Before the late 1990s, most of us had likely never really heard about fish oil. However, the scientific research over the last 15 years has definitively shown that fish oil has many benefits. The anti-inflammatory properties, the heart-healthy qualities, the cognitive boosts — fish oil is truly the one supplement from which nearly everyone can benefit.
However, there has been an increasing amount of research which shows that fish oil may not be all that it is cracked up to be. But is this evidence viable? Scientific research is notoriously difficult to decipher.
Interestingly, one of the key tenets of the Paleo approach is that real food is pretty much all you need. In this case, it should be noted that fish oil (more specifically, omega-3 fatty acids) can be easily obtained via food. For example, a 6 oz. wild-caught salmon can provide over 1 gram of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — which is essential for brain health and development, as well as a variety of other physiological processes.
So, before we go any further, it is important to note that fish oil is definitely not needed as a supplement. Eating enough wild-caught fish will help you to reach your omega-3 goals. However, many of us do not choose to eat fish on a regular basis, so it makes sense to add a good omega-3 fatty acid supplement to one’s daily routine, if need be.
What Is Fish Oil?
Many people ask me “What is this fish oil stuff, and why should I take it?” Quite simply — fish oil is taken from the tissues of oily fish. A common misconception is that these fish actually produce omega-3 fatty acids/fish oil – when in reality they have simply accumulated these fatty acids. This is the reason why many health organizations recommend that certain predatory fish (at the top of the food chain) should not be consumed on a regular basis — they accumulate lots of other nasty things, too.
Since what we really care about when discussing fish oil are the two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, we need to understand what exactly they are. EPA is a precursor to a platelet aggregation inhibitor, prostaglandin-3, as well as leukotriene-5 and thromboxane-2. As mentioned previously, fish do not get EPA via production, they obtain it from eating algae. Both EPA and DHA are conditionally essential – meaning they sometimes cannot be produced by the body, and need to be consumed via food or other means.
Adequate availability of DHA and EPA is fundamental to brain health and function. In fact, many studies have looked at the myriad health benefits associated with fish oil intake. DHA, in particular, is a main part of your eye (specifically the retina), as well as being a major part of human sperm and the cerebral cortex (a region of your brain). In addition, human breast milk is rich with DHA, and nearly half of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in your brain are, in fact, DHA. If so far fish oil seems pretty important to a healthy human existence, you’re right.
Where to begin? The benefits of fish oil are numerous! One of the most commonly mentioned is fish oil’s ability to aid in the treatment of heart disease. Many different scientific studies have looked at this specific niche of health, in fact. Fish oil his also been studied to help with high triglycerides. However, the benefits of getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in one’s diet goes far beyond these two specific conditions.
For example, fish oil has been scientifically studied to aid in weight loss. It has also been studied to help with acne. Beyond this, some studies have even linked fish oil to behavioral benefits in children with ADHD. Some studies have also shown that fish oil may help with anxiety, depression and cognitive issues.
As wonderful as fish oil may now seem, be wary of manufacturers over-hyping its benefits in order to sell more products. Additionally, some studies have shown negative outcomes from fish oil supplementation. Some new reports also claim that fish oil does not help prevent cardiovascular disease, but oftentimes these studies are not controlling for other lifestyle factors, or they have other design issues.
Though some studies are very much legitimate, it is hard to really recommend that people should not go out of their way to get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their daily life. For starters, Americans do not consume nearly enough wild-caught fish or protein. Secondly, DHA is essential to human health, so telling Americans to not consume this fatty acid wouldn’t be wise.
This is doubly true for pregnant mothers or infants, as DHA is essential to brain growth and development. Without it, you will run into serious health issues. In fact, researchers in the above-linked study put it succinctly: “Studies have shown that infants of mothers supplemented with DHA had higher mental processing scores, psychomotor development, eye-hand coordination and stereo acuity.”
With all the scientific research out there, it seems very difficult to advise against taking fish oil (or eating enough omega-3s) on a daily basis. However, what one may be able to say is that too much fish oil certainly won’t help (and may cause harm), and that it also is not a miracle cure. One’s diet and lifestyle need to be in proper order, or else fish oil may do almost nothing.
How Much Should I Take?
While intakes will vary from person to person, about 1 gram of DHA per day (because it is the most bioavailable form) is all that most people will need. There are many different options for DHA out there on the market, and it is not very expensive. It is also important to follow a Paleo diet (or another nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory approach) because too much omega-6 can be very bad for your body, and will wreak havoc in the form of low-grade systemic inflammation or other problems.
Do I Need It?
If you are thinking about skimping on fish oil, I would strongly advise against it. A vast body of research is continually showing a unique role for DHA in neurodevelopment as well as in prevention of neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. Without it, problems are most definitely likely to arise. And remember, a standard American diet is very high in omega-6 — which further displaces DHA from membrane phospholipids. This is bad news for your body and brain. So in short, yes, you need it.
The Bottom Line
While the new studies about fish oil are certainly interesting, they do not discount the simple human need for omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA). Most do not change much about what we really know about fish oil.
Unfortunately, this type of thing is common in the nutrition world, as truly new information, which would cause you to change your choices, is extremely rare. Instead, we see a myriad of small “breakthroughs,” which are not really breakthroughs at all.
In conclusion, a Paleo diet is ideal for health, and including some wild-caught fish (which are high in omega-3 fatty acids) or supplementing with DHA is really all one needs. It is quite easy to get lost in all the hubbub and hype on the Internet and on the television.
So when you read new scientific research or hear about a “shocking” new report, be sure to choose wisely, and always take “breakthroughs” with a very big grain of salt (preferably iodized).