Omega-3 fatty acids
The healthy substances in fish oil are known as the omega-3 fatty acids. Although the highest concentration of these fats is found in fish, you can also find omega-3 fats in other foods, such as flax seed, walnuts and canola oil.
Why all the hype on fish oil now? Fish has been around forever
Nutritionists and those in the alternative health community have understood the value of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish for years. Now that the use and value of fish oil has been extensively studied by mainstream medical institutions, more and more physicians are recommending it for their patients. Go figure.
Fish oil is invaluable for your heart health
The American Heart Association recommends that people consume omega-3 fatty acids from fish and plant sources to protect their hearts. Studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids do the following:
- Decrease the risk of sudden death (from heart disease) and abnormal heart rhythms
- Decrease the development of atherosclerosis and plaque formation
- Decrease blood clots
- Improve the overall health of the body's arteries
- Lower triglyceride (a type of lipid or cholesterol ) levels in the blood
Not only do omega-3 fats keep your heart healthy, they can improve the quality of your life by preventing the devastating damage that can occur with heart attacks or strokes.
What else is fish oil good for?
Fish oil has been found to be of benefit in stroke prevention, Crohn's disease, lupus, prostate cancer, colon cancer, high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and has been found to be effective in fighting Alzheimer's. Interestingly, a recent study done in England found that pregnant women who consumed two to three servings of fish or seafood a week throughout their pregnancies had children with higher IQ's than those pregnant women who consumed no fish or seafood.
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids
There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids. The active forms, found exclusively in fish, are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Fresh fish: Fish that are highly recommended include herring, sardines, wild salmon and fresh tuna. However, it is important to note that farm raised salmon also contain omega-3 fatty acids yet many of these fish are treated with antibiotics, have been genetically modified, and/or have been fed fish pellets with dye to give them a pink color.
Canned fish: Canned salmon, which is packed in the juices of the salmon and contains bones – a great source of calcium - is usually made from wild salmon, and, thus, may be a better option than fresh farm-raised salmon. Canned tuna can contain a fair amount of mercury, and the levels can be quite variable – it is best to limit your intake to once or twice per week.
Plant sources: Another form of the omega-3 fatty acids can be found in plants. Flaxseed and flaxseed oil contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is converted by the liver to the active forms, EPA and DHA. Since the conversion to the active components can vary from person to person, fish oil is a far more potent form of omega-3 fatty acids. Ideally, consume both fish and flaxseed to get your omega-3 fatty acids.
What about fish oil supplements?
Eating fish is probably the best route for getting omega-3 fatty acids, since it is ideal to get nutrients from whole food. However, if you are interested in taking fish oil as a supplement, look for brands that are distilled and that test for contaminants. Taking it as a contaminant-free supplement will help you avoid the problem of being exposed to the mercury from fish. Fish oil supplements from Nordic Naturals and Eskimo Oil are good choices. And here is an important tip: If you have fish oil capsules, and, after piercing, it smells like rotten fish, it is time to find a new bottle. Rancid oil isn't good for you.
Risks of taking fish oil or eating fatty fish
Mercury: There is the potential for fish oil and, of course, fish to contain mercury. Mercury can be toxic to the nervous system and is particularly harmful to the developing nervous systems of babies and small children. Because they may contain too much mercury, there are certain types of fish to avoid or eat sparingly. These include shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. (Check out this consumer guide to mercury in fish.)
Blood thinning: People with bleeding problems should probably avoid fish oil since it thins the blood. If you are on blood thinners, you need to let your healthcare provider know that you are regularly getting fish oil in your diet or taking a supplement so that your bleeding time can be monitored.
Elevates cholesterol: Some who take fish oil might find it elevates their LDL cholesterol slightly. Talk with your healthcare provider about your cholesterol.
Upset stomach: Some people become nauseated after taking fish oil supplements. Whole food sources are a better choice.
Quality: Quality issues with fish oil supplements are huge. It is really important to find a good, mercury-free brand as mentioned above.
Recommended dose for fish oil
Though there isn't a set recommended dose, fish oil supplements in the amount of two to four grams a day have been found to lower triglyceride levels in the blood. Most doctors recommend anywhere from one to three grams of fish oil daily. For their patients with high triglycerides, the recommendation is two to four grams a day.
Before you take fish oil
If you are interested in taking fish oil supplements it is really important to discuss it with your doctor or health care provider first. One more tip, if you find you are burping up fish after you take your supplement, switch to a different brand. There are many, which don't give you a fishy after-taste!!
The Bottom Line
The hype about fish oil is well-deserved. Omega-3's can help you stay healthy now and beyond.
More omega-3 information