Fish oil is one of the most commonly consumed dietary supplements.
It’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are very important for your health.
If you don’t eat a lot of oily fish, taking a fish oil supplement could help you get enough omega-3 fatty acids.
Here is an evidence-based guide to fish oil supplements and their health benefits.
Fish oil is the fat or oil that’s extracted from fish tissue.
It usually comes from oily fish such as herring, tuna, anchovies and mackerel. Yet sometimes it’s produced from the livers of other fish, as is the case with cod liver oil.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating 1–2 portions of fish per week. This is because the omega-3 fatty acids in fish provide many health benefits, including helping protect against a number of diseases.
But if you don’t eat 1–2 portions of fish per week, fish oil supplements can help you get enough omega-3s.
Around 30% of fish oil is made up of omega-3s, while the remaining 70% is made up of other fats. Also, unprocessed fish oil contains some vitamin A and D.
It’s important to note that the types of omega-3s found in fish oil have greater health benefits than the omega-3s found in some plant sources.
The main omega-3s in fish oil are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), while the omega-3 in plant sources is mainly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
EPA and DHA: What’s the Catch?
A regular intake of EPA and DHA can play a positive role in your health. When made available to the body, EPA and DHA are incorporated into cell membranes (such as heart cells) and help support flexible cell membranes.† Scientists continue to add to the extensive amount of research on EPA and DHA.
How Much EPA and DHA Do I Need?
Respected health care organizations proposed intake recommendations for oily fish of two servings per week for healthy adults, which equates to approximately a daily total of 500 milligrams (mg) EPA and DHA.‡ The recommendation encourages adults already with or at-risk of developing cardiovascular disease to talk to their primary healthcare professional about supplementing with amounts greater than 500 mg of EPA and DHA per day. Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Fish Oil Can Be Good for Heart Health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide.
Studies have shown that people who eat a lot of fish have much lower rates of heart disease.
There are a number of risk factors for heart disease, and many of these appear to be reduced by fish or fish oil consumption.
The benefits of fish oil for heart health include:
Cholesterol levels: It can increase levels of HDL (the “good”) cholesterol. However, it does not appear to reduce levels of LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol.
Triglycerides: It can lower triglycerides by about 15–30%
Blood pressure: Even in small doses, it helps reduce blood pressure in those with high blood pressure (19, 20, 21).
Plaques: It may prevent the plaques that form in arteries and cause them to harden, as well as make arterial plaques more stable and safer in those who already have them.
Fatal arrhythmias: In people who are at risk, it may reduce fatal arrhythmia events. Arrhythmias are abnormal heart rhythms that can cause heart attacks in certain cases.
Although fish oil supplementation can improve many of the risk factors for heart disease, there is no clear evidence that it can prevent heart attacks or strokes.
Fish Oil Supplementation May Help Reduce Weight and Waist Circumference
Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30. Globally, about 39% of adults are overweight, while 13% are obese. The numbers are even higher in high-income countries like the US.
Obesity can significantly increase the risk of other diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Fish oil supplementation may improve body composition and risk factors for heart disease in obese people.
Furthermore, some studies have shown that fish oil supplementation, in combination with diet or exercise, can help you lose weight.
Fish Oil May Support Eye Health and Help Protect Vision in Old Age
Similarly to the brain, omega-3 fats make up an important part of the structure of the eye. Evidence has shown that people who don’t get enough omega-3s have a greater risk of eye diseases.
Furthermore, eye health begins to decline in old age, which can lead to age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Eating fish seems to help prevent AMD, but the results on fish oil supplementation are less convincing.
Fish Oil May Reduce Inflammation and Symptoms of Inflammatory Disease
Inflammation is the immune system’s way of fighting infection and treating injury to the body.
However, inflammation can sometimes occur at low levels over long periods.
This is called chronic inflammation. It can worsen certain chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, depression and heart disease.
In these instances, reducing inflammation can help treat symptoms of the disease.
Fish oil has anti-inflammatory properties and can help treat diseases that involve chronic inflammation.
For example, in stressed and obese individuals, fish oil can reduce the production and gene expression of inflammatory molecules called cytokines.
Moreover, fish oil supplementation can significantly reduce joint pain, stiffness and medication needs in people with rheumatoid arthritis, a disease in which inflammation leads to painful joints.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is another disorder worsened by inflammation. However, currently there is no clear evidence on whether fish oil improves symptoms of IBD.
Fish Oil May Have Skin Benefits
The skin is the largest organ in the human body, and it contains a lot of omega-3 fatty acids.
Skin health can decline throughout your life, especially during old age or after too much sun exposure.
Fortunately, there are a number of skin disorders that may benefit from fish oil supplementation, including psoriasis and dermatitis.
Fish Oil May Reduce Liver Fat
Your liver processes most of the fat in your body and can play a big role in weight gain.
The prevalence of liver disease is rapidly rising, particularly non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which involves the accumulation of fat in the liver.
Fish oil supplementation can improve liver function and inflammation in humans, which may help reduce symptoms of NAFLD and the amount of fat in the liver.
Fish Oil Supplementation Can Help Improve Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety
Depression is predicted to become the second leading cause of disease burden globally by 2030.
Interestingly, people with major depression appear to have lower blood levels of omega-3s.
Fish oil supplementation may help improve symptoms of depression, especially EPA-rich supplements.
Fish Oil May Improve Bone Health
During old age, bones can begin to lose their essential minerals, making them more likely to break. This can lead to diseases such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
Calcium and vitamin D are known to be very important for bone health, but some studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids can also be beneficial.
People with higher omega-3 intakes and blood levels may have better bone mineral density (BMD.
However, it’s unclear whether fish oil supplements improve BMD.
A number of small studies have shown that fish oil supplementation reduced markers of bone breakdown, which may prevent bone disease.
What Should I Look for in a Fish Oil/Omega-3 Supplement?
First, always remember that it’s the omega-3s that count. When making your purchase, be sure to determine the amount of omega-3s per serving. Many doctors often recommend 1000 to 1200 mg of fish oil because that amount of fish oil contains the total amount of omega-3s the doctor wants you to consume. 1000 mg or 1200 mg of fish oil doesn’t equal 1000 or 1200 mg of omega-3s. A standard 1000 mg fish oil softgel provides around 300 mg of omega-3s (and even less of the important EPA and DHA), and to meet the 500 mg EPA and DHA recommendation, a minimum of two softgels would be necessary. Make sure to read the “Supplement Facts” label to determine the amount of EPA and DHA in a fish oil/omega-3 supplement.
Omega-3s contribute to normal brain and eye development. They fight inflammation and may help prevent heart disease and a decline in brain function.
Given that fish oil contains a lot of omega-3s, those at risk of these disorders can benefit from taking it.
When you buy a fish oil supplement, be sure to read the label to check for purity, concentration, form and sustainability.
However, eating whole foods is almost always better than taking supplements, and eating two portions of oily fish per week can provide you with enough omega-3s.
In fact, many of the studies mentioned above show that fish is as effective, if not better, than fish oil at preventing many diseases.
That being said, if you don’t eat enough oily fish, you may benefit from taking a fish oil supplement in order to get enough omega-3s.
Disclaimer: This publication is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Medical advice should always be obtained from a qualified medical professional for any health conditions or symptoms associated with them. Every possible effort has been made in preparing and researching this material. We make no warranties with respect to the accuracy, applicability of its contents or any omissions.