If you’ve ever done any reading online about health and fitness, you’ve likely heard about omega-3s and fish oil supplements.
Are they really as great as they’re hyped up to be?
The short answer is yes.
The long answer is the remaining article.
What is Omega-3 Fatty Acid?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids with a double bond at the third carbon atom from the end of the carbon chain. The three types of omega-3 fatty acids involved in human physiology are:
- A-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Omega-3 is commonly found in marine algae and phytoplankton and, although less common, in a variety of plant oils. Most people seeking a diet high in omega-3 use fish oil supplements to get higher amounts of EPA and DHA than can be conveniently found in whole food sources.
Compared to other sources, fish oil supplements are the cheapest and most abundant.
According to Examine, fish oil is especially beneficial when the ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the body is almost equal (1:1). Since the average diet (red meat, eggs, and so forth) is high in omega-6 fatty acids, supplementing with fish oil helps balance the ratio.
A ratio of roughly 1:1 is associated with healthier blood vessels, a lower lipid count and a reduced risk for plaque buildup. Fish oil can also decrease the risk of diabetes and several forms of cancer, including breast cancer.
Fish oil works primarily through eicosanoids, which are signalling molecules. A proper ratio of omega 3:6 fatty acids will influence which eicosanoids are released in response to stress.
Fish oil has a wide range of benefits, making it one of the most popular health supplements of all time.
The Benefits of Omega-3
Omega-3’s are one of the most popular health supplements available because they provide a wide variety of benefits.
They have benefits for both men and women.
Take a look at some of the most notable benefits below.
Omega-3s Can Prevent Cognitive Decline
Most people aren’t aware that omega-3 fatty acids are great for brain health and are considered a base supplement for anyone looking to improve cognitive performance with nootropics.
Several studies have shown that omega-3s decrease cognitive decline caused by aging, they lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and they increase the amount of gray matter in the brain.
- Fish consumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study
- Fish consumption, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and risk of cognitive decline or Alzheimer disease: a complex association
- Omega-3 fatty acid treatment in 174 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer disease: OmegAD study: a randomized double-blind trial
- Omega-3 fatty acids and dementia
- Regular fish consumption and age-related brain gray matter loss
Omega-3s Can Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease
Omega-3 fatty acids have a positive impact on heart health through several functions.
They lower triglycerides, reduce blood pressure, raise HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol), prevent blood clots, and they prevent the buildup of plaque in arteries.
- Age- and dose-dependent effects of an eicosapentaenoic acid-rich oil on cardiovascular risk factors in healthy male subjects
- Blood pressure decrease with ingestion of a soya product (kinako) or fish oil in women with the metabolic syndrome: role of adiponectin and nitric oxide
- Benefits of fish oil supplementation in hyperlipidemia: a systematic review and meta-analysis
- Effect of an Indo-Mediterranean diet on progression of coronary artery disease in high risk patients (Indo-Mediterranean Diet Heart Study): a randomised single-blind trial
- Effect of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation on endothelial function: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
Omega-3s Can Fight the Symptoms of Depression
There is a lot of scientific evidence that shows omega-3s can help those who are suffering from depression and anxiety to have a higher-quality life without the use of prescription medications. In fact, some studies show omega-3s to be just as effective as certain depression drugs.
Although all three types of omega-3s appear to be beneficial, EPA has the most evidence for treating depression.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Depression: Scientific Evidence and Biological Mechanisms
- A meta-analytic review of double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of antidepressant efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids
- Short-term supplementation of acute long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may alter depression status and decrease symptomology among young adults with depression: A preliminary randomized and placebo controlled trial
- Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder
Omega-3s Can Reduce Inflammation
Inflammation is a double-edged sword — and one of those edges is a little sharper.
On one hand, we need inflammation to fight off infections and repair damage. On the other hand, ongoing inflammation, or inflammation caused by poor dietary choices can cause a host of problems. Not only that, but chronic inflammation gets in the way of living a long, healthy life.
Plus, chronic inflammation also increases our risk of heart disease and cancer.
- EPA and DHA reduce LPS-induced inflammation responses in HK-2 cells: evidence for a PPAR-gamma-dependent mechanism
- Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation improves vascular function and reduces inflammation in obese adolescents
Omega-3s Can Improve Bone Health and Ease Joint Pain
Bodybuilders have appreciated fish oil supplements for years because of their ability to ease joint pain.
This is one of the main reasons I take fish oil supplements, although not the only reason. It seems like anytime I stop taking fish oils for any extended period of time (like when experimenting with a vegan diet) I notice more stiffness and slight pain in my joints from lifting.
Omega-3s Can Reduce Cramping Caused by PMS
From what I hear, PMS isn’t fun. However, it doesn’t have to be as bad as it could be thanks to omega-3 fatty acids.
It turns out that women who consume the most omega-3s tend to have much less menstrual pain. In fact, research suggests that omega-3s are more effective for reducing severe menstrual pain than ibuprofen.
Do Omega-3 supplements have any negative side effects?
Fish oil is one the most time-tested and scientifically-tested supplements on the market.
What’s interesting is that fish oil supplements are regarded as being safe, but trying to get adequate amounts of omega-3 from dietary sources can be troublesome.
Here’s what WebMD has to say on the matter:
Fish oil is LIKELY SAFE for most people when taken by mouth in low doses (3 grams or less per day). There are some safety concerns when fish oil is taken in high doses. Taking more than 3 grams per day might keep blood from clotting and can increase the chance of bleeding.
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.
Only take high doses of fish oil while under medical supervision.
Fish oil can cause side effects including belching, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, loose stools, rash, and nosebleeds. Taking fish oil supplements with meals or freezing them can often decrease these side effects.
Fish oil is POSSIBLY SAFE when injected intravenously (by IV) in the short-term. Fish oil or omega-3 fatty acid solutions have been safely used for 1 to 4 weeks.
Consuming large amounts of fish oil from some DIETARY sources is POSSIBLY UNSAFE. Some fish meats (especially shark, king mackerel, and farm-raised salmon) can be contaminated with mercury and other industrial and environmental chemicals. Fish oil supplements typically do not contain these contaminants.
Special Precautions & Warnings:
Children: Fish oil is POSSIBLY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Fish oil has been used safely through feeding tubes in infants for up to 9 months. But young children should not eat more than two ounces of fish per week. Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when consumed from dietary sources in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury. Eating contaminated fish frequently can cause brain damage, mental retardation, blindness and seizures in children.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Fish oil is LIKELY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Taking fish oil during pregnancy does not seem to affect the fetus or baby while breast-feeding. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant, and nursing mothers should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (also called golden bass or golden snapper), as these may contain high levels of mercury. Limit consumption of other fish to 12 ounces/week (about 3 to 4 servings/week). Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when dietary sources are consumed in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury.
Personally, I’ve never experienced anything negative from taking fish oil except for a fishy taste in my mouth. However, this never happens when I take them right before eating a meal.
The Best Natural Sources of Omega-3
There are plenty of ways to get omega-3 from your diet, but most of the best sources involve fish. This is fine if you enjoy fish, and especially if you live near the ocean and can get fresh fish.
Otherwise, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are good options.
Here’s a list of the top 15 omega-3 foods (percentages based on 4,000 milligrams per day of total omega-3s):
- Mackerel: 6,982 milligrams in 1 cup cooked (174% DV)
- Salmon Fish Oil: 4,767 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (119% DV)
- Cod Liver Oil: 2.664 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (66% DV)
- Walnuts: 2,664 milligrams in 1/4 cup (66% DV)
- Chia Seeds: 2,457 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (61% DV)
- Herring: 1,885 milligrams in 3 ounces (47% DV)
- Salmon (wild-caught): 1,716 milligrams in 3 ounces (42% DV)
- Flaxseeds (ground): 1,597 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (39% DV)
- Tuna: 1,414 milligrams in 3 ounces (35% DV)
- White Fish: 1,363 milligrams in 3 ounces (34% DV)
- Sardines: 1,363 milligrams in 1 can/3.75 ounces (34% DV)
- Hemp Seeds: 1,000 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (25% DV)
- Anchovies: 951 milligrams in 1 can/2 ounces (23% DV)
- Natto: 428 milligrams in 1/4 cup (10% DV)
- Egg Yolks: 240 milligrams in 1/2 cup (6% DV)
Fish Oil vs Flaxseed Oil
While both oils are consumed for their omega 3 fatty acids, the amount and type you’re getting can vary. Fish oil contains DHA and EPA directly. Look at the label on a bottle of fish oil and you will usually see the amount of DHA and EPA contained per serving. An example would be a 1,200mg pill containing 180mg EPA and 120mg DHA. Your body can use this as is.
“To get the equivalent of one fish oil pill, you would need to take fifteen to twenty flax pills.”
In flax seed oil, the main omega 3 is ALA. Your body needs to convert ALA to DHA and EPA. It is estimated that your body can convert only 5-10% of ALA to EPA and 2-5% to DHA. In other words, you need a large intake of flax seed to convert it to other essential fatty acids, and it is a poor choice for EPA and DHA requirements.
So, assuming your body is efficient at converting ALA, taking 1,200mg of flax oil will yield 12mg of EPA and 6mg of DHA. To get the equivalent of one fish oil pill, you would need to take fifteen to twenty flax pills.
Unless you’re serious about avoiding animal products altogether, fish oil is going to be the most convenient source of omega-3.
My Favorite Omega-3 Supplement
I’ve been using the same fish oil supplement for years now.
I jumped back and forth between different brands — from the cheap no-name Walmart brands to the well-known supplement brands. Ultimately, I settled with this particular supplement because it actually has the adequate doses of EPA and DHA, while most fish oil supplements don’t.
Take a look at the ingredients below.
1 capsule = 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acid. Very simple.
I typically take 2 capsules with breakfast lunch and dinner. I’ve found it’s best to take them right before you eat to avoid getting a fishy aftertaste.
If you take them after eating, be sure to wait for 20 minutes or so for the food to settle or it might cause fish burps.
Fish oils are one of the most proven health supplements available and I think they are one of the first supplements you should consider when deciding which supplements to take.
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