Table of Contents
- Why Fish Oil?
- Omega-3 Fatty Acid Deficiency
- Understanding Fish Oil
- Fish Oil Benefits
- Fish Oil Nutritional Facts
- The Basics of Fish Oil Supplements
- Fish Oil and Prostate Cancer
- Precautions, Interactions, and Side Effects
Why Fish Oil?
Deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids is a growing concern in the US, and it is now listed as one of the top ten causes of death.
The changing American diet has resulted in a significant decrease in foods containing these valuable fats.
When you increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids by taking fish oil, you can lower your risk factors for many diseases and lead a healthier lifestyle.
Our guide will help you understand what fish oil is, why it is essential, and how taking fish oil supplements can have profound health benefits for you.
After obesity and leading a sedentary lifestyle, the next three lifestyle and dietary factors responsible for the most deaths in the US are eating too much salt, too many trans fats, and too few omega-3 fatty acids (1).
By making lifestyle and dietary changes, all of these causes of death can be avoided, and taking fish oil to supplement your omega-3 fatty acids is an excellent place to start.
The numerous benefits of taking fish oil include decreasing cardiovascular disease, stroke, joint pain, symptoms of depression, high triglyceride levels, symptoms associated with chronic skin disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and arthritis (2).
Fish oil can help you maintain proper body weight, as well as promote fertility and enhanced energy, and assist with healthy pregnancies (3).
By understanding the real scientific benefits of fish oil as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, you will better understand how and why you should consider taking fish oil supplements.
Our guide will dispel the myths, and provide you with research to show why getting more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet is necessary and vital.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Deficiency
The American diet has created an imbalance of essential fatty acids in our bodies.
While we need both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to remain healthy, typical diets for Americans contain far more omega-6s and far fewer omega-3s than required.
While the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 for a healthy person is 2:1, most people currently consume about 20:1 in favor of omega-6s.
This imbalance causes inflammation, can lead to chronic illness and causes other health problems (4).
While omega-6 fatty acids are an essential and necessary component of your body, having the proper balance is key to ensuring all these essential nutrients help your body in an intended way.
The most significant culprit responsible for this imbalance is the presence of omega-6 fatty acids in some of the unhealthy (but quite tasty) foods many people eat today.
Omega-6 can found in fast food, fried foods, and convenience foods that contain corn, cottonseed, sunflower, canola, and soybean oils.
The proliferation of these oils in processed and packaged foods has made them a dietary staple for many, leading to the imbalance in fatty acids we currently see.
An excess of omega-6 can interfere with your body’s ability to metabolize healthier omega-3 fatty acids, so correcting this imbalance is crucial (5).
By fixing the imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in your body, you can reduce your risk for many chronic diseases.
The benefits of adding fish oil as a source of omega-3 fatty acids to your diet include reducing your risk of or symptoms for asthma, autoimmune disorders, cancer, depression, ADHD, arthritis, heart disease, and more (6).
Understanding Fish Oil
Fish oil is a nutritional supplement that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Fish oil is produced from the fatty tissue of oily fish that live primarily in cold waters.
You can enjoy fish oil in its natural form by eating these types of fish, or you can take a fish oil supplement to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids, also called PUFAs, and fish oil contains high concentrations of this necessary fat.
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Our bodies produce many essential fats, but they cannot produce omega-3s, which is why we must get them through dietary sources or supplementation.
Fish oil isn’t just one PUFA; it contains two fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
In nature, EPA and DHA are found primarily in the oily fish living in the wild in very cold waters.
These include fish such as herring, sardines, anchovies, white fish, and salmon, which are a concentrated source of the necessary omega-3 fatty acids our bodies need for healthy function.
When you are considering alternative sources of omega-3 fatty acids, you may be aware that flaxseed, grass-fed beef, and other foods contain omega-3s.
These foods, unfortunately, do not contain EPA or DHA, but instead, have alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
ALA is found in plant sources but is not proven to have all the same health benefits for most people as the EPA and DHA found in fish oil.
Fish Oil Benefits
Having proper omega-3 fatty acid levels is important for many metabolic functions, so taking fish oil can have numerous benefits to your health.
We have included all those that have scientific evidence to support their claims, to help you decide if taking fish oil is right for you.
Alzheimer’s Diseases is a dementia disorder characterized by a decline in cognitive function.
Your brain relies on essential fatty acids for healthy function.
Fish oil has been shown to slow the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s, as well as prevent atrophy in the brains of older adults.
Fish oil, especially when combined with supplemental antioxidants, has shown promise to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, as well as slow the decline of the disease once it has been diagnosed (7).
While it is unclear exactly how omega-3 fatty acids impact Alzheimer’s disease, it is believed that they reduce the formation of beta-amyloid plaque, which is a possible cause of Alzheimer’s.
Researchers in Rhode Island studying older adults discovered that fish oil preserves cognitive function and brain volume, regardless of previous cognitive impairment or even if patients had genetic risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s (8).
This means that fish oil holds promise for preventing this form of dementia for everyone, even those genetically predisposed to the disease.
Fish oil has a long-standing reputation for helping improve heart health.
There is a reason heart disease is less common in countries and cultures where fish is a diet staple.
The link between decreased omega-3 fatty acids and increased risk for heart disease and other cardiovascular problems is clear.
By increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, you are enabling your heart to process other fats more effectively, reducing the impact of inflammation, and promoting healthier heart tissue (9).
While fish oil does not lower your LDL or bad cholesterol, it can raise your HDL or good cholesterol levels.
For those with severe heart problems, fish oil containing omega-3 fatty acids can also improve cardiac function following a heart attack.
Those with a previous occurrence of a heart attack who then took fish oil for six months had reduced inflammation and better cardiac output, suggesting their hearts were healing more efficiently after their heart attack (12).
Even small doses of omega-3 fatty acids can reduce blood pressure in those who have chronic high blood pressure.
These studies showed clinically meaningful results, which means they can be applied to larger populations (13).
Fish oil has the potential to reduce the incidence of heart disease in the US significantly, as it treats many of the underlying causes via its powerful omega-3 fatty acids.
Fish oil holds promise for reducing the inflammation and pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
Clinical studies examined the impact of fish oil and borage oil, which is high in an omega-6 fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
They also studied combination therapies using both oils.
Patients saw improvement in their arthritis symptoms on all treatments after nine months.
Because there was no significant difference between fish oil, borage oil, and combined oil therapy, it is not recommended that you take more than one of these supplements to treat your arthritis pain (14).
Fish oil has also been shown to be as effective as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) pain relievers at treating rheumatoid arthritis pain.
For those with sensitivity to NSAIDs, fish oil could be a safer alternative to treating pain due to arthritic inflammation (15).
Fish oil has been shown to increase the body’s modulation of glucose, benefiting diabetics in many ways (16).
In addition to positive impacts on glucose levels and absorption, fish oil and other omega-3 fatty acids can stave off some of the cognitive effects of long-term diabetes.
Fish oil helps reduce oxidative stress in the body caused by diabetes, promoting healthier cognitive function and improved cardiovascular health (17).
Because diabetes also impacts eye health, researchers have examined the impact of fatty acids on this diabetes complication.
When diabetics regularly ate fatty fish, they were significantly less likely to develop diabetic retinopathy, which is damage to the retinal nerve blood supply caused by high glucose levels (18).
Diabetics can, therefore, enjoy several benefits from supplemental fish oil to treat not only their high blood glucose but also to mitigate some of the long-term effects of Type 2 diabetes.
There is growing evidence that one of the contributors to the increasing incidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the US is the low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the traditional western diet.
ADHD, developmental problems, and other mental health disorders are believed to be influenced by the lack of this vital component in modern diets (19).
Because the brain is comprised mainly of fats, it is believed fish oil affects brain function in many ways (20).
When children with ADHD were studied to measure the effects of traditional ADHD therapies compared to supplemental omega-3 and omega-6 therapy, researchers were able to measure significant improvement in the group treated with omega-3 fatty acids.
The improvement was noted in aggressive behavior, work completion, academic performance, and restlessness (21).
Be sure you talk with your doctor about the correct dosage for children, as it is different than that for adults.
Omega-3s and DHA, in particular, have been shown to influence literacy performance, as well as behavior for children with ADHD.
All of these are hallmark behaviors for children with ADHD, and significant improvement in these areas can mean a real difference in the quality of life for those with this disorder.
The beneficial effects of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have been known for many years.
This includes their ability to help fight and even prevent several different types of cancer, including prostate, colon, and breast cancers.
Omega-3s allow cancer-fighting medications to work more effectively and have also been used as a natural therapy in cancer treatment.
There is evidence to show that omega-3 fatty acids like those found in fish oil inhibit the growth of prostate cancer cells.
Not only do omega-3s directly impact tumor cell growth, but these fatty acids also provide anti-inflammatory effects which benefit the immune system, helping your body fight cancer more efficiently.
Research has supported these effects both in animals and in humans, giving promise for prostate cancer treatment and prevention (22).
Researchers in India have demonstrated that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil help enhance the effects of chemotherapy and other cancer-fighting drugs used to treat colon cancer.
The fish oil seemed to help the drugs work more efficiently, while also decreasing the adverse side effects of the toxic medications.
Those who took fish oil along with the traditional colon cancer treatment had a higher survival rate than those who used traditional therapies alone (23).
The prevention and treatment of breast cancer have also been the focus for omega-3 fatty acid therapies.
Omega-3s, including EPA, DHA, and ALA, inhibit breast tumor development.
When combined with traditional therapies, it can be an effective treatment for breast cancer, the most common type of cancer in women (24).
Those with diets high in fatty fish during early adulthood and midlife have a decreased risk of developing breast cancer, as well (25).
Evidence also supports a reduced risk of endometrial cancer for women whose took fish oil, or who included these omega-3 fatty acids in their diet (26).
While the metabolic processes that govern depression are not fully known, there is substantial evidence to show that those who suffer from major depressive disorders are often low in omega-3 or very high in omega-6 fatty acids.
These findings are not only accurate for young and middle-aged adults, but also for older adults.
In all subjects, a low concentration of omega-3s, along with a high concentration of omega-6s, was heavily correlated with severity of depression symptoms as well as the frequency of depressive episodes (28).
The power of omega-3 fatty acids like those in fish oil on depression symptoms has also been observed in adolescents who have experienced major depressive disorder.
When teens were given supplemental fish oil researchers noted a decrease in depression symptoms, as well as marked changes in the makeup of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex (29).
When studying the effects of supplemental fish oil on the behaviors associated with depression and anxiety, researchers have noted a marked improvement in many clinical trials.
Fish oil could, therefore, be an effective and natural treatment for reducing feelings of anxiety.
Asthma and Allergies
Asthma, which is caused by inflammation and swelling in the airways, is common among adults and children.
Many who suffer from allergies, both seasonal and chronic, also suffer from asthma.
Researchers have examined the impact of supplemental fish oil on asthma and allergy symptoms.
When you consider that asthma is an inflammatory disease, it seems logical that reducing dietary inflammation can reduce asthma symptoms.
Fish oil has been shown to be effective at reducing asthma symptoms, most likely because it restores the internal balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (31).
Mothers who eat a diet rich in fatty acids or who take fish oil supplements are less likely to have children with asthma or allergies, as well (32).
When children are given fish oil at young ages, they are also less likely to develop asthma or allergy symptoms (33).
More research is needed better to understand the impact of omega-3 supplementation on young children, and its impact on asthma and allergies.
In addition to providing benefits for eye disorders related to diabetes, fish oil can also have a positive impact on all types of eye disorders, including those associated with aging.
Analysis of patients’ nutrition levels has revealed that those with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids are less likely to have age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and more likely to have reduced levels of cataracts (34).
If you are at high risk for AMD or for developing cataracts, supplemental fish oil or higher dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids could help save your vision and prevent age-related sight issues.
Healthy Immune System
When you boost your immune system, you are more able to resist all types of diseases, including everyday colds, flu, and cough.
Your body responds to bacteria, trauma, and other problems through various responses from your immune system.
One of those responses is inflammation, which sends needed blood to an area to help protect it from harm.
Your immune system releases cytokines and eicosanoids as a part of its inflammatory response.
Because these two immune signaling agents require omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to work correctly, when you are low in one of these, your immune response is not optimal.
Research in animals indicates that supplemental omega-3s aid in the immune response and promote cell growth and rejuvenation (35).
When antioxidants are combined with fish oil, there is a more significant impact on the immune system overall.
The fish oil boosts the immune response, as well as reduces the cardiovascular risk for the patient.
Taking a fish oil supplement that contains an antioxidant can have critical healing effects, then.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Those suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) are very likely to have low levels of serum omega-3 fatty acids.
Whether it is because they cannot process fatty acids correctly, their diets are low in these essential fats, or other factors, those with CFS benefit from supplemental fish oil (36).
While there is no clear cause for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), research regarding the use of omega-3 fatty acids to treat CFS has yielded positive results.
Those who took fish oil or another supplemental omega-3 fatty acid reported significantly improved symptoms, including less fatigue and better sleep (37).
In some trials, as many as 85% of those with CFS reported significant improvement in their overall symptoms after taking fish oil for just six weeks (38).
For a disease with no known cure and few medical treatments, those are important results.
Fertility and Pregnancy
Omega-3 fatty acids play a role in fertility for both men and women and can be very beneficial for women who are pregnant.
DHA, part of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, improves the health and motility of sperm.
Men with low levels of DHA in their blood have decreased fertility (39).
DHA has even been shown in animal trials to change the shape of sperm from round to cone-headed shapes, making them more likely to penetrate eggs.
Women’s fertility is also affected by omega-3 fatty acid levels.
Because omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help balance hormones, they can regulate the menstrual cycle, promoting regular ovulation and improved fertility.
Fish oil and other sources of omega-3s have also been shown to be helpful in treating endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), both of which cause infertility in women (40).
Because a woman’s nutritional needs are increased during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, it is even more important that she receive sufficient omega-3 fatty acids during this critical developmental period.
Because most women are already deficient in DHA and EPA before getting pregnant, and because pregnancy depletes your body’s stores of omega-3s, getting sufficient fatty acids throughout pregnancy is crucial.
The placenta supplies omega-3 to the fetus, which is a necessary building block for the baby’s nervous system, eyes, and brain.
It is therefore important the mother has sufficient nutrition to supply not only her needs but also those of the developing child.
Omega-3 fatty acids and DHA can decrease the risk of premature birth and promote healthy labor and delivery.
Supplemental omega-3 fatty acids, along with Vitamin D, have been shown to produce positive results for mother and child (41).
New mothers with low levels of omega-3s are also much more likely to suffer from postpartum depression, so maintaining proper levels before, during, and after pregnancy is important for her ongoing mental health and wellness (42).
In addition to the many other benefits already described due to fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids, this nutritional powerhouse can also help you manage and even lose weight and control the size of your waist.
Because Omega-3s help you to return your body to the proper balance it needs, when combined with regular exercise, fish oil reduces body fat, improves your overall metabolic function, and improves your heart health.
Those with an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are more likely to be obese, and correcting this imbalance is the first step toward better weight management (43).
The addition of supplemental fish oil to a regular exercise regimen decreases triglycerides, raises good cholesterol, and improves blood flow.
All these improve your risk factors for cardiovascular disease and help you control your weight (44).
Hair and Skin
The DHA and EPA found in omega-3 fatty acids like fish oil help your body to retain moisture, allow for even distribution of fat-soluble vitamins throughout your body, and promote healthy hair and skin.
Without omega-3 fatty acids, your hair and skin will become dry, flaky, brittle, and dull.
Deficiency in these essential omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to disorders such as eczema, psoriasis, dandruff, thinning hair, age spots, and sunspots.
By moisturizing your hair and skin from the inside with proper amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, you are providing these cells and tissue with the necessary building blocks for proper cell nutrition, as well as to deal with the environmental factors they encounter every day.
Those who take fish oil show significant improvement in their eczema symptoms after 12 weeks.
By reducing the inflammation in the body that causes eczema, you are treating this skin problem from the inside out.
When children are introduced to fish early and eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, they are less likely to develop eczema, as well (45).
If you have psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis, you have an elevated risk of developing heart disease.
Taking omega-3 fatty acids like fish oil can reduce your risk of this deadly disease, as well as decrease the inflammatory response from it (46).
Inflammation reduction is the most significant benefit of omega-3s to hair and skin.
If you have problems caused by inflammatory diseases, or if your skin is inflamed from sunburn or other irritants, making sure you are taking your fish oil supplement will be important for controlling the inflammation and returning your skin and hair to its healthy state (47).
Fish Oil Nutritional Facts
The nutritional value of fish oil varies by the product and source from which it is obtained.
You should always read the label of any supplement to learn the specific details of your fish oil supplement.
In general, the most substantial nutritional benefit of fish oil is its omega-3 fatty acid content.
One teaspoon of fish oil contains approximately:
- 40 calories;
- 4-5 grams of fat;
- 15 IUs of Vitamin D;
- 1,000 milligrams omega-3 fatty acids;
- 100 milligrams omega-6 fatty acids.
How much of these nutrients you need daily depends on your age, gender, size, and other factors.
The Basics of Fish Oil Supplements
The best way to get more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet is to eat at last 12 ounces per week of wild-caught fatty fish such as salmon.
If you can’t get the right balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids with the foods you eat, taking a fish oil supplement is the next best alternative.
Because you cannot guarantee the safety of many fish these days, eating a sufficient amount of fish that is also healthy for you can be tricky, so taking fish oil is another way to ensure proper nutrition.
Supplementing your diet with an antioxidant fortified fish oil supplement can help you achieve the proper ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids your body needs to be healthy.
Current recommendations for daily omega-3 needs range from 500 to 1,000 milligrams.
For reference, a small serving of wild-caught salmon has about 500 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids.
With fish oil supplements, remember that more is not better.
Your goal is to balance your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, not create a different sort of imbalance.
The most scientifically-studied dosage for daily omega-3 is 1,000 mg, so that is a good starting point.
If you choose to take more than this dosage, please talk with your doctor before taking any supplements.
Remember also that the quality of your fish oil is just as important as the quantity.
Look for supplements from reputable suppliers and producers to ensure their safety and purity.
The addition of an antioxidant such as astaxanthin can have beneficial effects in addition to the omega-3s, as well.
One consideration with fish oil supplements is that they are very prone to oxidation, which can make them go rancid.
Choosing a fish oil supplement that includes an antioxidant, like Vitamin E or astaxanthin, can help them stay fresher longer.
If you store your supplements so they are protected from light and heat, preferably in the refrigerator, you will keep them fresher longer.
Never take fish oil supplements that smell foul or are past their expiration date.
Taking supplemental fish oil is a great way to improve your heart health, protect against other diseases, and treat many medical conditions you may already have.
If you are not interested in taking fish oil as a supplement, ensure your diet is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids, including EPA and DHA, which have been proven to have beneficial medical effects.
Fish Oil and Prostate Cancer
A study was published in 2013 that suggested there may be a connection between fish oil and prostate cancer.
The research, which was posted by the National Cancer Institute, raised many concerns over the safety of fish oil supplements, especially for men (48).
It is important to understand the methods used in this study.
Of the more than 2000 men studied, there was noted a higher risk for prostate cancer among those who took the largest doses of fish oil.
In many instances, the men being studied were taking what could be described as mega-doses of fish oil, exceeding the recommended dosages in many instances.
Remember how the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 is important?
If these men were taking amounts of fish oil that tipped their ratio far in favor of omega-3s in their bodies, that has a profound impact on the immune system.
The results could indicate that an imbalance in omega-3s over omega-6s has negative effects on the immune system.
The real lesson from the 2013 study is that too much of a good thing is exactly that.
Be sure to follow your doctor’s recommendations when it comes to any medication dosage, including those for nutritional supplements.
Omega-3s and omega-6s are meant to work together to support healthy function.
When either is too high, it impacts the others’ ability to keep you healthy.
Since omega-3 suppresses inflammation, which can be an important function of your immune system when it is under attack, an imbalance would have real consequences on your body’s ability to fight cancer or any disease.
This study is an important reminder always to understand the recommended dosages for any supplements, and not to exceed those unless advised by your physician.
Precautions, Interactions, and Side Effects
If you do not eat enough fatty fish as a part of your diet, taking a fish oil substitute can be an excellent way to improve your levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Quality supplements will help to reduce many of the known side effects of fish oil supplements, which include bad breath, heartburn, burping, loose stools, nausea, nosebleeds, and rash.
Always take fish oil supplements with food that contains a small amount of fat to reduce these side effects, and talk with your doctor if you experience other or more severe side effects after taking fish oil.
It is recommended that you speak with your physician about taking fish oil if you have diabetes, have had a stroke, are on blood thinners, have an ongoing health problem, or are allergic to fish or shellfish.
They will be able to advise you about dosage and possible risks.
Fish oil acts as a natural blood thinner, so if you take blood thinners, bruise easily, or have a bleeding disorder, fish oil may increase your bleeding risk.
Fish oil has also been known to increase fasting blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
For these reasons, if you are under a doctor’s care for any of these or other chronic disorders, talk with your doctor before starting fish oil supplements.
You may be concerned about the unwanted or unhealthy contaminants sometimes found in fish oil.
This includes mercury, pesticides, and hydrogenated oils.
To avoid these and other unhealthy ingredients in your supplements, you can focus on these criteria when selecting a supplement.
- Look for a supplement with an antioxidant, such as astaxanthin, which stabilizes the oil and prevents it from going rancid.
- Purchase your supplements from a reputable manufacturer.
- Be sure your manufacturer tests their products for harmful contaminants. Ask if they use third-party testing and if they can produce certificates of analysis.
- Read labels carefully.
The benefits of taking supplemental fish oil are numerous, as is changing your diet to reduce your intake of omega-6 fatty acids.
When you correct an imbalance in the ratio between these essential fats, you can enjoy many benefits and health improvements.
Here are some important reminders regarding the use of fish oil for your health.
- Because our bodies cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, you must get them from the food you eat. If you do not regularly eat fatty fish, you should take a high-quality fish oil supplement to meet your nutritional needs.
- Be sure your fish oil supplements come from a reputable manufacturer who uses strict standards and tests their products thoroughly. Make sure they test for mercury and other harmful contaminants.
- Many of the negative side effects of fish oil supplements can be avoided by taking them with food.
- Fish oil has been shown not only to treat many diseases, but also prevent them.
- Medical research continues to support the understanding that fish oil has many health benefits.
- Fish oil has been shown to help treat and prevent diseases such as cardiovascular disease, depression, cancer, diabetes, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and much more.
- Taking fish oil, as a part of a healthy diet and active lifestyle, can help you live longer and be healthier.
Considering all the positive influences fish oil can have on your body and overall health, you may ask yourself why aren’t you taking it already?
If you are in doubt, talk to your physician about fish oil’s proven benefits, and consider adding it to your regimen soon.