Much has been written and about the health benefits of fish oil. The secret behind the benefits is generally attributed to omega-3 fatty acids, or omega-3s for short. The three main omega-3s are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Both EPA and DHA are found in fish and other seafood, while plants are sources of ALA.
Both EPA and DHA are the best way to boost your levels of omega-3s. When you consume foods with ALA, your body must convert it into EPA and then DHA, and the conversion rate is low. However, people who choose to avoid fish can still get adequate amounts of omega-3s from plant-based supplements. While we're discussing the health benefits of fish oil, know that there is more than one way to reap the benefits of omega-3s.
Why omega-3s are important
Omega-3s are present in the membranes that surround the cells in your body. They serve several critical functions, including providing calories that give your body energy, supporting the function of your heart and circulatory system, endocrine system, lungs, and immune system.
Exactly how is fish oil helpful for your health? Let's explore the many ways here. First, however, we need to define fish oil.
What is fish oil?
Fish oil is the fat or oil that is derived from the tissue of fish. Typically the oil is extracted from oily fish, such as anchovies, herring, mackerel, and tuna. Sometimes it is made from cod liver or the livers of other fish.
Fish oil is usually composed of 30 percent omega-3s and 70 percent other fats. Fish oil also usually contains significant amounts of vitamins A and D. That means you are getting a lot of bang for your buck!
Fish oil supplements can help you get more omega-3s in your diet, especially if you don't eat cold water fatty fish at least twice a week, which is recommended by the American Heart Association. It's also important to get more omega-3s because the traditional Western diet consists of lots of omega-6 fatty acids, which are associated with various diseases. A balance between omega-3s and omega-6s is essential for good health.
Weight loss and fish oil
Some research suggests omega-3 can help with weight loss when it is combined with exercise or diet. For example, several studies have shown that obese individuals who take fish oil supplements can experience an improvement in body composition, including a study from Australia. They show that use of fish oil along with exercise can reduce body fat and improve cardiovascular health.
Heart health and fish oil
Eating a lot of fish is associated with a significantly reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Consuming fish oil has been associated with some heart health benefits:
- Lowers blood pressure: Small amounts of fish oil can help lower blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. In a British study, daily intake of EPA and DHA as low as 0.7 grams significantly lowered blood pressure.
- Lowers triglyceride levels: Several studies, including one from Sydney, Australia, have shown that fish oil intake lowers triglyceride levels.
- Reduce deadly arrhythmias: There is some evidence that fish oil may reduce the risk of fatal arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms). The study findings indicated that people at risk of fatal arrhythmias who consumed fish oil daily had a significantly lower risk of experiencing this event.
Skin health and fish oil
Human skin contains a high level of omega-3s, but at the same time, skin health declines as we grow older. The addition of fish oil to your diet or supplement program can help with declining skin integrity and with various skin disorders, such as psoriasis and dermatitis.
Eye health and fish oil
If you lack sufficient omega-3s, you are at greater risk of developing vision problems, including macular degeneration. One study even found that consuming high amounts of fish oil (3.4 g EPA and 1.6 g DHA daily for 6 months) improved vision in people who already had macular degeneration.
Depression and fish oil
People who suffer with major depression tend to have lower levels of omega-3s in their blood. This finding is one reason investigators have looked at the impact of fish oil on depressive symptoms, and some studies have found that supplements may improve depression.
One study, for example, found that taking omega-3s (1.4 g EPA and DHA) for 21 days resulted in a significant reduction in depressive symptoms among young adults with depression.
Brain health and fish oil
If you've heard the saying that fish is brain food, the omega-3s are the reason for this statement. Research indicates that fish oil supplements can help improve brain function among individuals who have mild cognitive impairment. Some researchers suggest people who are beginning to experience some memory and cognitive problems should begin taking fish oil supplements immediately.
Asthma and fish oil
The rising prevalence of asthma, especially among children, makes it especially important to find effective ways to manage this disease. One good example of the potential of fish oil for handling asthma is a review of nearly 100,000 individuals including 11 studies. Overall the reviewers reported that eating fish or use of omega-3 supplements "may be beneficial to prevent asthma in children."
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Buying fish oil
When buying fish oil, there are several factors you need to consider.
- Look for natural fish oil. The most common sources are cod liver, salmon, and sardines. Natural fish oil consists mostly of triglycerides. These are better absorbed and utilized than ethyl ester, found in processed fish oil supplements.
- Natural fish oil contains about 30 percent EPA and DHA, and the remaining 70 percent consists of other fatty acids that can assist with absorption. It also contains vitamins A and D.
- Processed fish oil supplements are more common, less expensive, and not as well absorbed as natural fish oil.
- A small percentage of fish oil on the market is reformed, which means it has been processed further to convert it back into a synthetic triglyceride form. This type of fish oil supplement, which is also known as re-esterified, is well absorbed and the most costly of the fish oil supplements.
Some of the other qualities to consider when shopping for fish oil supplements:
- Freshness: Always check the date when buying fish oil products. Omega-3s can go rancid, and a telltale sign is a foul smell. Never take omega-3s that have gone bad.
- Purity and authenticity: Look for products that have the GOED standard for purity or that say "third party tested." These are indications of safe products that contain what is claimed on the label.
- Sustainability: Look for fish oil that has been certified by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Marine Steward Council, or similar organizations.
Omega-3s in food
Food sources of omega-3s fall into two categories: fish and seafood, and plant-based options.
The best fish and seafood sources are mackerel, salmon, herring, oysters, sardines, anchovies, and caviar.
The best plant-based sources are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, hemp seeds, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and purslane.
Fish oil provides important health benefits that are attributed to the presence of omega-3 fatty acids. For those who don't get omega-3s from fish and seafood on a regular basis, high-quality fish oil supplements are suggested.