The Benefits of Fish Oil Supplements

by Dr. Julian Whitaker
Filed Under: Nutrient Guide, Nutritional Support
Last Reviewed 02/21/2014

The Benefits of Fish Oil Supplements

Fish oil is, hands down, one of the most valuable nutritional supplements. In fact, it’s such a dependable therapy that I’ve been recommending it for years to my patients at the Whitaker Wellness Institute.

Benefits of Fish Oil Supplements Are Essential for Optimal Health

Interest in using fish oils to protect against disease gained momentum in the mid-1970s, with the publication of revolutionary research on the extremely low incidence of cardiovascular disease among the Greenland Eskimos, despite the fact that they subsisted on a diet containing more than 70 percent fat. It was determined that the type of fat the Eskimos ate, derived primarily from fatty cold-water fish and marine mammals, protected them against diseases that plague Westerners.

This set off a flurry of studies, which firmly established that two types of fat found in cold-water fish oils—omega-3 fatty acids known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—provide this protection. Let’s take a closer look at the many benefits of fish oil supplements.

Benefit of Fish Oil Supplements: Heart Protection

EPA enhances heart health in a number of ways. More specifically, it:

  • Discourages platelets in the blood from sticking together and forming blood clots (a common cause of heart attack and stroke)

  • Relaxes the arteries, preventing spasms that drive up blood pressure

  • Lowers cholesterol and triglyceride levels

  • Reduces incidence of ventricular arrhythmia—uncontrolled, irregular beating of the heart that is a primary cause of sudden cardiac death.

Benefit of Fish Oil Supplements: Dampening Inflammation

Fish oil also improves any condition that involves inflammation—and that covers a lot of ground. Inflammation has been found to be a player in everything from arthritis and autoimmune disorders to diabetes and heart disease. EPA is converted into anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, messenger molecules that regulate cellular activity throughout the body.

One of these beneficial prostaglandins, PGE3, not only has mild anti-inflammatory effects of its own, but also inhibits the production of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. In fact, it works in a manner similar to NSAIDs, but better. While NSAIDs also decrease the production of several prostaglandins that protect against gastrointestinal irritation and bleeding, EPA interferes only with those that cause inflammation and pain.

Fish oil is a true blessing for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. In a year-long, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 23 patients were divided into three groups and placed on either six 1,000 mg capsules of olive oil, six 1,000 mg capsules of fish oil, or three 1,000 mg capsules of each of the two types of oil. While improvements were noted in all three groups, the most significant were found in the group that took six fish oil capsules.

Other autoimmune disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease, have also responded favorably to supplementation in clinical trials.

Benefit of Fish Oil Supplements: Boosting Cognitive Function …

Since more than half of your brain is made up of fat, and nearly 30 percent of that fat is DHA, it makes sense that the benefits of fish oil supplements would be profound on the brain. DHA helps maintain brain cells’ structural integrity and facilitates communication between neurons. It’s especially abundant in the cortex, the gray matter of the brain largely responsible for learning and reasoning, and it makes up much of the myelin sheaths that insulate brain cells.

When DHA is scarce, the brain must resort to using substandard fats, which makes optimal functioning next to impossible. As a result, numerous cognitive problems arise, including lower IQ, memory loss, concentration difficulties and even dementia.

The good news is that many of these conditions can be avoided or even reversed by eating plenty of omega-3–rich fish and supplementing with high-quality fish oil. For example, UCLA researchers discovered that DHA increases production of a protein called LR11, which is responsible for breaking down the proteins that create the beta amyloid plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s.

Benefits of Fish Oil Supplements on Your Mood

In addition to keeping you sharp, fish oil may make you happier. Numerous studies link higher levels of omega-3s and frequent consumption of fish with decreased risk of depression. In one study, when patients took 1 g of EPA daily for 12 weeks, depression scores fell by 50 percent.

A patient of mine had even better results. After taking Prozac for three years, she weaned herself off the antidepressant. But in the ensuing months, her depression and anxiety returned in full force. Then she started taking four capsules of fish oil each day along with B-complex vitamins. Today, she says, “This combo really works! I feel normal and healthy and in control of my life.”

Patients with more severe mood disorders also reap the benefits of fish oil supplements. A Harvard study examining fish oil for people with bipolar disorder was actually put on hold after four months. Its effects were so profound, and those taking it had such significant periods of remission, that the researchers were ethically compelled to offer fish oil to all study participants.

Fish Oil Benefits Children, Too

DHA is particularly important for the developing brain, and expectant mothers can give their kids a leg up by increasing their omega-3 intake.

In one study, women were given cereal bars containing 300 mg of DHA or placebo bars to eat five times a week beginning in their 24th week of pregnancy. When the children of these women were nine months old, they were evaluated, and the babies whose mothers had eaten the DHA-enriched snacks performed markedly better in tests of problem solving.

The best way to ensure that newborns continue to reap the benefits omega-3 fish oil is to feed them DHA-rich breast milk. Studies show that breastfed kids have somewhat higher IQs, earlier motor skills, fewer behavioral and emotional problems, and lower risk of minor neurological problems later in life.

Speaking of behavioral problems, children with them often have lower red blood cell levels of omega-3 fatty acids. And studies show that supplements containing high doses of DHA, EPA, and omega-6 fats normalize fatty acid levels and improve attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity—without any of the adverse effects of Ritalin.

Fish oil is also being explored as a treatment for autism and Asperger’s syndrome, with promising results. A pilot study revealed that when kids with these conditions were given essential fatty acid supplements, their language and learning skills improved.

How to Get the Benefits of Omega-3s

I recommend that everyone, regardless of health status, take a minimum of 2 g of high-quality fish oil per day. If you require large doses, look for liquid or concentrated fish oil supplements—they beat taking handfuls of capsules.

You can also boost your intake of omega-3s by eating two or three weekly servings of low-mercury, cold-water fish, such as wild Pacific salmon and sardines.

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