Fish Oils and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Everything you need to know

by Jason Marr, BScH, ND

While there may still be no "magic bullet" or "fountain of youth" in medicine, fish oils may be the closest thing. There is almost no reason not to ensure optimal intake of essential fatty acids and fish oils, and while you should always consult your licensed health-care practitioner before taking any nutraceutical or herbal supplement, almost everybody will benefit from fish oils.

Heart health

There is more evidence-based research on fish oils than many drugs, particularly for heart health. Fish-oil supplementation has repeatedly shown benefits in both the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease (whether you are on medications or not), including the reduction of heart attack, angina and stroke risks, and a striking 20 percent decrease in mortality rates (within five years). Fish oils may also increase HDL (the "good" cholesterol) and lower total cholesterol. All of these benefits come with zero side-effects in most people! Recently, fish oils have shown potential benefit in the management of type 2 diabetes mellitus via increasing adiponectin, which is a hormone associated with lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.

(For heart health: 1,000 mg per day of combined EPA and DHA in any ratio

For brain and mood: 3,000 mg per day minimum of combined EPA and DHA in a ratio of at least 6:1 of EPA to DHA

For inflammation and pain: 3,000 mg per day minimum of combined EPA and DHA in any ratio

For anti-aging benefits: 2,000 mg per day minimum of combined EPA and DHA in any ratio

Safety fact: Fish oils have not been shown to thin the blood or cause bleeding, despite theoretical concerns, even at very high doses.

Taste tip: If you're "burping up" a fishy taste, it's probably not the fish oil—it's you. Improving your digestive function will alleviate this annoying symptom!)

Anti-aging and telomeres

Scientists have discovered that our DNA strands can only be replicated a finite number of times before proteins that we call "telomeres" break down. Telomere length has been shown to be associated with longevity. Fish oils are amongst the only known dietary factors that maintain, and may even extend, telomere length. Fountain of youth, indeed.

Brain and mood

Fish oils may aid in the stabilization of mood, anxiety and depressive disorders. They should be considered essential adjuctive treatment in any mental/emotional state or disorder. Optimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood are associated with increased mental capacity, focus and concentration, and they help us cope with stress.

Anti-inflammation and pain

Fish oils prevent the production of inflammatory chemicals (2-series prostaglandins) in the body and boost the production of anti-inflammatory chemicals (3-series prostaglandins). "While their effect is not immediate, medium- to long-term regular consumption of fish oils in appropriate doses can effectively control and prevent many, if not all, inflammatory conditions including, but not limited to, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disorders, allergies, asthma and eczema.

Choosing a fish oil: EPA and DHA, not "fish oil"

It doesn't matter how much "fish oil" you're taking; you're taking it for the benefits of two specific omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (EPA and DHA). Look for avfish oil that has as close to 1,000 milligrams (mg) of EPA and DHA combined, for maximum effect from EPA and DHA from the least amount of fish oil. When comparing prices, determine how much you are paying per 1,000 mg EPA and DHA.

What ratio of EPA:DHA?

Fish oils naturally provide EPA and DHA in a ratio of 3:2, but 2:1 and higher ratios are commonly found in the fish oils available to us. This ratio doesn't matter, unless you're taking fish oil for mental/ emotional symptoms or disorders. In these cases, take ratios of EPADHA of 6:1 or even higher, for the best results.

Omegas from plants?

Flaxseed, hemp seed and algae can all provide us with omega-3 essential fatty acids. Unfortunately, the EPA and DHA content is very low in algae and is non-existent in other sources. Your body cannot convert these other forms of omega-3 to EPA and DHA very efficiently. They still have great health benefits; they're just not as good as EPA and DHA.

What about krill?

Krill oil is substantially more expensive  than  fish  oil,   and though it is a natural source of some great antioxidants and other healthy fats, it is very low in EPA and DHA. Is it better? Maybe, but it's certainly not worth the money, and there's no science to prove it yet.

Get pharmaceutical grade

Fish oils, since they come from fish, are naturally high in toxins and heavy metals. Getting a pharmaceutical-grade fish oil is important to ensure you are getting a pure, clean and high-quality product and that  you're   not   doing  more harm than good. Buying fish oil on the retail market is a gamble; you never really know what you're putting in your body. Don't be fooled by the marketing. Unless the company will show you a certificate of analysis for their product, there's no way to prove safety or quality.

Capsules are better

Capsules are manufactured in a nitrogen atmosphere and hermetically sealed, so they will not oxidize or go rancid. If you have difficulty swallowing gel caps, liquids may be the better choice for you.

Liquids may be easier to take, especially in large doses, but are more prone to oxidation. If you choose a liquid, choose the smallest bottle possible, never store without the lid on, refiger-ate and keep away from sunlight or heat.

Save the fish?

Contrary to popular belief, fish oil is a very tiny market worldwide, and fish are not caught for the purpose of the oil anyways. Choosing fish-oil sources that are from small fish (like anchovies and

sardines) ensures that choosing to take a fish-oil supplement has negligible effect on the environment and is not a sustainability issue at all. 


Jason Marr, BScH, ND, is a licensed naturopathic physician and director of the multidisciplinary clinic Evoke Integrative Medicine in downtown Vancouver, B.C. His practice focuses on corporate wellness workshops and seminars, brain medicine and cognitive performance, fatigue, anxiety and stress management, and digestive issues, using cost-effective, functional and evidence-based medicine approaches.

In Defence of Fish Oil Research

by the Canadian Health Food Association

A recently published article authored by Dr. George Fodor and colleagues calls into question methods from a 40-year-old study on the impact of fish consumption on cardiovascular disease risk. Recent high-quality scientific articles clearly characterize Dr. Fodor's commentary as irrelevant for several reasons. Since the 1970s when research began in the field of the health benefits offish oil, a staggering body of thousands of research articles has emerged to support the health-protective effects of dietary fish consumption and high-dose fish-oil supplementation.

A 2013 meta-analysis, the gold-standard method for examining a treatment effect, found that consuming high-dose omega-3s from fish oil was beneficial for a host of cardiac outcomes, including reducing cardiac death and sudden heart attacks by up to 33 percent in people with a history of cardiovascular disease. These findings support the benefits that thousands of Canadians receive from these safe and effective natural health products.

All natural health products (NHPs) authorized for sale in Canada (including fish oil) must provide evidence supporting their health claims. When the proper dosage is taken, NHPs can provide significant health benefits and pose minimal risk.

It is misleading and potentially harmful to suggest that one study conducted almost 40 years ago would discredit the huge body of evidence available today in support of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil. NHPs improve the quality of the lives of Canadians when consumed as part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle and when taken as recommended, are both safe and effective.

CH FA Statement, May 14, 2014