According to research conducted at Harvard University omega-3 fatty acid deficiency is officially one of the top 10 causes of death in America claiming the lives of up to 96,000 people each each year. Out of the 12 dietary, lifestyle and metabolic risk factors examined in the study, omega-3 fatty acid deficiency ranked as the sixth highest killer of Americans. (1) These deaths are considered preventable since getting enough omega 3-fatty acids in your diet can ward off this now common cause of death.
The benefits of fish oil’s omega-3s include decreasing the risk of heart disease and stroke while also helping to reduce symptoms of depression, hypertension, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain, arthritis, and chronic skin ailments like eczema. (2) Fish oil has even been proven to aid the body in weight loss, fertility, pregnancy, healthy skin and increased energy. Prescription fish oil has even been approved by the FDA to lower unhealthy triglyceride levels. (3)
Most of the health benefits of fish oil are because it is one of natures’ richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids. While fish oil benefits are numerous there are some false claims on how to use this incredible supplement, but in this article we will go over the proven scientific evidence to demonstrate the true benefits of fish oil.
What Is Fish Oil?
Fish oil comes from the tissues of oily fish. It can come from fish themselves or a fish oil supplement. Fish oil is a concentrated source of omega-3 fats like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Some of the best fish to eat to obtain fish oil from your diet include wild caught salmon, herring, white fish, sardines, and anchovies.
Fish Oil Nutritional Background
The main nutritional value of fish oil is its high fatty acid content. Fish oil is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids known as DHA and EPA.
For example, 1 teaspoon (4 grams) of fish oil from sardines contains approximately: (4)
- 40.6 calories
- 4.5 grams fat (1.5 grams saturated fat)
- 0 milligrams sodium
- 0 grams fiber
- 0 grams sugar
- 0 grams protein
- 14.9 international units vitamin D (4 percent DV)
- 1084 milligrams omega-3 fatty acids (DV varies by age and gender)
- 90.6 milligrams omega-6 fatty acids (DV varies by age and gender)
Nutritional information will vary by product and fish source. Check supplement labeling for specific details.
Omega-3 Deficiency Side Effects
Many of Americans’ health problems can be traced back to having an imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Omega-6 fats aren’t necessarily bad for you, but if they are consumed in large amounts without omega-3’s they cause inflammation which leads to chronic illness.
Today, the average American has a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, when a healthy ratio is more ideally around 2:1. Put in other numerical terms, the typical American diet tends to contain 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. (4) This shows just how deficient most of us are and why supplementing with fish oil is so beneficial.
The biggest cause of omega-3 deficiency is the overconsumption of foods high in omega-6 fatty acids. Things like fried foods, fast foods and boxed foods that contain vegetables oils like soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil. When you consume too much omega-6, it can decrease your body’s ability to metabolize healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (5)
Research has shown that having a lower ratio of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of many common chronic diseases. Getting enough omega-3, which means having a proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6, has been shown in hundreds of studies to possibly provide benefits to many inflammatory diseases including: (6)
- Autoimmune diseases
- Heart disease
It’s also important to know that even though certain other foods like flaxseeds and grass-fed beef contain omega-3 fats, those omega’s are ALA and not EPA/DHA like what is found in fish oil. According to the medical research there are far more health benefits in fish oil (EPA/DHA) than flax oil (ALA) for most people.
It’s also important to note that omega-6 fatty acids aren’t bad for you. In fact, if your diet contains too many omega-3 fatty acids, your immune system wouldn’t work very well. It’s all about the balance of these two essential fatty acids.
Top 13 Fish Oil Benefits
There are many benefits of fish oil, but there are the top 10 most scientifically proven effects.
Many members of the medical community, like myself, believe that suboptimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related developmental problems as well as many other mental health problems over one’s lifetime. (8)
A 2012 study involved children from 6 to 12 years of age with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who were being treated with methylphenidate and standard behavior therapy for more than 6 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 supplement or a placebo. They found “statistically significant improvement” the omega group in the following categories: restlessness, aggressiveness, completing work, and academic performance. (9) Another study found that increasing omega-3 intake, specifically DHA, may improve literacy and behavior in children with ADHD. (10)
Fish oil is believed to work via its effects on brain function, which makes since when you consider that 60 percent of the brain is composed of fats. (11)
2. Alzheimer’s Disease
For several years now, the fish oil and Alzheimer’s Disease connection has been studied with consistent results: the essential fatty acids vital for brain function that are found in fish oil can not only slow cognitive decline, it can help prevent bran atrophy in older adults. A recent study published in The FASEB Journal looked at the health effects of 4 to 17 month supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Their findings are once again confirming the potential for fish oil to be used as a weapon to fend off the onset of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. (9)
Another study conducted by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital examined the relationship between fish oil supplementation and indicators of cognitive decline. The subjects of the study were older adults: 229 cognitively normal individuals; 397 patients with mild cognitive impairment; and 193 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They were assessed with neuropsychological tests and brain magnetic resonance imaging every 6 months while taking fish oil supplements. The study found that the adults taking fish oil, who had not yet developed Alzheimer’s and did not have genetic risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s known as APOE ε4, experienced significantly less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage than adults not taking fish oil. (10)
The European Journal of Neuroscience recently published a 2013 study showing that fish oil reversed all anxiety-like and depression-like behavior changes induced in rats. This is an interesting study because it stresses the importance of supplementing with fish oil at “critical periods of brain development.” (11)
This is why I recommend giving fish oil to our kids from early on to help them so that they will not develop anxiety or depression later in life! Of course, the amounts are lower for children.
An 18 month long study was published this year, which evaluated how borage seed oil – rich in GLA – and fish oil rich fared up against each other in treating patients with rheumatoid arthritis. It was discovered that all three groups (1 taking fish oil, 1 taking borage seed, and 1 taking a combination of the two) “exhibited significant reductions” in disease activity and no therapy outperformed the others. For all three, “meaningful clinical responses” were the same after 9 months. (12)
This is great news for both fish and borage oil when it comes to arthritis patients, but it’s critical to emphasize that the results were the same because taking too many supplements are simply a waste of money.
Fish oil has been found to help prevent and kill various cancers including colon, prostate and breast. (13) Not only has research proven that it makes conventional cancer drugs more effective, it’s also an effective standalone therapy!
A scientific review published in 2013 looked at omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and prostate cancer prevention. They concluded that there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that omega-3s have antiproliferative effects in cancer cell lines, animal models, and humans. In addition, the “direct effects on cancer cells” and indirect anti-inflammatory effects on the immune system fighting the cancer likely contribute to the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to inhibit tumor growth. (8)
A group out of India conducted a study in Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology based on the premise that recently, “fish oil rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids has been preferred to chemosensitize tumor cells to anti-cancer drugs.” They found that using 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) to treat colorectal cancer along with fish oil increased the survival rate in carcinogen-treated animals. They also found that the fish oil ameliorated hematologic depression, gastrointestinal, hepatic and renal toxicity caused by the 5-FU. (7)
A scientific study recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition finds that “long chain omega-3 intake associated with reduced endometrial cancer risk only in normal-weight women.” (8) A scientific review in 2014 evaluated study findings on omega-3 intake in relation to the prevention and treatment of breast cancer. The review found that EPA and DHA as well as ALA can differentially inhibit breast tumor development. The review also provided evidence for using n-3 PUFA as a nutritional intervention in the treatment of BC to enhance conventional therapeutics, or potentially lowering effective doses.
Overall, in order to provide definitive recommendations, additional human studies are required. Long term studies tracking fish or n-3 PUFA intake are needed to demonstrate a role for n-3 PUFA in prevention. Also, additional clinical trials are needed to evaluate the effect n-3 PUFA on BC outcomes. Nevertheless, evidence does not indicate harm and all forms of n-3 PUFA may be included in a healthy diet.
6. Cardiovascular Disease
According to the Cardiovascular Research Institute in Maastricht in Netherlands, “Epidemiological studies showed that replacing fat by carbohydrate may even be worse and that various polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA) have beneficial rather than detrimental effects on CVD outcome.” This includes, they continue, fish-oil fatty acids with anti-inflammatory properties, which can help prevent and reverse a plethora of cardiovascular diseases. (9)
Studies have also found that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are associated with improved survival rates for heart attack victims. A study published in the medical journal Circulation found that people who took a high dose of fish oil each for six months following the occurrence of a heart attack actually improved their hearts’ overall functioning and also reduced biomarkers of systemic inflammation. (10)
We’ve already seen that fish oil can help with depression-like symptoms in rats, but what about people? A study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience published evaluated the effects of fish oil supplementation on prefrontal metabolite concentrations in adolescents with major depressive disorder. There was a 40% decrease in major depression disorder symptoms in addition to marked improvements in amino acid and nutrition content in the brain; specifically, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. (11)
A study published in Brain Research shows how far-reaching fish oil can be for people with diabetes. Researches found that fish oil can help reduce the risk of diabetics from developing cognitive deficit because it protects the hippocampus cells from destroying. The study also showed that fish oil could help reduce oxidative stress, which plays a central role in the development of diabetes complications, both microvascular and cardiovascular. (12)
Another recent study shows that fatty fish consumption can cut the risk of eye-diabetes complications. The researches tracked the seafood consumption of about 3,600 diabetic men and women between the ages of 55 and 80 for nearly five years. The researchers found that people who regularly consumed 500 milligrams each day of omega-3 fatty acid in their diets (equal to two servings of fatty fish per week) were 48 percent less likely to develop diabetic retinopathy than those who consumed less. (10)
9. Eye Disorders
Fish oil has been shown to reverse dry eye, age-related eye disorders like cataracts. This past March, French researchers evaluated 290 patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and they discovered that dietary oil fish and seafood intake were significantly lower in AMD patients. Due to the high EPA and DHA levels, it was concluded that people at risk for neovascular AMD should take fish oil supplements.
10. Immune System Function
A recent animal study has shown that when the antioxidant astaxanthin is combined with fish oil, the immune boosting power is multiplied. The researchers believe that the results of this study are definitely applicable to human health. They conclude that the study reinforces the health-promoting effects of habitual fish consumption. (9)
Salmon is a fish that naturally contains both fish oil and astaxanthin. I also recommending buying a fish oil supplement that contains astaxanthin.
11. Skin & Hair
The health benefits of fish oil can be incredible for the body’s largest organ, the skin. This source of essential fats improve the health and beauty of human skin in several ways. They nourish the skin with fats and contribute fat soluble vitamins that help skin maintain a smooth, elastic texture. There is also evidence that fish oil prevents wrinkles and work against the aging process.
The deficiency of EPA and DHA in diet contributes to skin conditions such as dandruff, thinning hair, eczema and psoriasis, as well as age spots and sun spots. Without the essential fatty acids, too much moisture leaves the skin. The truth is, your internal health can appear on your skin and taking fish oil internally as a supplement may be as good as or better than applying conventional moisturizers.
In one study, individuals taking fish oil equivalent to 1.8 grams of EPA had a significant reduction in symptoms of eczema after 12 weeks. Researchers believe that these effects may be due to fish oil’s ability to reduce leukotriene B4, an inflammatory substance that plays a role in eczema. (14)
One of the biggest reasons fish oil leads to healthier skin is definitely the fact that it can reduce inflammation. Research has shown that fish oil supplements can even reduce sun-induced inflammation. “The sunburn response is markedly reduced by dietary fish oil rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.” (15)
12. Fertility and Pregnancy
Recent studies have shown that the consumption of fish oil (or, more specifically, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) can improve fertility in both men and women. DHA, which is a byproduct of omega-3 fatty acids, play a key role in the mobility of sperm and health of sperm in men. Low blood levels of DHA have been linked to decreased fertility. Animal studies have found that the DHA in fish is vital to changing dysfunctional round-headed sperm into strong swimmers with cone-shaped heads packed with egg-opening proteins. (12)
Fish oil has also been shown to increase fertility in women by reducing inflammation, balancing hormones and regulating their cycles. Also, fish oil has been found effective in treating conditions like PCOS and endometriosis which can cause infertility.
Fish oil is also extremely beneficial for pregnant women and their children. Throughout pregnancy and also while breastfeeding, a woman’s omega-3 needs are even higher than usual. According to the American Pregnancy Association, most U.S. women are deficient in EPA and especially DHA going into pregnancy, and will get even more depleted during pregnancy, as the placenta supplies the fetus with DHA from the mother’s tissue. Omega-3 DHA is a critical building block of the fetal brain, eyes, and nervous system. Once the baby is born, omega-3s continue to be vital to healthy brain development and immune function. (13)
Omega-3 fatty acids also seem to reduce the chance of premature delivery. (14) EPA and DHA intake can help to support healthy labor and delivery outcomes. This omega-3 duo also and help to normalize mood and overall well-being in the mother after giving birth.
13. Weight Loss
Australian researchers published results of a study examining the effects of fish oil on weight loss in combination with diet and exercise in the May 2007 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The results show that a combination of fish oil supplements and regular exercise can reduce body fat while also improving heart and metabolic health. The fish supplementation group had lowered triglycerides, increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and improved blood flow. Overall, adding fish oil to a current exercise program (and a overall healthy lifestyle) looks like it can decrease body fat as well as cardiovascular disease risk. (15)
Another small study had all volunteers consume the same exact control diet and substituted fish oil for visible fats (things like butter and cream). The volunteers consumed 6 grams of fish oil each day for three weeks. They found that body fat mass decreased with the intake of fish oil. The researches conclude that dietary fish oil reduces body fat and stimulates the use of fatty acids for the production of energy in healthy adults. (16)
If you’ve been wondering “what does fish oil do?”, hopefully you now have a better idea of the large array of possible fish oil benefits.
How to Take Fish Oil Supplements
Your best way to achieve a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 b is by getting your fish oil from wild caught fish like salmon. However, I still think it is beneficial for some to supplement with a high quality omega 3 fish oil or cold liver oil. Plus, cold water fish are frequently contaminated with mercury and pesticide residues, making it very difficult to safely achieve recommended levels.
Therefore, supplementing your diet with pure anti-oxidant rich fish oil can be one of the best ways to get your omega 3s. The types of fish which are most commonly used in fish oil supplements are salmon, cod liver, mackerel, sardines, halibut, pollock and herring.
Currently, there isn’t a set standard recommendation for how many omega-3s we need each day, but suggestions range from a fish oil dosage of 500 to 1,000 milligrams daily depending on whom you ask. How easy is it to get these recommended amounts? To give you an idea, there are more than 500 milligrams of total omega-3s in one can of tuna fish and one small serving of wild-caught salmon.
When taking fish oil, more is not always better. Remember that you want it to stay in a balanced ratio with omega-6 fats. For most people, I recommend a 1,000 milligram dose of fish oil daily as a good amount and the most scientifically studied dosage. I highly recommend not taking more than that unless directed to under the supervision of a doctor.
Also, not all fish oils are created equal. Most fish oils are highly processed and can oxidize easily because omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated, have a low heat threshold and can easily go rancid. For that reason, you will want to buy a fish oil in triglyceride form that also contains anti-oxidants to preserve them like astaxanthin or essential oils.
To improve the health of your heart, brain, skin, hair, body and much much more, consider adding fish oil to your daily supplement regime or consume wild caught fish daily. If you’re adverse to fish oil pills, make sure to get at least two servings of fatty fish each week to fulfill your omega-3 needs. This is a recommendation also encouraged by The American Heart Association. (18)
Does Fish Oil Cause Prostate Cancer?!
Back in 2013, a study came out that made a lot of people concerned about fish oil supplements and cancer. The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, showed that men who consume the largest amount of fish oil had a 71 percent higher risk of (high-grade) prostate cancer and a 43 percent increase in all types of prostate cancer. The study was conducted on 2,227 men of which 38% of the men already had prostate cancer. (15)
According to researcher Theodore Brasky from the Ohio State University Medical Center, “These fish oil supplements in which some men are getting mega, mega doses, in our opinion is probably a little bit dangerous.” (16)
What is a “mega-dose”? The American Heart Association considers taking up to 3 grams of fish oil per day “safe”. They advise that “patients taking more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from capsules should do so only under a physician’s care”.(17) Most physicians would say that taking 2+ grams (or 2,000+ milligram) daily is a mega dose.
So do I think you should stop taking your fish oil immediately because of this study? No. But should you take a look at how much fish oil you take and what brand you take? Yes, definitely.
The reason why fish oil could increase a man’s risk of prostate cancer is IMBALANCE. Like I said earlier, omega-6 fatty acids aren’t bad for you. In fact, if your diet contains too many omega-3 fatty acids, your immune system wouldn’t work very well because omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are meant to work in a system of checks and balances. Omega-3 fatty acids suppress inflammation and omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation which actually supports your bodies natural system of defense like activating your white blood cells.
So, if you consume too many omega-3 fats (EPA/DHA) you can actually weaken your immune system, which would encourage rather than ward off cancer. So I take this study to be a very good example of why more is not more when it comes to supplements and you should be cautious not to overdo it with fish oil or any other supplement.
Fish Oil Side Effects, Interactions & Precautions
If you’re not able to get enough fish oil in your diet then fish oil supplements can be a good option. Fish oil side effects can include belching, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, loose stools, rash, and nosebleeds. In my experience, taking a high quality fish oil supplement can reduce the likelihood of any unwanted side effects. It’s also a good idea to take fish oil with meals to reduce side effects.
Before taking fish oil, you should speak with your doctor if you are currently taking any medication or have any ongoing health concerns. You should also speak to your doctor before taking fish oil if you have a known allergy to fish or shellfish.
If you have a bleeding disorder, bruise easily, or take blood-thinning medications then you should use fish oil supplements with extra caution since large doses of omega-3 fatty acids can increase bleeding risk. This bleed risk also applies to people with no history of a bleeding disorder or current medication usage. If you have type 2 diabetes, you should only use fish oil supplements under your doctor’s supervision. Individuals with type 2 diabetes can experience increases in fasting blood sugar levels while taking fish oil supplements. (20)
My estimate is that close to 90% of fish oils on the market today may contain mercury and pesticide residues plus hydrogenated oils. Of course, this is my opinion based on my own research from visiting different manufacturing plants, interviewing companies and studying the research and the listed ingredients of typical fish oils. I would stay away from ALL fish oils that do not have antioxidants like astaxanthin which help stabilize the oil from going rancid. I look for astaxanthin as part of any high quality fish oil supplement.
To avoid fish oil supplements containing mercury or other harmful contaminants, purchase supplements from a reputable source that clearly tests for these health hazardous contaminants in its products. These tests should be conducted by a third-party and a certificate of analysis should indicate the levels of purity from environmental toxins.
- The best fish oil supplement will always be one that is manufactured under strict standards with thorough testing for health hazardous contaminants like mercury.
- Post-supplementation “fish burps” can be avoided by consuming fish oil with food.