Fish oil is often recommended as part of a healthy diet because it contains the omega-3 fatty acids. It has become very popular and is widely used especially in the form of supplements. We hear a lot of things regarding the consumption of fish oil. As a matter of fact, experts remain divided on their opinions about fish oil supplements.
Let’s explore what studies reveal regarding the effects of fish oil on the body, and the safety of eating fish or taking fish oil supplements on a regular basis. Is fish oil really good for you? Are there other options to get your omega-3s?
The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids
Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown in research to hold numerous health benefits.
These Omega-3 fatty acids – called eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) – are vital nutrients and do a lot of different things.
According to Medline Plus a service of the US National Library of Medicine, the intake of recommended amounts of DHA and EPA in the form of dietary fish or fish oil supplements:
- lowers blood triglyceride levels
- reduces the risk of heart attack and dangerous abnormal heart rhythms
- reduces the risk of strokes
- slows the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques
- lowers blood pressure
Omega-3 fatty acids play a very important role with the function of our bodies and are used for a wide range of conditions.
Importance of omega-3s for brain power and memory
Researchers have found positive associations between fish oil supplements and cognitive functioning.
It is believed that a diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids may cause the brain to age faster and lose some of its memory and thinking abilities.
DHA plays a very important role during fetal development, as well as early infancy and old age. High concentrations of DHA are found in the brain and increases 300-500% in an infant’s brain during the last trimester of pregnancy!
Indeed adding DHA to a pregnant mothers diet may be beneficial for the fetus’ brain development.
What fish oil does in terms of inflammation
Omega-3 fatty acids have a reputation as potent anti-inflammatory agents.
Fish oil is widely believed to help prevent disease by reducing inflammation.
Has fish oil anti-cancer effects?
Several studies report possible anti-cancer effects of Omega−3 fatty acids found in fish oil (particularly breast, colon and prostate cancer).
Although some research supports the anti-cancer claims made for omega-3 fatty acids from foods, some does not…
Some studies even show an increase in disease when omega-3 supplements are used. The relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and cancer is not as well known.
Effect of fish oil on mental stress and depression
Taking fish oil pills seemed to be protective against the effects of mental stress on the heart, particularly heart rate and muscle sympathetic nerve activity.
Also, fish oil supplements may help ease symptoms of depression in some people. A few studies in adults suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial in the treatment of mild to moderate depression.
However, studies using fish oil as the primary treatment for severe depression haven’t been done.
Fish oil may help prevent skin cancer
A study by dermatology researchers at Hope Hospital in Manchester, England, revealed that oily fish in our diets helps prevent skin cancer.
Essential fatty acids protect the skin against the DNA damage that can cause skin cancer.
There is some evidence that administering fish oil intravenously (by IV) can decrease severe psoriasis symptoms.
But taking fish oil by mouth doesn’t seem to have any effect on psoriasis.
In fact most studies on the intake of Omega-3 for chronic skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis do not provide enough reliable evidence to form a clear conclusion.
Fatty predatory fish like mackerel, lake trout, flounder, albacore tuna and salmon may be high in omega-3 fatty acids, but due to their position at the top of the food chain, these species can accumulate toxic substances.
So can we still say it’s healthy to eat fish?
If you decide to eat fish, try to limit your consumption of fish species that are at the top of the food chain to avoid high mercury exposure.
The concern with regularly eating high-mercury fish is that the metal can build up in your body and lead to health problems such as birth defects in newborns, learning disabilities in children and even diabetes in adults.
Are fish oil supplements safe?
Instead of consuming fish every day, taking a fish oil supplement on a regular basis appears to be a safer choice nowadays.
A report by researchers at Harvard Medical School and at Massachusetts General Hospital studied five popular brands of fish oil, including Nordic Ultimate, Kirkland and CVS.
They found that the brands had negligible amounts of mercury, suggesting either that mercury is removed during the manufacturing of purified fish oil or that the fish sources used in these commercial preparations are relatively mercury-free.
Fish oil is primarily EPA and DHA, both of which are extremely unsaturated. The greater the degree of unsaturation, the greater the propensity to go rancid.
When these oils go rancid, they convert to harmful oxidized fats called lipid peroxides which can damage fatty cellular membranes.
How to avoid fish oil to go rancid?
Keep your capsules in glass bottles because they are impervious to air, and put the glass bottle in the refrigerator. The cold will markedly slow down the oxidation process even if a little air gets in the bottle.
High doses of fish oil may have harmful effects, such as an increased risk of bleeding. It is believed that the 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.
High doses of fish oil might also reduce the immune system’s activity, reducing the body’s ability to fight infection. This is a special concern for people taking medications to reduce their immune system’s activity (organ transplant patients, for example) and the elderly.
Fish oil can do good things for your body when taken in recommended amounts. This is why you should ask your practitioner for safe dosage depending on your condition.
However there is no magic pill that fixes a bad diet. A healthy balanced diet is paramount.
There are also studies that show the benefits of omega 3 oils are actually based on eating fish not pills… When you eat fish, you also get the benefits of fish fats, minerals, vitamins, and other supporting molecules.
But the safety of eating fish is questionable.
Luckily there are some options for people who don’t want to eat fish. While fish is the most common dietary source, there are vegetarian ways to get your omega-3s.
Ground chia seeds, flax seed oil, algae, Omega–3 eggs (produced by hens fed a diet containing flaxseed) or walnuts are healthy sources that you can easily incorporate in your diet.
Note: The body may have difficulties to transform omega-3 from plant sources to EPA and DHA. But most healthy people can eat omega-3 from plant sources, and it will be transformed into EPA and DHA.
Plant sources of omega-3 are very beneficial and definitely safer options to consider nowadays!
Tell us what you think about fish oil and leave a comment below!