Omega 3 Fatty Acids from fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, marine algae are commonly recommended as nutrients that help with brain function, mood disorders, behavioural issues, and most commonly, for reducing the risks associated with heart disease. In Australia, fish oil supplements are the most commonly taken supplement over all others.
Recently there has been some debate (read more here) about whether fish oil supplements have any impact on lowering heart disease risk. Some of these articles paint a picture of fish oil supplementation as a waste of money. I agree.
Fish oil supplements are a waste of time and money in the following cases:
- Poor quality, low grade supplements which are oxidised, and may contain contaminants such as plastics, heavy metals and PCB’s.
- Supplements without Vitamin E. An antioxidant which helps to stabilise the fish oil and prevent the it from becoming pro-inflammatory rather than an anti-inflammatory agent.
- Not enough EPA/DHA to have an effect. Some supplements contain very little of the active components of fish oil. Studies for lowering blood fats and reducing arthritis pain recommend 2 grams of EPA/DHA per day. Taking below this amount could be likened to taking ¼ of a Panadol and expecting pain relief. The benefits of omega 3 supplementation are dependent on taking the right amount of EPA and DHA, for long enough, and absorbing it well. [A test called the Omega 3 Index, can measure how well you are absorbing omega 3’s]
- Rancid Oils. Fish oil supplements should not have a fishy smell or taste. This is a sign the oil has oxidised or gone rancid. Oils in this state do more harm than good.
The condemning studies don’t tell the whole story.
The studies that have driven the recent backlash on fish oils are suggesting that there is little if any measurable benefit to taking fish oil as a preventative measure to reduce the risk of heart disease or cardiovascular events. The reference for this information was a systematic review of 79 randomised trials with over 110 thousand people. (Read more here) However, only 25 of the studies were assessed as trustworthy in their design and how they were conducted. Some of the studies included only “healthy” people, while others included people with pre-existing illnesses. Thus, the questions to the weight of information in this review, remain:
- What type of omega 3 supplements were used in these studies?
- What strength and ratio of EPA/DHA was used?
- Were the people in the study also consuming trans fats?
- Did all the participants still have their gall bladders intact, as this would influence their absorption of any fats, omega 3 or otherwise?
- Did the participants also already consume oily fish or other omega 3 supplements?
- Did all the participants have measurable omega 3, EPA & DHA in their blood stream? ie was their omega index above 8 %.?
Well founded benefits of Fish Oil Supplementation
This review did suggest some benefits for fish oil supplementation. Findings confirmed that:
- Fish oil supplements can reduce blood fats, and cholesterol.
- While the study didn’t show benefit for people with no previous risk of heart disease, there is a positive role for omega 3 intake through fish consumption for people with a history of cardiovascular issues or risk.
- Fish oil does reduce the risk of premature birth (less than 34 weeks) by 42%. Supplementation in pregnancy may be beneficial as consumption of oily fish could be a risk for mercury.
Other well designed, trustworthy and recent studies also indicate:
- Higher total omega 3 and DHA blood levels are associated with improved gut microbiome diversity. Aka., a good variety of healthy gut bugs.
- Omega 3 can reduce leaky gut and gastrointestinal inflammation.
- EPA & DHA from fish oil reduces the brain plaque formation which occurs in Alzheimer’s disease.
- Omega 3’s may have benefits in allergic diseases in babies and children.
- Insulin sensitivity and diabetes risk factors can be modified through omega 3 intake.
- Arthritis pain may be modified and quality of life improved with omega 3 supplementation.
Just eating real food is a good rule of thumb guide to stay well. Avoiding processed foods, cigarettes, alcohol and getting a minimum of 7 hours sleep per night are also known to support healthy ageing. Eating enough, high quality fish, with low contaminant levels is a challenge that people face today. Some people dislike fish, are allergic or intolerant, or are at risk for heavy metal/mercury toxicity.
There is a valuable place for the use of high quality, pure, filtered and unoxidized fish oil supplements. Side effects are rare and minimal. Fish oil may contribute to reflux for some individuals, or cause loose bowels. High doses of fish oil may thin the blood, which means those on warfarin or other blood thinning medication should be closely monitored by their doctor. These are easily manageable effects. Considering that statin medications (cholesterol lowering drugs) are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world, and are known to have many side effects and limited effect, there is merit to trying quality fish oil supplements at a therapeutic dose, first. Four out of five Australians do not meet the recommended daily requirement for omega 3 intake. An omega 3 index above 8% is desirable.
The Bottom Line
Everyone is unique in their needs, body type and circumstances. There is no one size fix all approach. If you take fish oil supplements, but drink alcohol in excess, sleep less than 6 hours per night, and smoke, then it won’t matter how much fish oil you take, you will still be at high risk of a stroke. An individual and tailored approach is always the most effective which is why its best to get professional advice from a practitioner who can factor in your entire health story and create a customized plan.
If you aren’t sure whether you want to start taking fish oil supplements, stop taking them or change the type and dose, an Omega 3 Index test can help define what your body needs.
“Taking fish oil won’t save you from the damaging effects of a daily meat pie and coca cola habit”. (Anne-Marie)