Fish Oil Supplements: Do You Need Them?

Article posted in: Diet & Nutrition
fish oil supplements

Every few years, we hear about another super nutrient that’s the secret to weight loss, preventing deadly disease, or slowing down aging. Most recently, fish oil supplements have been in the spotlight, with nearly 20 million Americans taking them and spending more than $1 billion annually on them, according to a 2014 report by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). While fish oil supplements have definite benefits, you want to consider these facts before you add them to your daily routine:

Why Fish Oil?

The oil from fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, especially two known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to normal growth and development, managing inflammation and healthy brain functioning.

Since our bodies can’t make omega-3s, we must get them from food. Some plants are rich in another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which your body can convert to DHA and EPA. Walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds are all good sources.

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Healthy Heart

The two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil help reduce risk factors for heart disease, reports the University of Maryland Medical Center. Research shows that fish oil lowers levels of triglycerides (fats in the blood), and in clinical trials it decreased the risk of heart attack, and stroke in people who have already had a heart attack. Fish oil supplements may also help slow the development of plaque and blood clots, which can cause the heart disease known as arteriosclerosis.

Joint Care

Studies of people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the joints, report that fish oil supplements can help alleviate the symptoms of the disease, though in these studies, the supplements did not slow the progression of the disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids also have been shown to block inflammatory compounds known as cytokines and prostaglandins. Our bodies convert the DHA and EPA into powerful anti-inflammatory chemicals called resolvins. A study published in the journal Surgical Neurology collected the results of 250 patients suffering from neck or back pain who had been prescribed fish oil supplements by their doctors. About 60 percent of the patients reported that their joint pain had improved after taking the supplements for 75 days. Even better, no significant side effects were reported.

Cancer Question

While initial reports claimed that fish oil supplements prevent or help slow the progress of many kinds of cancer, recent research has cast doubt. While some studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of colorectal, liver and lung cancer by controlling chronic inflammation, there is still debate among experts about whether fish oil supplements have a significant impact on these conditions. And high levels of omega-3s in the blood were associated with a higher risk of prostate cancer, according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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Your Move

While fish oil supplements have valuable health benefits, you should check with your physician before taking them. No one should take more than three grams daily of omega-3 fatty acids unless prescribed by a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

Heart disease patients: For those with a diagnosis of heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends taking one gram of omega-3 fatty acid supplements daily.

High cholesterol patients: The AHA suggests two grams daily of fish oil supplements, taken under the direction of a physician.

Everyone else: The safest, most effective way to ensure your body has the omega-3s it needs is to eat a serving of fatty fish twice a week rather than swallowing supplements. Fish with a high-concentration of the nutrient include arctic char, sardines, mackerel, anchovies and halibut. Oysters and mussels also have substantial amounts. As the Harvard Medical School journal states, “it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA.”