The Truth Behind Fish Oil Supplements

Fish oil supplements have long been promoted as an easy addition to the diet for individuals looking to protect their heart health, ease inflammation, improve mental health and even to increase longevity. They are one of the most commonly consumed dietary supplements, taken for their rich levels of omega-3 fatty acids and widely believed health benefits. Americans are estimated to spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil products and companies nationwide are incorporating omega-3 fatty acids into dairy products, cereal, juice, and hundreds of other food items.

The purported benefits of fish oil consumption are numerous, however, the clinical evidence behind them comes to varied conclusions. A November 2018 study found that fish oil supplements did not reduce the risk of heart attacks, stroke or death from cardiovascular disease.  In populations with no additional risk factors for CVD or cancer, the impact of fish oils on the risk for these conditions was unclear. Omega-3 acids can effectively reduce levels of triglycerides, relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and optimize inflammatory pathways.

Benefits of Fish Oil Supplements

Although further research is necessary to come to decisive conclusions, there are few associated side effects of fish oil consumption and observational evidence supports their efficacy. According to Biotics Research Corporation, research has shown that omega-3 acids have a protective effect on the body and can improve cardiovascular health, promote ideal body composition, and reduce inflammation. For patients recovering from a heart attack, omega-3 acids have been found to aid in the healing process through cardiac remodeling support and heart contraction improvement. They have also been linked to fibrosis management and a reduction in biomarkers for inflammation.

Additionally, concentrated fish oil supplements are believed to promote healthy body composition as they reduce fat mass and support lean mass levels in healthy adults. In a 2017 study conducted on mice, fish oils not only caused weight reduction but also appeared to stop the animals from gaining weight when given free access to food. Reduced numbers of fat cells correlated with increased fat oxidation – especially in the abdominal region – were reported in fish oil consumers, suggesting potential new therapies for obesity and other metabolic diseases.

Chronic pain sufferers report alleviated symptoms when taking fish oil supplements and daily consumption has been shown to support healthy inflammatory pathways, which may reduce the need for pain medication. Furthermore, omega-3 acids were tied to a reduction in NSAID use in patients with chronic neck and lower back pain in 60% of study participants.

Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acid

Anecdotal and observational evidence supports the multifaceted benefits of fish oil supplements, however, further research draws attention to the importance of the source of omega-3 acids. Fish oil derived from food rather than supplements is the ideal consumption method, which can provide the two key omega-3 fatty acids – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Food sources that are rich in DHA and EPA include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines as well as eggs and algae. Certain plants are also good sources of alpha-linolenic acid which is converted into DHA and EPA in the body. Good sources of alpha-linolenic acid include flaxseed, chia seeds, soybeans, tofu, and walnuts.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 1-2 portions of fish be incorporated into the diet weekly, and advises that fish oil supplements can aid people who don’t consume recommended amounts of fish in meeting that requirement. Although research indicates that omega-3 supplements do not reduce heart disease risks, people who incorporate seafood into their diet one to four times a week are less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. Additionally, studies have found that taking a fish oil supplement may reduce the risk of CVD in people who do not consume any fish or seafood.

As omega-3 deficiencies have been linked to a variety of health problems – such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, mood disorders, and other chronic conditions – it is important to ensure optimal levels are consumed. Fatty acids play an important role in brain function, growth, development and inflammation management. However, simply consuming a high dose of a fish oil supplement will not translate to better health or disease prevention.  Taking supplements will not substitute a healthy, nutrient-rich diet and they should be incorporated in cases of low-seafood diets rather than across the population as a preventative strategy.