Fish Oils

Fish oils have a long history of supplementation. They are the most often consumed dietary supplement globally. All fish oils are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and these are essential for good health.

If fish is not your bag, especially oily fish, then supplementing with fish oils is probably going to be enough for you. There is of course plenty of scepticism about supplementation generally and fish oil is no stranger to scams and snake oil. There are research reviews that suggest they have no benefit whatsoever. If you are healthy and have a wide-ranging diet then supplementation is not necessary.

The Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 is a family of fats that includes:

  • ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) – which the body can’t make for itself but is found in vegetable oils, brussels sprouts, nuts and seeds and is good source for those on vegan diets.
  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – which the body can make from ALA but are also present in oily fish and fish oils, including cod liver oil.

The main benefits of fish oil supplements are:-

Positively Influences Heart And Cardiovascular Benefits

Heart disease is still the leading cause of death around the world. It seems though that people eat plenty of fish have a lower rate of heart disease. We know that there are many risk factors for heart disease and that a number of them are reduced by consuming oily fish.

Cholesterol: eating fish and taking fish oil raises the levels of good HDL cholesterol. It does not appear to reduce the levels of bad LDL cholesterol.

It all started in many ways in 1971 when a Danish research team were trying to understand why the Inuits of Greenland had much lower cholesterol levels along with a lower level of heart disease. The levels compared favourably with Danes living in Denmark as well as Inuits who were also living in that European country. It was suspected that people in Greenland had a high fish or marine based diet and this provided them with sufficient protection from the ravages of bad cholesterol and other complications of heart disease. Nowadays the whole theory concerning the Eskimos has been discredited but the ideas still rumble on.

There is evidence in 2020 that taking fish oil supplements may well have no benefits at all with improving situation where heart disease is concerned (Abdelhamid et al., 2018).

May Reduce The Impact Of Mental Disorders

Given the brain is 60 per cent fat and that a significant amount of it is omega-3 fatty acids, it stands to reason that fish oil would have substantial effects on brain structure and chemistry.

There is some evidence that high doses reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

There is some evidence it reduces the incidence of ADHD.

Might Reduce Inflammation

Inflammation is the way in which the body uses its immune system to fight off infection and heal itself. A number of chronic inflammatory conditions occur such as diabetes, arthritis, depression and heart disease.

Fish Oils And Weight Loss

Obesity is a major public health problem affecting 36% of the population in the United States and a risk factor for many chronic disorders (Kopelman, 2000). 

May Improve Bone Health

Too much fat in the diet as associated with obesity. It is also associated with lowering levels of bone density which are necessary to keep bones free of fractures. A number of epidemiological studies supported by ones with animals indicate that fish oil is a benefit to good skeletal health.

Fish Oils And Cancer

At the moment there is no evidence taking a fish oil supplement reduces the risk of developing cancer (Hanson et al., 2020).

Research from the University of East Anglia reported in 2020 suggests there is no effect on reducing cancer. In fact there is a slight increase in the risk of prostate cancer although this risk is relatively low.  The team looked at 47 trials involving adults who did not have cancer at the time, had an increased risk of cancer or had a previous cancer diagnosis. They also looked at 86 trials with evidence on cardiovascular events or deaths.

Lead author Dr. Lee Hooper, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, stated: “Our previous research has shown that long-chain omega 3 supplements, including fish oils, do not protect against conditions such as anxiety, depression, stroke, diabetes or death.

“The evidence on omega 3 mostly comes from trials of fish oil supplements, so health effects of oily fish, a rich source of long-chain omega 3, are unclear. Oily fish is a very nutritious food as part of a balanced diet, rich in protein and energy as well as important micronutrients such as selenium, iodine, vitamin D and calcium—it is much more than an omega 3 source.

“But we found that there is no demonstrable value in people taking omega 3 oil supplements for the prevention or treatment of cancer. In fact, we found that they may very slightly increase cancer risk, particularly for prostate cancer.

“However this risk is offset by a small protective effect on cardiovascular disease.

“Considering the environmental concerns about industrial fishing and the impact it is having on fish stocks and plastic pollution in the oceans, it seems unhelpful to continue to take fish oil tablets that give little or no benefit.”

Could It Help Support Healthy Skin

Our skin is actually the largest organ of the body. It is full of omega-3 fatty acids. As we age our skin just gets older because it is exposed to the Sun, loses its elasticity and becomes wrinkled. There are some conditions like psoriasis and dermatitis which may benefit from fish oil supplementation.

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References

Abdelhamid, A. S., Brown, T. J., Brainard, J. S., Biswas, P., Thorpe, G. C., Moore, H. J., … & Song, F. (2018). Omega‐3 fatty acids for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (11) (Article).
Hanson, S., Thorpe, G., Winstanley, L., Abdelhamid, A., & Hooper, L. (2020). Omega-3, omega-6 and total dietary polyunsaturated fat on cancer incidence: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised trials. British Journal of Cancer. (Article)
Kopelman, P.G. (2000) Obesity as a medical problem. Nature. 404 (6778) pp. 635–43 (Article)
Revision
#1. 2nd March 2020. Additional information relating to lack of evidence supporting reduction in risk of cancer.
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