect of fish oil supplementation in relation to the type of background diet and habitual dietary intake of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids? Nutr.Metab Cardiovasc.Dis. 2007;17(8):572-580. View abstract.
An analysis based on data from the Norwegian Women and Cancer Study (NOWAC) with regards to the dangers of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in cod liver came to the conclusion that "in Norwegian women, fish liver consumption was not associated with an increased cancer risk in breast, uterus, or colon. In contrast, a decreased risk for total cancer was found."
While fish oil has plenty of beneficial qualities, there is a lot of hype around its possible applications, and not all of them are accurate, so be wary when reading literature on this useful oil. Fish oil manufacturers have attempted to market it as a remedy for almost anything. We suggest that readers educate themselves fully before making an informed decision, rather than getting affected by both negative and positive propaganda about the beneficial applications of fish oil.
Hanwell, H. E., Kay, C. D., Lampe, J. W., Holub, B. J., and Duncan, A. M. Acute fish oil and soy isoflavone supplementation increase postprandial serum (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids and isoflavones but do not affect triacylglycerols or biomarkers of oxidative stress in overweight and obese hypertriglyceridemic men. J Nutr 2009;139(6):1128-1134. View abstract.
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The omega-3 index is also important because it is inversely related to one’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio — another important measurement (3). A lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio (meaning, you consume a balanced amount of these two fatty acid families) is associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease, to name a few (4). Of course, most people get far too much omega-6 and too little omega-3, thanks to the plethora of highly processed foods in the Western diet.
Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Early research shows that taking fish oil improves attention, mental function, and behavior in children 8-13 years-old with ADHD. Other research shows that taking a specific supplement containing fish oil and evening primrose oil (Eye Q, Novasel) improves mental function and behavior in children 7-12 years-old with ADHD.