Fish oil is the fat or oil that’s extracted from fish tissue that comes from oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna and sardines. But, it can also be produced from the livers of certain fish, as is the case with cod liver oil. However, it’s important to know that only around 30 percent of fish oil is made up of the important, beneficial omega-3s, while the remaining 70 percent is made up of other fats that do not serve the body with any real health benefits.
The beneficially omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are the long chain fatty acids that have substantial anti-inflammatory properties.
Omega-3’s can also be found in plant sources like flax, Chia and Hempseeds, known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). However, it’s important to note that the omega-3s found in fish oil, being long-chain fatty acids have a far greater health benefit than the short-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in plant sources due to the fact that the human body is very inefficient at converting ALA into the more active EPA and DHA before it can be used. (1, 2)
Why is it so important to get enough omega-3s?
Today, due to our highly industrialized Western diet and the advent of processed vegetable and seed oils, the average ratio between omega-6 to omega-3 intake is estimated to be 15:1 or higher which is far greater than the optimum ratio of 4:1 or lower.
This severe imbalance can cause a substantial inflammatory response resulting in a number of chronic health issues including, but not limited to: cardiovascular diseases, type II diabetes, arthritis, neurological disorders, autoimmune disease, cancer, and YES even weight gain. (3, 4, 5, 6)
Therefore, it’s highly important that we try to maintain a more proper balanced ratio.
Fish Oil and Inflammation
Inflammation is the immune system’s way of fighting infection and treating injury to the body. However, inflammation can sometimes occur at a low level for an extended period of time. This is what is commonly referred to as chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can then trigger a multitude of modern common issues such as obesity, diabetes, depression and heart disease. Therefore, by reducing inflammation you can help treat the symptoms associated with it. (7, 8, 9)
Fish oil has anti-inflammatory properties, therefore, has the ability to help treat diseases commonly associated with chronic inflammation. (10)
Additionally, fish oil supplementation can significantly reduce joint pain, stiffness and the medication needs in people with arthritis, a disease in which inflammation leads to significantly painful joints. (13)
Subsequently, many studies clearly reinforce the fact that fish oil has strong anti-inflammatory effects that can help reduce the symptoms of many inflammatory diseases.
Fish Oil and Heart Health
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), heart disease is still the leading cause of death worldwide. (14)
However, studies have shown that people who eat a lot of fish, especially fatty fishes like mackerel, tuna, herring, salmon and sardines have much lower rates of heart disease than people who don’t eat fish. (15, 16)
In fact, there are a number of risk factors associated with heart disease, and nearly all of them seem to be reduced by consuming fish or taking a fish oil supplement.
The benefits associated with fish oil for heart health include:
- Increases levels of HDL or what is known as “good cholesterol.” (17, 18)
- Lowers triglycerides by as much as 30 percent. (19, 20)
- Helps reduce blood pressure in those with high blood pressure. (21, 22)
- May prevent the plaques formation in arteries which cause them to harden. In addition, it may stabilize already developed arterial plaques making it safer. (23, 24)
Although fish oil supplementation can improve and help reduce many of the risk factors associated with heart disease, there is still a lack of clear evidence that it can prevent heart attacks or strokes. (25)
Fish Oil and Brain Function
What many of us may not know is that our brain is made up of nearly 60 percent fat, and a majority of this fat is derived directly from omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, omega-3s are essential for optimizing normal brain function, starting at infancy. In fact, several studies conclude that people with certain mental disorders also have lower levels of omega-3 in the blood. (26, 27, 28, 29)
Interestingly, studies have shown that fish oil supplementation can prevent the onset and/or improve the symptoms of certain mental disorders. For example, it can reduce the risk of psychotic disorders like depression, delusional disorder and psychosis in those who may be at risk. (30, 31)
Depression is now being seriously looked at as becoming the second leading cause of disease burden globally by 2030.
However, interestingly, people with major depression also appear to have lower blood levels of omega-3s. But, studies have shown that fish oil and omega-3 supplementation can improve symptoms of depression. (34, 35, 36)
Additionally, a number of behavioral disorders in children, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have shown promise of improvement with the treatment of a fish oil supplementation. (37, 38)
Seeing that omega-3s make up a significant proportion of the brain, getting enough of them may be important for preventing behavioral disorders in early life. (39)
Behavioral disorders in children can interfere with learning and development. Fish oil supplementation has been shown to help reduce hyperactivity, inattention and other behaviors.
Fish Oil and Weight
Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30. Globally, about 39 percent of adults are overweight, while 13 percent are obese. However, this number is by far much higher in the US. (40)
However, fish oil supplementation may help improve body composition and risk factors for heart disease in obese people. Furthermore, some studies have shown that fish oil supplementation, in combination with diet or exercise, can help you lose weight and change body composition. (43, 44, 45)
In fact, one analysis of 21 studies found that fish oil supplementation actually helped reduce waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio. (46)
Fish Oil and Bone Health
During old age, bones can begin to lose their essential minerals, which may lead to sudden fractures and breaks and diseases such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
Although Calcium and vitamin D are known to be very important for bone health, some studies are now starting to link omega-3 fatty acids as a beneficial contributor to bone health. In fact, some studies suggest that people with higher omega-3 intakes and blood levels have been shown to support better bone mineral density (BMD). (47, 48)
A number of small studies have shown that fish oil supplementation reduced bio-markers of bone breakdown, which help improve bone health and may prevent bone disease. (49)
Here are 5 things to keep in mind when choosing and taking a fish oil supplement.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a daily intake of between 0.2 – 0.5 grams of combined EPA and DHA. However, more recent science is telling us that this may be well under what we really need due to our highly imbalanced “Omega – 3 to Omega – 6” fatty acid ratio. For this reason it may be necessary to increase the dosage to a more optimal level.
My research has concluded that a more appropriate range lies between 1000mg to 5000mg of “omega 3 fatty acids” per/day, depending on one’s body size:
- 100lbs or below – 500mg to 1000mg/per day
- 100 to 150lbs – 1000mg to 2000mg/per day
- 150 to 200lbs – 2000mg to 3000mg/per day
- 200 to 250lbs – 3000mg to 4000mg/per day
- 250lbs and up – 5000mg/per day
Many supplements contain 1,000 mg or more of fish oil “per serving” however, only supports 300 to 400mg of the active “Omega – 3’s” EPA and DHA needed to reap the supplements true health benefits. Therefore, make sure to read the label and choose a supplement that contains at least 500 mg of EPA and DHA and/or 1,000 mg of Omega – 3 fatty acids per serving of fish oil.
There are a number of fish oil supplements that don’t contain what they claim, so to avoid these products, choose a supplement that is “third-party tested” or has the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega – 3’s (GOED) standard of purity stamp of approval.
Omega-3 fatty acids are prone to oxidation, which makes them go rancid, therefore unusable. To avoid this, you can choose a supplement that contains an antioxidant, such as vitamin E. Also, keep your supplements away from light, ideally in the refrigerator.
NOTE: DO NOT use a fish oil supplement that has a rancid smell or is over its expiration date.
Other dietary fats help the absorption of omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, it’s best to take your fish oil supplement in conjunction with meals, preferable that contains other healthy fats. (50)
Check the instruction label of a fish oil supplement before consumption. Also, choose a supplement with a high concentration of EPA and DHA and that has purity and sustainability certifications.