What separates fish oil from all the other supplements out there? It’s jam-packed full of omega-3 fatty acids which our bodies need because it can’t make them itself. This is why you’ll hear them called “essential” fatty acids – the human diet needs it in order to promote healthy brain function as well as the growth, development and repair jobs that the body carries out constantly.
Cod liver oil supplements have been around since the 19th century, but what does modern science tell us about fish oil now?
In this article we’ll talk you through exactly what fish oil is, the research behind it, the potential benefits and dangers of fish oil supplements and how much fish oil you should aim for, so that you can make the informed decision as to whether or not it is right for you. Let’s get started.
1) What is Fish Oil?
Table of Contents
- 1 1) What is Fish Oil?
- 2 2) It Can Reduce Your Risk of Coronary Heart Disease
- 3 3) It Can Boost Your Athletic Performance
- 4 4) It Can Help You Lose Weight
- 5 5) It Can Lower Your Blood Pressure
- 6 6) It Can Fight Depression and Anxiety
- 7 7) It Can Be Good for Your Joints
- 8 8) What Do the Studies Say?
- 9 10) Are Fish Oil Supplements Right for You?
The two key fatty acids that should make up a part of your diet are omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-6 can be found in oils like sunflower, palm, rapeseed and soybean, but it’s omega-3 that we’re concerning ourselves with today: the fatty acid found in certain nut and plant oils, but primarily in fish oil.
Oily and fatty fish tends to have the highest concentration of omega-3s. These include:
We’ve outlined that getting the right level of omega-3s in your diet is essential for the brain and the body, but it’s where deficiencies in omega-3 come in that really hits home. Cardiovascular diseases, arthritis and mood disorders have all been linked to a deficiency in omega-3. It’s easy to see why fish oil supplements are so popular. Indeed, the University of California has found that around 10% of Americans take fish oil supplements, making it the third most popular supplement after calcium and the multivitamin.
They are promoted and advertised as a convenient and easy way of improving mental health and brain function, fight inflammation and keep your heart healthy, but let’s look at 6 of the main health benefits of omega-3 (minus the advertisement-speak).
2) It Can Reduce Your Risk of Coronary Heart Disease
Studies and scientific reviews have found that individuals with low levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are more likely to encounter coronary heart disease and failure later in life. It is believed that consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acid or taking fish oil supplements can promote healthy levels of EPA and DHA and so reducing the number of deaths caused by heart diseases every year.
According to scientists and professors at Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Nutrition and the clinical studies that it looked at, it is believed that omega-3 does this by:
• Lowering blood pressure
• Lowering inflammation
• Reducing the risk for arrhythmias and thrombosis
• Decrease the levels of triglycerides and lipoproteins
• Slowing the rate of atherosclerotic plaque build-up
3) It Can Boost Your Athletic Performance
Whilst research remains fairly limited on fish oil’s effects on athletic performance, there is some evidence to suggest that taking a daily capsule or eating plenty of fish or plant-based sources of omega-3 can boost your next workout. Further research is definitely required in this field, but omega-3 has been known to benefit wrestlers’ lungs and, due to fish oil’s ability to reduce inflammation, keep muscles from getting as sore post-workout and speeding up their recovery time.
4) It Can Help You Lose Weight
This is probably the one health benefit of omega-3 we’ve been dying to see: can fish oil become our new weight loss supplement and help us in that quest to lose weight? We know that eating fish can make a great healthy meal alternative, and it seems that it might be the oil in the fish we eat has some part to play in helping us lower our fat mass. Researchers from the University of South Australia have pinned the reasons for this down to improved blood flow during exercise and fish oil’s ability to give the enzymes responsible for transporting fat around our body a friendly nudge to instead use it for energy. We’ll talk more about the study that these researchers conducted in the next section of this article.
5) It Can Lower Your Blood Pressure
We know from Number 1 on our health benefit list that omega-3 can lower blood pressure, making it great for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, but what else does lower blood pressure mean for you? Most studies have only reported a small effect, but every little helps where your health is concerned.
Having high blood pressure — and therefore a lack of oxygenated blood in the body — can manifest itself in a variety of health complications including:
• A brief shortage of blood to the brain can cause miniature strokes, or transient ischemic attacks as they are known
• The weakening of the kidneys which can make them less and less able to remove those nasty toxins from your body
• A decreased blood flow to the sexual organs can cause dysfunction, reduced desire and trouble reaching orgasm
A study carried out by Dr. Ueshima of Shiga University in Japan, which we will explore in the following section of this article, has discovered that omega-3’s effect on blood pressure depends entirely on whether or not the individual is hypertensive, and the amount that they consume.
6) It Can Fight Depression and Anxiety
Although research on fish oil’s effect on depression and anxiety is in it’s early stages, it is providing some promising results. Increasing the amount of fish and omega-3 in the diets of women in particular has found to help alleviate symptoms of depression. One possible reason for this effect might be that as healthy amounts of omega-3 promote normal blood flow to the brain, it also promotes its functioning and helps with everything from memory to reasoning.
7) It Can Be Good for Your Joints
As fish oil helps with your muscles, so too does it help with your joints. Regularly taking fish oil supplementation has found that the anti-inflammatory nature of omega-3s can help with tender joints. Omega-3 has also been used in individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, so by taking fish oil supplements we can go some way in helping to prevent, or at least ease the suffering of, possible arthritis in the future.
Explaining what fish oil is is all very well and good — but how does it stand up against science?
8) What Do the Studies Say?
Let’s look again at each of the health benefits of fish oil and list some of the research that has worked to prove — or, in some cases — disprove them.
1) Reduce Risk of Cardiovascular Disease:
There are conflicting studies on this particular benefit of omega-3. One study finds “strong concordant evidence” that the fatty acids can reduce cardiac-related death, whereas another study found null results and no effect of omega-3 supplementation on cardiovascular mortality.
2) Boost Athletic Performance:
The study on wrestler’s lungs that we mentioned in the above list found that omega-3 supplements improved the pulmonary function of these athletes during and after their intensive training.
3) Promote Weight Loss:
The researchers from the University of South Australia that we also mentioned above found in their study that fish oil, when combined with exercise, dramatically altered its test subjects’ body shape and composition. A 2013 study published in Food & Function has also found that obese individuals supplementing omega-3 fatty acids lost more weight than those taking a placebo, with some reporting a 7% decrease in weight.
4) Lower Blood Pressure:
The study conducted by Dr. Ueshima in 2007 found that omega-3 fatty acid intake contributed to bringing down adverse blood pressure levels in the individuals that it tested from China, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
5) Fight Depression and Anxiety:
A 1999 Harvard study found that patients with a bipolar disorder lasted longer in remission taking fish oil tablets than those that took a placebo. A further study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that although consumption of fish may have an effect on depression in women, they were unable to replicate the same effect in men.
6) Promote Healthy Joints:
A study in the Journal of Rheumatology has found that fish oil concentrate can have a “substantial” effect in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
Now we know how successful clinical trials and research has found fish oil to be, lets take a look at how much is recommended and whether or not it is safe.
9) Dosages and Side Effects
The American Heart Association recommends that fish be eaten a minimum of twice a week for healthy adults over 18 years of age. The World Health Organisation goes further in recommending the levels of EPA and DHA daily intake as around 0.3-0.5g.
If you plan on starting to take fish oil supplements, make sure that you read the bottle carefully when it states its recommended dosage, and never exceed that dosage. Some brands vary in their dosage amounts and ingredients, so make sure you clue yourself up on these supplements before swallowing them down.
Generally, the higher the dosage the bigger the possibility of fish oil having harmful effects, but side effects can happen to anyone at any time. Such effects include:
• Higher levels of the “bad”, or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), cholesterol
• Problems with blood sugar control
• Increased risk of bleeding
• Lower blood pressure
• Vitamin E deficiency
• Vitamin A deficiency
• Vitamin D deficiency
• Mercury poisoning (this is mostly limited to eating fish like swordfish and albacore tuna — there is not a significant risk of mercury poisoning in fish oil supplements)
• Allergic reaction (in individuals sensitive to fish when taking fish-derived supplements, and in individuals sensitive to nuts and seeds when taking plant-derived supplements)
Baring these side effects in mind, who should and who shouldn’t take fish oil supplements?
10) Are Fish Oil Supplements Right for You?
Looking back at the health benefits and side effects for fish oil and omega-3 supplements, it is clear that the individuals that should exact extreme caution or avoid them entirely are individuals with:
• Bleeding disorders, or those taking medication which may increase the likelihood of bleeding
• Hypoglycaemia or diabetes, or those taking medication that may affect blood sugar levels
• Low blood pressure, or those taking medication which may also affect blood pressure
• High levels of cholesterol
• Abnormal heart rhythm
• Liver disease, or those taking medication that may also affect the liver
• Depression and are taking antidepressants
• Arthritis and having it treated
You should, of course, always consult a doctor or healthcare professional before you start any supplement or undergo any change in your lifestyle, diet or exercise regime, so that they can advise you on the best course of action or warn you of any interactions with current medications or health problems.
If you’re vegan, don’t like fish, or are simply struggling to get the right about of fish oil in your diet by natural means — don’t panic. Omega-3 can also be found in the following plant-based products:
• Chia seeds,
• Pumpkin seeds,
• Flaxseed, and
Of course, actually eating the foods and getting your omega-3 and vitamin fix is not only the most delicious way, but the best way. By eating whole foods you’re treating your body to the vitamins and minerals that come with it and not just the isolated EP and DH acids. The same goes for all the supplements on the market — fresh fruits, vegetables, sources of protein from food, and whole grains are more likely to contain the mix of nutrients your body needs to perform well.
Until such time as a definitive clinical study proves that the only health benefits of eating these foods comes down entirely to their omega-3 fatty acids, the only safe and effective strategy for a healthy lifestyle is a good, balanced diet and regular exercise.
Do you swear by your fish oil tablets? Let us know in the comments section!