Last updated on April 10th, 2018
The jury has been in, out and back in again with respect to the exact benefits of fish oil supplementation.
One thing seems to be agreed upon now at least: it is good for you!
Good for your heart, mood, brain, muscles and joints.
A quality Fish Oil supplement will help get your Omega 3s back in line with your Omega 6 intake.
Fish Oil Key Points and Benefits
- Fish oil improves Cardio Vascular health (reduces risk of heart disease)
- Reduces depression in people diagnosed with Major Depression
- Can reduce inflammation – good for joint health
- Helps reduce muscle soreness (DOMS)
- Fish oil supplements provide combined EPA and DHA (Omega 3)
- Total EPA and DHA should come from a mixture of diet and supplements
- An equal amount of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is optimal
- 250mg per day is the minimum for overall health
- 1000mg per day is recommended
- 6000mg per day has been used short term for joint pain therapy
- Bigger doses can be spread out over the day
Fish Oil Overview
Generally speaking, fish oil supplements contain 2 types of omega-3 fatty acid: EPA and DHA – eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid respectively.
Fish oil is the cheapest and most available source of EPA and DHA which is why it is the most common supplemental form.
Western diets are rich in Omega 6 fatty acids, from the large quantity of red meat consumed, amongst other things. However, it has been shown that when Omega-3 and Omega-6 are roughly equal within the human body, it is the healthiest ratio.
Supplementation therefore helps to bring up this balance to a 1:1 ratio, along with a simultaneous effort made with respect to diet if necessary.
This balance of omega 3 and 6 can increase fat loss, improve cardiovascular health, reduce plaque build-up and blood lipid count (specifically triglycerides). It may help prevent the onset of diabetes and various forms of cancer.
Other benefits include: improved cognitive function, reduced depressive symptoms and stress levels.
Editor’s Note: Over the years, there have been some wild statements made about fish oil supplements, exaggerated claims and flat out BS, but that shouldn’t detract from their actual benefits.
As a preventative measure against many major diseases – including heart disease and major depression – fish oil supplements are an excellent addition to dietary intake of omega 3 fatty acids. They can also boost cognitive function and improve joint health.
The latter is particularly valued by strength athletes who suffer from DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). The absorption of Vitamin D is increased when taken alongside fish oil as it is fat soluble.
When taking fish oil supplements, you should align the daily dosage with your goal. 1000mg (1g) seems to be recommended for general health benefits, while somebody in need of the therapeutic effects on joint soreness might take 3 to 6 times as much over the course of a day for a short term period.
Speak to your doctor before running high doses if you have cholesterol issues.
Usage and Dosage Guidelines
EPA and DHA consumption should be split between dietary intake and supplements. Optimal supplement dosage varies depending on objectives and dietary intake.
The minimum effective dose is 250 mg and may be a boost to general health.
Most supplements contain higher quantities; around the 1000 mg mark which is the general recommended amount.
Up to 6g (6000 mg) can be taken per day for a short period of time. This is the strategy adopted by athletes for the relief of DOMS.
If higher doses like this are taken then they should be split up over the day into smaller doses. They are usually in capsules small enough to do this in 3 to 6 doses.
It is worth consulting your doctor about higher dosages before taking them if you have a history of cardio-vascular disease due to high triglyceride and cholesterol levels. They may want to monitor your blood lipids.
It should be taken with meals.
Is Fish Oil Safe – Are There Side Effects?
Fish oil is an omega 3 fatty acid. In appropriate doses, it is arguably more than safe.
The only cautions are mild at best. It is probably wise to discuss Fish Oil supplementation with your doctor if you have issues with cholesterol levels.
Also, preliminary evidence shows that fish oil supplements might slightly hinder the recovery speed from influenza.
Scientific Support and Detailed Benefits
There have been numerous scientific studies conducted with Fish Oil supplements and EPA and DHA separately.
The areas which have generated the most scientific literature cover the effects on Triglyceride levels and cholesterol. Depression and inflammation are common study focuses as well.
Heart Disease – Blood Pressure – Cholesterol – Endothelial Function
Fish oil supplements are reliable for significantly reducing triglyceride levels (which are associated with heart disease), particularly in people with higher than average quantities. In addition, endothelial function is improved (interior lining of blood vessels).
They can also reduce blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. Unlike the reduction of triglycerides, people with normal blood pressure will not experience any change. “Normalizing” blood pressure would appear to the most appropriate description of the action.
With respect to cholesterol (i.e. lipoproteins LDL and HDL), fish oil might reduce or raise LDL levels depending on the existing LDL count of the user. Paradoxically it would appear that people with higher LDL counts may get a small increase. This effect may be offset by a concomitant increase in HDL (“good” cholesterol).
Total cholesterol – on average – does not change with fish oil supplementation. Further studies focusing on cholesterol may be warranted.
We have not put every single study below each property, but the ones we reference are a decent sample of the research as a whole.
Pase MP et al. Do long-chain n-3 fatty acids reduce arterial stiffness? A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. 2011. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22005318]
Vega-López S et al. Supplementation with omega3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and all-rac alpha-tocopherol alone and in combination failed to exert an anti-inflammatory effect in human volunteers. 2004. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14767877]
Bernstein AM et al. A meta-analysis shows that docosahexaenoic acid from algal oil reduces serum triglycerides and increases HDL-cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol in persons without coronary heart disease. 2012. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22113870]
Campbell F. A systematic review of fish-oil supplements for the prevention and treatment of hypertension. 2013. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22345681]
Inflammation, Joint Pain and Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
Although results are mixed, the general impression is that fish oil helps relieve joint pain and muscle soreness, particularly following strength and resistance weight training for people who experience Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
However, the dose required for this is likely to be much higher than the daily “general purpose” dose of 500 to 1000mg (see dosage guidelines below).
As to other markers of inflammation, results are inconclusive.
Dangardt F et al. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation improves vascular function and reduces inflammation in obese adolescents. 2010. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20727522]
Depression – Major Depressive Disorder
Fish oil has been found in studies to be as effective as fluoxetine (the medication that often goes by the trade names of Prozac or Sarafem) but so far only for patients diagnosed with major depression.
At present, the evidence is too thin to say the same for those with minor depression. Again, further study might shed some light on the subject.
NOTE: It could be that people experiencing minor depression as a result of low Vitamin D will experience an improvement once they supplement with 1000 to 2000 IU of Vitamin D3 alongside a Fish Oil supplement, as Vitamin D is fat soluble and may combat D deficiency related depressive symptoms.
Sublette et al. Meta-analysis of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in clinical trials in depression. 2011. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21939614]
Sarris J et al. Omega-3 for bipolar disorder: meta-analyses of use in mania and bipolar depression. 2012. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21903025]
Cognition, Memory, Anxiety and Stress
Cognitive decline in the elderly may be slowed, coupled with improvements in memory and mood (which have been seen in young people also).
There may also be a reduction of anxiety and stress, in part perhaps due to fish oil’s reduction of cortisol levels and increase of blood flow to the brain. The old saying about fish being brain food seems to have some weight.
Narendran R et al. Improved Working Memory but No Effect on Striatal Vesicular Monoamine Transporter Type 2 after Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Supplementation. 2012. [http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0046832]
Kiecolt-Glaser JK et al. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. 2011. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21784145]
Fontani G et al. Blood profiles, body fat and mood state in healthy subjects on different diets supplemented with Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. 2005 [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16101670]
Yurko-Mauro K et al. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. 2010. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20434961]
Fontani G et al. Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects. 2005. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16269019]
Jackson PA et al. DHA-rich oil modulates the cerebral haemodynamic response to cognitive tasks in healthy young adults: a near IR spectroscopy pilot study. 2012. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22018509]
Lucas M et al. Ethyl-eicosapentaenoic acid for the treatment of psychological distress and depressive symptoms in middle-aged women: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. 2009. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19116322]
Aerobic Exercise, Fat Oxidation and Nitric Oxide
An increase in fat oxidation has been noted in one study. This means that fish oil increases the amount of energy being sourced from fat.
Furthermore, nitric oxide production during exercise may be increased, allowing for an increase in blood flow to the working muscles. This vasodilation effect would appear to support the cerebral blood flow increase seen in other studies as well.
Couet C et al. Effect of dietary fish oil on body fat mass and basal fat oxidation in healthy adults. 1997. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15481762]
Decrease in Symptoms of Lupus
A notable reduction of symptoms associated with the disease has been shown at the lower end of the dosage range.
Das UN. Beneficial effect of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids in the management of systemic lupus erythematosus and its relationship to the cytokine network. 1994. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7824535]
NOTE: several other studies support these findings.
Other Possible Benefits
- Homocysteine Reduction – Pooya Sh et al. The efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on plasma homocysteine and malondialdehyde levels of type 2 diabetic patients. 2010. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19540739]
- Lowered Infant Death Risk (when mother is pregnant and supplements with fish oil. Needs further study) – Zhou SJ et al. Fish-oil supplementation in pregnancy does not reduce the risk of gestational diabetes or preeclampsia. 2012. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22552037]
- Photoprotection (from sunlight – reduced risk of DNA damage etc. – only seen in higher doses though. 3.5g, 4g and 10g daily respective to the three studies)