Vitamins like Vitamin D, calcium, and multivitamins are amongst the most popular dietary supplements people take.
It's no surprise there, considering the modern American diet tends to overfeed but undernourish, leaving us particularly deficient of essential nutrients like vitamin D and calcium.
But there is one supplement that's surging in demand and quickly becoming the third most widely used dietary supplement after vitamins and minerals.
It's fish oil, or more particularly omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil.
According to New York Times, at least 10 percent of U.S. households now take fish oil (omega-3) capsules.
Without a doubt, fish is a healthy source of protein, which surely is public knowledge.
But since when did we turn to aquaculture and fish become a critical part of our diet?
As a matter of fact, it's now treated as mandatory nutritional need.
And a lack of it in one's diet is requiring supplementation from dietary pills?
Apparently, all's been happening in the last decade.
According to The Washington Post, demand for fish oil has grown from 0.13 billion dollars in sale in 2002 to 1.15 billion dollars in sale 2014.
Another new study by Grand View Research, Inc. also came out with a positive outlook. They estimate that the "global fish oil demand" will continue to grow at a CAGR of 1.12% from 2014 to 2020.
So what's driving the fish oil demand?
It's the presence of key nutrients omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA in fish oil.
There is a growing number of studies coming out with various "health benefits of the essential omega 3 fatty acids".
Out of many fish oil benefits (See a list in later in this post post), Harvard School of public Health affirms that "The strongest evidence for a beneficial effect of omega-3 fats has to do with heart disease."
But of course, its benefit doesn't end there.
There are other notable health benefits in taking omega 3 supplements.
Essential Omega 3 fatty acids are shown to have positive effects on:
- Blood pressure
- Blood clotting
- Alzheimer’s disease
Unarguably, fish oil is gaining popularity amongst health conscious consumers.
Before we dive into these important health benefits of fish oil, let me also highlight a few other "side benefits of fish oil" that also driving the demand up to its all-time high.
In addition to those main health benefits, omega 3 has been linked to increased fat burning efficiency and muscle strength.
One scientific review saw compelling evidence that omega 3 fatty acids leave a positive impact on an anabolic stimulus.
Nutritional Physiology Research Centre, University of South Australia Adelaide adds evidence to this conclusion and sheds additional insights on the link between omega 3 and increased fat burning efficiency.
Two main researchers, Jonathan D. Buckley and Peter R. C. Howe write, "there is a considerable body of evidence from rodent studies indicating that supplementing the diet with long-chain omega 3 fatty acids can attenuate weight gain and reduce fat, in particular visceral fat."
In human studies, they found similar results and evidenced that it's effective in overweight and obese individuals.
If you've read our other post How to get rid of lower belly and lose love handles, you are already familiar that visceral fat is one harmful, dangerous fat that's been associated with a variety of health problems. Mainly because it's close to living organs.
According to The Family Guide by Harvard Health, visceral fat is linked to "metabolic disturbances and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes."
If you are a woman, be warned that visceral fat is also associated with breast cancer and the need for gallbladder surgery.
Fish oil is proven effective in burning the dangerous visceral fat, and that's attractive enough for many to start taking fish oil supplements.
Fish oil is also popular amongst gym goers for its muscle strength benefits.
It's evidenced that fish oil increases muscle strength and reduces exercise-induced muscle damage.
MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre's 3,000 participant study led by Dr Sian Robinson revealed that consumption of fatty fish rich in EPA and DHA increases grip strength. They further found that each additional portion of fatty fish consumption contributes to an increase in grip strength of 0.43kg in men and 0.48 kg in women.
In addition to grip strength, improvement in physical performance such as walking speed has been associated to an intake of 1200 mg EPA + DHA in a form of dietary supplements. (1,200 mg EPA + DHA).
It's no doubt fish oil's been taken notice by performance seeking athletes, motivated dieters and dedicated, result-seeking gym goers.
Also, let's not forget that the simplest reason, fish being one of the healthiest protein sources and full of essential nutrients alone is pretty convincing itself.
So what's exactly in fish oil so miraculous that it can make anything from fat burning to reduced heart disease all possible?
What is omega 3?
Whenever people refer to benefits of fish oil, it's most likely that they're referring to omega-3 benefits.
The term fish oil and omega 3 frequently get used interchangeably, but they are not necessarily the same thing. Also, maybe not as often as Omega 3s, you may hear time to time about Omega 6s. But again, they are not the same thing.
Slight confusion on those is a definitely a dietary supplement loophole that may get consumers to spend premium prices on fish oil that contains less than the optimum amount of omega 3s.
But since you are here, you’ll be well-equipped with everything you need to know about fish oil and omega fatty acids.
To start, let's clarify a few key points.
Essential fatty acids, Omega-3 is found in fish oil. In other words, fish oil contains Omega-3 fatty acids.
As the name implies, there are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, which are a key family of polyunsaturated fats.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) : found mainly in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): found mainly in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): found in vegetable oils, nuts, flax seeds, animal fat especially in grass-fed animals.
Omega-3s in fish oil are EPA and DHA.
And the amount of omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA contained in fish oil depends on the type of fish you eat or extract oil from.
Fish like salmon, trout, herrings, sardines, and tuna contains the highest level of omega 3s.
Sardines, in particular, are one of the most concentrated sources of omega 3s, just one serving contains over 50% of your daily recommended intake.
More detailed guides on how much omega 3s to take are introduced later in the post.
There are Omega-3s (EPA, DHA and ALA) and Omega 6s (LA).
They are both called essential fatty acids, and are indeed essential to our bodily functions.
According to European Food Information Council, omega fatty acids are "important components of cell membranes and are precursors to many other substances in the body such as those involved with regulating blood pressure and inflammatory responses."
In simple words, these fatty acids take particular importance in bodily functions as they are needed for growth and repair, from building healthy cells to fostering brain development.
If you thought all fats just sit around your body with no particular reason other than being extra energy, then you have to rethink the way you see these essential fatty acids.
While both omegas are needed by the body and have its place in keeping us healthy, they very different effects on the body.
According to Authority Nutrition, they are "biologically active and have important roles in processes like blood clotting and inflammation."
Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, "Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory".
Despite all the importance, our bodies can't produce them.
Our bodies are capable of producing all the fatty acids, expect for omega-3 and omega-6.
It has to be provided by food.
If we don't take in enough from the diet or supplements, we can develop a deficiency and become prone to sickness.
After all, they are called "essential" fatty acids for a reason.
When it comes to these two omega, the balance between the two is particularly important.
While a healthy ratio of omegas 3s and 6s promote optimum health, an imbalance of the two can quickly lead to cardiovascular disease, inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
According to the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, Washington, DC, "human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) of approximately 1 whereas in Western diets the ratio is 15/1-16.7/1".
Our current omega ratio is distorted and highly skewed, to say the least.
They further explain that a lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio with increased levels of omega-3 reduces the risk of many of the chronic diseases with high prevalence in Western cultures.
So what’s the right Omega 3s and Omega 6 ratio? It seems that it varies depending on the health merit you seek.
Here are some of their findings.
- A ratio of 4/1 (omega-6/omega-3) was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality.
- A ratio of 2.5/1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer
- A ratio of 1-3/1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis
- A ratio of 5/1 had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma
Harvard School of Public Health too came with similar findings.
In their study, essential fatty acids, Omega 3s deficiency was found to heighten the overall mortality risk by 27% and mortality risk from heart disease by 35%.
To aim for a better balance of the omega fatty acids, intake of omega-3 is particularly important.
Again, intake of omega 6s is not emphasized because they are found in excess in the standard American Diet.
Compared to Omega 3 fatty acids, Omega-6s are available from a wide range of sources, such as plant-based oils like canola oil, soybean oil, nuts and seeds.
Omega-3s, on the other hand are only available in significant amounts in seafood.
Despite Omega-3 ranking among "the most important essential nutrients" today, there is very little room for Omega 3 fatty acids in typical Western diet.
The fact that a significant amount of omega-3 EPA and DHA can only be found in fish, and most of us don’t eat recommended 3 servings of fish a week, we are very likely to develop omega-3 deficiency, if we haven’t already.
One study find that Americans eat, on average, only 2 to 3 ounces of seafood a week, and they often choose less-fatty types such as canned light tuna, whitefish and shrimp.
In fact, "over 90% of adult Americans is deficient of omega 3 fatty acid", particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
So how much omega-3s do you need in day?
The World Health Organization recommends a daily EPA and DHA intake of 300-500 mg and a daily ALA intake of 800-1,100 grams.
If you plan to take the omega-3s from your diet, here is the recommendation.
The U.S government’s Dietary Guidelines, the American Heart Association (AHA), the World Health Organization and other health groups around the world recommend eating fish at least two times (2 servings) a week.
Each serving size should be 3.5 ounces for cooked seafood, or about 3/4 cup of flaked fish.
Preferably fatty fish such as catfish, halibut, salmon, striped sea bass, and albacore tuna are particularly recommended.
If you plan to meet the recommended intake with fish oil supplements, remember to check the label.
Many fish oil pills advertise their fish oil content, say 1,000mg.
And that may seem like a lot of omega-3 fatty acids.
But don't get fooled by the wrong measure.
What you should be checking is the content of DHA and EPA, the two Omega fatty acids found in seafood.
Fish oil value is not the same as the DHA and EPA values contained within.
Also, different health conditions and aims come with a different omega-3 dosage recommendation. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking fish oil.
By upping your omega 3s intake, here are top 10 health benefits that await you.
Top 10 Fish oil benefits
1. Lower triglycerides levels
Omega-3s from fish oil have amazing health benefits, but one that's striking is their triglyceride-reducing property.
High level of triglyceride or blood fat flowing in your blood stream can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that the omega-3 fatty acid (EPA) and (DHA) reduce triglyceride concentrations when administered at high does of (>3 gram (3,000mg) per day combine).
Another study, the one from Stanford analyzed 60 middle-aged, mostly caucasian, generally healthy adults with elevated triglycerides for 12 weeks and found a 25% reduction in their triglycerides levels.
According to MedlinePlus research, taking 1-4 grams/day of fish oil has been shown to reduce LDL and triglycerides.
So, what are triglyceride?
Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body.
They can come from food. Your body can also make them.
High levels of blood triglycerides are often found in people who have a high cholesterol level and are overweight.
Omega-3s are said to help with reduction of triglycerides.
2. Brain health
Studies have also proven how amazing omega-3s fatty acids really are for our brain health.
High consumption of omega-3 fatty acids whether it is through our diet or fish oil supplements, is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia in old age.
It has also been shown to improve cognition in young adults, with participants brains working less hard to achieve better mental health and performance.
Another study published in the Journal of Neuroscience reports that lack of omega-3s can limit brain growth during fetal development and early life.
Their findings suggest that women should maintain a balanced diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids during their pregnancy, both for their own health and for the health of their babies.
Susana Cohen-Cory, Professor of Neurobiology & Behavior and her colleagues point how deficits in what are known as n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids cause a molecular change in the developing brain that results in constrained growth of neurons and the synapses that connect them.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which is an omega-3 fatty acid that is primary structural component of the human brain, cerebral cortex—DHA plays a key role in the healthy creation of the central nervous system.
In the study that used female frog and tadpoles, UCI researches were able to see how DHA-deficient brain tissue fostered poorly developed neurons and limited numbers of synapses, the vital conduit that allows neurons to communicate with each other.
Professor Cohen-Cory also concluded with a finding that's a remedy to poorly developed neurons and undernourished brain development.
"Additionally, when they changed the diets of DHA-deficient mothers to include a proper level of this dietary fatty acid, the neuronal and synaptic growth flourished and returned to normal in the following generation of tadpoles,” said Cohen-Cory.
DHA is essential to the development of a fetus’s eyes and brain, especially during the last three months of pregnancy.
It makes up 10 to 15 percent of the total lipid amount of the cerebral cortex. DHA is also concentrated in the light-sensitive cells at the back of the eyes, where it counts for as much as 50 percent of the total lipid amount of each retina.
3. High cholesterol
Studies have shown that people who eat foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids have reported improvement in their cholesterol levels.
And according to Dr. Mercola from Mercola.com, fish oil influences HDL cholesterol levels far more safely and effectively than taking medication.
One study that compared the drug Lipitor and fish oil found that fish oil was more effective than the statin drug Lipitor in positively affecting the good cholesterol (HDL), cholesterol in obese and insulin-hesitant men.
While low HDL levels can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, particular in obese or insulin resistant individuals, improved HDL cholesterol levels protect against atherosclerosis by removing excess cholesterol from arterial cells.
In the six-week study noted, fish oil and Lipitor were given to 48 men, both separately and combined.
Fish oil and Lipitor together greatly lowered plasma triacylglycerols and raised HDL cholesterol levels.
But the study found only the fish oil influenced HLD cholesterol by altering the production catabolism rate of HDL apolipoproteins (catabolism is the breakdown of complex molecules metabolically into simpler ones). Lipitor did not increase this effect
when combined with the fish oils, and did not produce a similar effect on its own.
Dr. Mercola added that the omega-3 fats found in fish and fish oil will influence your HDL cholesterol levels far more safely and effectively than taking a pill will. For more on the effects and side effects on taking Lipitor, you can read all about it here in his post.
4. High blood pressure
High blood pressure is a serious health risk to many Americans—About 70 million Americans are affected with having high blood pressure.
High blood is referred to as a consistent elevation in blood pressure.
High blood pressure or hypertension is a major risk factor for a heart attack and is generally regarded as the greater risk factor for stroke.
It is often referred to as a silent killer because people with hypertension are often unaware of having high blood pressure until a stroke or heart attack strikes.
Studies have demonstrated an omega-3 fatty acids rich diet or 3 gm of daily fish oil supplementation can reduce blood pressure levels.
Also, an analysis of 17 clinical studies using fish oil supplements found that taking 3 or more grams of fish oil daily may reduce blood pressure in people with untreated hypertension.
Doses this high, however, should only be taken under the direction of a physician.
5. Heart disease
Heart attacks and stroke are the leading causes of deaths in the world.
Several studies have found that omega-3s can improve risk factors for heart diseases.
The role of omega-3 fatty acids in cardiovascular disease is well established.
Recent research has found that one of the best ways to help prevent heart disease is to eat a diet low in saturated fat, and to eat foods that are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3 fatty acids).
Clinical evidence also suggests that EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid), the two most important omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil help reduce risk factors for heart disease, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Fish oil has been shown to lower levels of triglycerides (fats in the blood), and to lower the risk of death, heart attack, stroke, and abnormal heart rhythms in people who have already had a heart attack.
Fish oil also appears to help prevent and treat atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by slowing the development of plaque and blood clots, which can clog arteries.
Large population studies suggest that getting omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, primarily from fish, helps protect against stroke caused by plaque build up and blood clots in the arteries that lead to the brain.
Eating at least 2 servings of fish per week can reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 50%. However, high doses of fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding.
People who eat more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day (equivalent to 3 servings of fish per day) may have higher risk for hemorrhagic stroke, a potentially fatal type of stroke in which an artery in the brain leaks or ruptures.
Some studies also suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may have antioxidant properties that improve endothelial function and may contribute to heart benefits.
6. Eye Health
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that our bodies uses to repair and produce new cells.
Several studies suggest that (DHA) one of the key omega-3 fat found in fish oil or through eating a diet rich in omega-3s such fish and nuts, has been proven to improve eye health.
It's also said that omega-3s may help protect your eyes from age-related macular degeneration and dry eye syndrome by promoting healthy blood vessel growth and circulation in the eyes.
Considering macular degeneration being one of the world’s leading causes of permanent eye damage and blindness, it's crucial to ensure the recommended intake of omega-3s is met.
When you don’t get enough DHA, vision problems may arise.
All cases, fish oil is good for eye health.
Asthma is a chronic condition that affects over 20 million Americans.
Patients with Asthma often struggle with breathing due to inflammation symptoms. They may also experience symptom such as shortness of breath, chest tightness, and attacks of coughing or wheezing.
One study noted by WebMd found that fish and fish oil may be especially helpful in both the prevention and treatment of asthma.
They have also linked eating plenty of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats particularly from oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
Another fish oil study related to asthma saw that the teenage children and women who took fish oil during pregnancy were less likely to have developed asthma.
Another study of small children with asthma found that those who supplemented with fish oil for ten months had fewer symptoms than those that didn’t.
A study from Indiana University found adults with mild-to-moderate persistent asthma who took fish oil supplement daily for three weeks improved their post-exercise lunch function by 64 percent, allowing a 31 percent decrease in their use of emergency inhalers.
8. Fight Inflammation
Studies suggest that Omega-3 fatty acids may help lower inflammation in the body.
With the Standard American Diet, we can easily meet omega 6 needs through the plant-based oils usage in food processing and home cooking.
Yet, Omega 3 needs are often unmet, causing an imbalance between the two omegas.
This imbalance can contribute to cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Omega 3s play important role in our diet as they decrease inflammation throughout the body, lower blood pressure, reduce blood clotting, decrease stroke, lower heart failure risk, and reduce irregular heartbeats.
A lack of efforts to reduce inflammation in the body can contribute chronic Western disease, such as heart disease and cancer
Omega-3 fatty acids have proven to reduce the production of molecules and substances linked to inflammation, such as inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines
Studies have consistently shown a link between higher omega-3 intake and reduced inflammation.
9. Osteoporosis arthritis
Osteoporosis and arthritis are two common disorders that affect the skeletal system.
Research indicate that omega-3s found in fish can help to improve bone strength by increasing the amount of calcium in bones, making you less prone to osteoporosis.
Another study by Straub Clinic and Hospital, Inc revealed that omega-3s may also help with arthritis. Patients taking omega-3 supplements have reported reduced joint pain and increased grip strength (134, 135, 136).
Overall, Omega-3s can improve bone strength and joint health, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and arthritis.
Want a healthy, beautiful and smooth skin? Eat a diet that is rich in omega-3s.
Research is now showing that foods play an important role in maintaining healthy skins— not just to combat wrinkles and lines, but also to treat other skin problems such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis — It even treats dry or very oily skin according to biochemist Elaine Linker, PhD, in her post for WebMD.
The omega-3s found in fish and other foods are a must have for healthy and beautiful skin.
These fatty acids are responsible for the health of the cell membrane, which is not only what acts as the barrier to things that are harmful, but also the passageway for nutrients to cross in and out and for waste products to get in and out of the cells, says Ann Yelmokas McDermott, PHD, a nutritionist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tuffs University in Boston.
DHA, one of the fats found in omega-3 fatty acids is a structural component of the skin. It is responsible for the health of cell membranes, which make up a large part of your skin.
A healthy cell membrane results in soft, moist, supple and wrinkle-free skin.
EPA also benefits the skin in several ways, including:
- Managing oil production in skin.
- Managing hydration of the skin.
- Preventing hyperkeratinization of hair follicles (the little red bumps often seen on upper arms).
- Preventing premature ageing of the skin.
- Preventing acne.
- Omega-3s can also protect your skin from sun damage. EPA helps block the release of substances that eat away at the collagen in your skin after sun exposure (158).
To wrap up, Omega-3s can help keep skin cells healthy, preventing premature aging and more. They may also help protect the skin from sun damage.
How to make sure you’re not omega-3s deficiency?
According to University of Maryland, one diet that provides a good balance between omega-3 and omega-6 is the Mediterranean diet.
They further explained people who follow this diet are less likely to develop heart disease.
Considering the Mediterranean diet places a high emphasis on foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including fish, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, garlic, and moderate wine consumption.
But not everyone enjoys seafood, especially the fatty fish that contains high levels of omega-3s.
If that's you, fish oil supplements may be the way to go.
In the next several weeks, we'll have a fish oil buying guide that reviews several key quality checks you should do before buying fish oil or omega-3 dietary supplements.
Stay tuned for more.