Questions about fish oil come my way practically every week! The reason that fish oil has become such a hot topic is because of the powerhouse dietary fats known as Omega-3 fatty acids. You have undoubtedly heard the term in the news cycle or on a product label at the market and for good reason – Omega-3s have been linked to healthy aging throughout life.
As the name implies, there are three fats that make up Omega-3s:
- EPA(eicosapentaenoic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
Two crucial ones — EPA and DHA — are primarily found in certain fish including fatty fish like salmon, tuna, pollock & trout, and shellfish like crab, mussels, and oysters. ALA is found in plant sources such as nuts, flaxseed, chia and hemp. Not only does your body need these fatty acids to function, but they also deliver some big health benefits.
I recently started taking a fish oil supplement out of curiosity. I like to get my vitamins and basic nutrients from food. As a pescatarian I enjoy a plant-based diet that is supplemented with seafood. Leafy greens, fresh fruits, nuts, good fats and whole grains make up the majority of my meals. It’s only been a couple of days since I started taking the supplements so I’ll report later on the results.
As I write this, I want to remind you that I am not a health care professional. I defer to the experts throughout this post and you will find my sources and links to educational sites at the end.
Ready to talk fish oil? Let’s go!
About fish oil and Omega-3 supplements
Fish oil is a concentrated source of omega-3 fats and comes from the tissue of oily fish. Commonly used dietary supplements that contain omega-3s include fish oil (which provides EPA and DHA), flaxseed oil (which provides ALA) and algae oils, which are vegetarian sources of DHA.
I mentioned earlier that fish oil contains two very important omega-3s, DHA and EPA. These are sometimes called the marine omega-3s because they mainly come from fish.
The research on fish oil and Omega-3s is impressive. Fish oil has been proven to offer a variety of benefits, which include:
- Minimizing inflammation
- Inhibiting cancer
- Promoting the health of your digestive tract
- Improving the functioning of your joint as well as relieving pain
- Combating depression and improving your moods
- Strengthening your vascular system
- Thickening of the hair and
- Reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s
This last one is pretty close to my heart. My maternal grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s and my paternal grandmother had dementia. These are two cognitive diseases that I hope to avoid.
Types of fish oil
I use the term fish oil generally, but there are lots of choices to make once you get to the market or when buying online.
The most common forms of fish oil are wild salmon oil, wild Alaskan fish oil, cod liver oil and purified fish oil. You can buy them as softgels, oil or gummies. The milligrams per serving also vary greatly as does the oil quality. This is important. Look for brands that have concentrated fish oil as the first ingredient. Always check the label to find out what you are getting. I advise you that quality fish oil is not cheap, but it may be worth it. Like I said, I’m in the trial period.
I am using a brand called Wiley’s Finest Peak EPA. This brand has 1,000mg of EPA & DHA Omega-3 and is wild caught in US waters. Understand that this is not a paid post and I bought this product with my own dinero. I learned about this brand by doing something I encourage everyone to do – talk to the in-house expert. In my case it is usually the fishmonger, but when buying fish oil is was the expert supplement manager at a local health food store.
There are seven important factors to consider when choosing a fish oil: purity, freshness, potency, nutrients, bioavailability, sustainability and cost.
Wiley has a great website that offers exhaustive information that addresses all of these concerns and goes in depth about how their product processing, ingredients and other good stuff.
There are other fine brands that have a focus on kids. Nordic Naturals is one of those. They offer Omega-3 gummy worms that taste like strawberry and are made from anchovy and sardines (the fruit hits you first then fish flavor). I think I can get hubby to eat these! The same brand has a fun DHA supplement that “pop” in your mouth – according to my health store expert kids come to her asking for these. I tried them and assure you that it is oddly enjoyable.
Other things to consider when purchasing
There is guy named Chris Kresser that has a great post on fish oil supplements. In his lengthy post he beautifully lays out the things to consider when making a purchase:
- The oil must meet international standards for heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants.
- Omega-3 oils are susceptible to oxidation, which makes them rancid. Rancid oils are pro-inflammatory and contribute to the diseases you’re trying to relieve or prevent by taking fish oil in the first place. Make sure your product is fresh and will remain so for 12 months.
- In order to have the desired effect, fish oil must contain an adequate amount of the long-chain omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA. DHA is especially important. Respected health care organizations propose that we eat two servings of oily fish per week for healthy adults. This equals about 500 milligrams (mg) EPA and DHA.
- Nutrients. All fish oils contain some amount of EPA and DHA. However, fish liver oil (from cod, skate or shark) also contains naturally occurring fat-soluble vitamins that are difficult to obtain from foods.
- Bio-availability. The ability to absorb the beneficial components of fish oil is based on the molecular shape of the fatty acids. The more natural the structure the better.
- Sustainability:. The fish should be harvested in a sustainable manner and species that are under threat should be avoided.
- The product must be relatively affordable to be practical for most people.
How long before results are seen?
Blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids increase in proportion to the dose of fish oil. In large doses, optimal blood levels may be reached in about one month, but it will take longer for levels to improve in the brain and heart, reported the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in June 2006. In lab rats, levels of omega-3’s in the brain, heart and liver reached equilibrium after three months.
One producer of omega-3 products advises that most people experience benefits within three months. To reach and sustain levels of EPA and DHA, it’s important to consistently consume the recommended amount of fish oil each day.
Getting too much fish oil may cause side effects, such as bleeding and a weakened immune system. If you take medications to treat diabetes or thin blood, don’t take any fish oil supplements until you consult your physician.
Some people experience minor side effects, such as gas, bloating and diarrhea. Taking several smaller doses during the day or using time-release supplements may prevent these problems.
If you eat foods that are fortified with fish oil, be sure to include the amount in your daily tally. Combining supplements with fortified foods makes it easy to exceed 3 grams, warns a study in Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids in September 2013.
Eat your Omega-3s
An alternative to buying fish oil supplements is actually eating your Omega-3s. Aim to eat fish high in DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids two to three times a week. Here are some good options:
- Salmon (wild has more omega-3s than farmed)
- Lake trout
If you want an easy and exotic recipe filled with Omega-3s try my Hawaiian Ahi Poke recipe.