Fish oil contains EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid); both are omega-3 fatty acids. These long-chained fatty acids have been shown to have many positive effects. As a part of the cell membranes, fatty acids help form a physical barrier to keep out viruses, bacteria and other foreign molecules. They also regulate the traffic of substances in and out of the cells. Because Americans tend to eat a lot of processed foods that are higher in omega-6 fatty acids, nature’s balance is upset. The typical American diet provides low amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and this has been linked to the increase in many of today’s common chronic diseases.
Benefits of Omega-3s
- Enhances immune function
- Treats Crohn’s disease
- Lowers high triglycerides
- Helps premature infants with catch-up growth
- Can help treat depression
- Can decrease atherosclerosis
- Can lower the risk of cancer
- Used to treat schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactive disorder
- Can help lower blood pressure
- Can be used to treat kidney disease
Where Are They Found?
EPA and DHA are found in mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, sable fish (black cod), anchovies, albacore tuna and wild game. Two to three fish servings per week are suggested. Cod liver oil contains large amounts of EPA and DHA. To a very limited extent, omega-3 fatty acids from vegetable sources, such as flaxseed oil, can convert to EPA. There are also EPA and DHA fortified foods such as eggs, margarine, milk, yogurt and bread, but make sure you check the label.
Although there is no set limit for omega-3 fatty acids, the recommendation is anything up to 3 grams is safe. Most of the research with fish oil has given people with a variety of health conditions at least 3 grams of EPA plus DHA—an amount that may require 10 grams of fish oil, because most fish oil contains only 18 percent EPA and 12 percent DHA.
Check with your healthcare provider before taking more than 3 or 4 grams of fish oil daily. Elevations in blood sugar and cholesterol levels may occur in some individuals who take a supplement.
Fish oils act as blood thinners, so you should not take them with any anticoagulant medications or if you have blood-clotting problems. Some people taking supplements are prone to nosebleeds. Because of its very high levels of vitamin A and vitamin D, pregnant women should not take cod liver oil.
Fish oil is easily damaged by oxygen, so a few milligrams or IUs of vitamin E should be included in all fish oil supplements. In addition, people who supplement with fish oil should take additional vitamin E supplements (50 to 100 IUs daily) to protect EPA and DHA within the body from oxidative damage.
Buy capsules labeled “distilled” or “molecularly distilled,” which ensures that they are virtually free of PCBs, mercury and lead, which tend to accumulate in some fish. A cholesterol-free designation usually indicates distillation too. Make sure you store fish oil capsules and supplements in the refrigerator.
Some people who supplement several grams of fish oil will experience gastrointestinal upset and burp a “fishy” smell. The enteric-coated free fatty acid form has been reported not to cause the gastrointestinal symptoms that often result from taking regular fish oil supplements.
The health benefits for individuals with Crohn’s disease have been reported with a special enteric-coated, free fatty acid form of EPA/DHA from fish oil.