Fish Oil: Benefits, Uses, Side Effects, and Warning

For decades, fats of various types have been villainized as the worst thing this planet has to offer, being responsible for the majority of the health issues and complications we experience today; ranging from cardiovascular disease, to metabolic dysfunction and even cancer.

To an extent, these claims are true, as certain fats have no real nutritive value or place in a healthy diet, but as is so often the outcome, one bad egg ends up ruining an entire batch of otherwise good ones.

Today, public opinion on fat is not as grim as it was just three decades ago, thanks in large part to the emergence and meteoric rise of the seemingly innocuous supplement known as fish oil.

The Fish Oil Back Story

As the Western world became more industrialized, the reliance on fish as a primary source of protein in the diet diminished significantly, coinciding with the growth of domesticated animals; namely, chicken and cattle. These livestock had a predictable pattern of growth before being ready for slaughter, something that helped sustain a rapidly growing population.

During this time, however, the first real explosion in cardiovascular disease also started to manifest itself. As people moved from labor-intensive work to manning machines all day long, and coupled with an increase in terrestrial animal fats, a metabolic change ensued that led to a decline in health.

It was not until the 1970s that researchers had their eyes opened about how important and beneficial fish consumption was to the health of the human body when they observed that Eskimos of the far north, and people whose diets revolve heavily around fish were found to have the lowest risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in the world.

This initially puzzled them, as from a macronutrient standpoint, they also consume significantly more fat than their Western counterparts, and yet did not experience anywhere near adverse complications.

This practice of relying on the sea for protein was also commonplace to natives living in Mediterranean regions, who also displayed shockingly low rates of heart disease. In the coming years, lots of research and studies finally led to the conclusion that it was the type of fats contained in the fish that was responsible for their superior cardiovascular health and low risk of related mortality.

There was a time when cod liver oil was standard fare given to kids all over the world, as it was believed to help improve their health. It is today known that its high content of fatty acids is responsible for many of its benefits.

Fish Oil Sources

While you may be thinking that you can effectively get fish oil from any fish species, that isn’t entirely true. They may have small amounts of this fat, but it is usually too insignificant to make a difference.

Rather, the fish you need to consume are fatty fish, usually bigger varieties that are a bit deeper than surface fish (otherwise known as cold water fish). Be sure to eat more of the following:

How Is Fish Oil Different From Other Fats?

Fish oil refers to two fatty acids that are collectively known as Omega-3 fats, DHA or docosahexaenoic acid, and EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid. Interestingly, many people do not know that the actual source of these Omega-3 fats is in algae, which is subsequently consumed by fish and accumulate in their fatty tissue.

But back to what makes fish oil such a health juggernaut; the fatty acids are highly anti-inflammatory. In contrast to many of the Omega-6 and 9 fats that we consume which are pro-inflammatory, fish oil has the opposite effect in reducing inflammatory processes.

As man evolved, our genetic imprint was forged at a certain ratio of fatty acids; mainly Omega-3 to Omega-6. This ratio was somewhere in the vicinity of 1:1, meaning that our ancestors consumed roughly the same amount of fat from terrestrial animals as they did from aquatic sources. This was ideal, as it helped the body retain homeostasis.

Today, the Western world is crippled by many diseases with an underlying inflammatory component; just think of cancer, auto-immune disorders and metabolic changes to name a few. Our current ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 is closer to 1:20, which causes a heavy inflammatory load to be borne.

This is also exactly why many of the benefits observed from increasing fish oil consumption are attributed directly to its anti-inflammatory benefits.

What are some of its many benefits? Let’s explore some of the most significant ones for your health.

15 Amazing Health Benefits Of Fish Oil

Fish Oil

1. Supports Healthy Skin

The importance of the skin is severely underappreciated. When you stop to think of it, it really shouldn’t be, since it is the largest organ your body possesses, and is the primary source of defense against the many environmental dangers we are exposed to every single day.

As such, not surprisingly it is exceedingly common for our skin to first experience the effects of excessive oxidation and inflammation, primarily from too much sun exposure. There are also many other contributors that cause decline in skin health, such as smoking and lifestyle habits, but one thing that often sets into motion this deterioration is damage to the cell membranes of the lower levels of skin.

Fun fact: did you know that the outermost layer or skin is comprised of dead cells? This tough layer offers a (usually) waterproof barrier and defense against physical hazards.

Omega-3 fats are important structural components of the skin’s cell membrane, with lower levels coinciding with accelerated skin deterioration.

Healthy skin that contains sufficient levels of Omega-3 fats will retain more moisture, be more resistant to wrinkles and even help to protect from the damaging effects of sun exposure.

Fish oil is also beneficial for helping to deal with skin disorders with an inflammatory component, such as dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis by modulating the typical immune response to allergens or altering its typical activity pattern itself.

2. Helps With Mental Health Issues

In recent years, the number of diagnosed cases of depression have skyrocketed, partly attributed to improved detection, but also to the lower quality of the typical western diet. The consistent erosion of the diet, with quality foods being replaced with low quality GMO and altered macronutrients (such as Trans fats), has correlated with the incidence of mental health issues.

Studies have indicated that by actively increasing consumption of Omega-3 fats in the form of fish oil or flaxseed oil, the overall frequency of reports of depression and anxiety decrease.

The brain is heavily composed of fat- about 60% by weight, which gives testimony to the importance of quality dietary fat in the form of fish oil. Of the specific Omega-3 fats, EPA seems to be the most beneficial in alleviating the symptoms, which makes fish oil exceptional (and superior) for this purpose.

Even better is the fact that increasing consumption of fish oil and Omega-3 can help ameliorate or improve symptoms in people already diagnosed with the disorders, being a welcome alternative to prescription medication that occur with many undesirable side effects.

In addition to these, fish oil supplementation may prove beneficial in managing symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or psychotic manifestations. Individuals with these disorders usually have low serum Omega-3 levels.

3. Supports Eye Health

Vision loss is a common, yet partially avoidable problem that can be addressed by taking nutrition seriously in your life. As with all things in the human body, as we age we experience a reduction in the overall efficiency of organs and cellular components, with the eye being no different.

Diabetics and people afflicted by hypertension are more likely to experience vision loss owing to disruption of the circulation to the eyes, which when coupled with age related macular degeneration can make for impaired vision.

Diets high in Omega -3 fatty acids, and particularly diets that are abundant in fish oil have been shown to bear associations with reduced risk (or speed) of AMD (age related macular degeneration) which can help prevent the eventuality of blindness.

DHA forms an important part of the retina of your eye, and with its anti-inflammatory actions can help to explain why diets high in fish oil reduce your risk of experiencing visual impairment later in life.

4. Reduces Symptoms Of ADHD In Children

Fish oil supplements are all the rage in children’s supplements today, and for good reason. Turns out that giving children a regular supplement fortified with fish oil or DHA can have favorable effects on their overall attention span and reduce impulsivity.

The number of children diagnosed with ADHD and ADD has consistently risen since the 1970’s, at a time when dietary patterns changed most drastically to mimic the lower quality nutrition we have become accustomed to today.

It is also interesting to note that children with ADHD also commonly have lower blood levels of omega -3 fats, which while not a definitive link, makes a strong case for causation.

It is commonly believed that Omega-3 fats help with memory in kids, but in reality this observation may be secondary to it actually reducing distractions, hyperactivity and overall disinterest with learning.

5. Supports Heart Health

Cardiovascular illness is an absolute behemoth of a disease. This is the reason why it is now the number one cause of death across the world, no longer limited to developed countries with poorer nations also ravaged by the effects of wide availability of fast food as well.

Besides the fact that the fast food industry is all about profits and will cut corners when it comes to using substandard products, is also the burden that you are introducing- significantly more pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fats, diminishing your ideal ratio with Omega-3 even further.

As a result, cholesterol values get out of whack, blood pressure may be affected, increased accumulation of fatty atherosclerosis plaques inside blood vessel walls, elevating your risk of heart attacks and strokes significantly.

Consumption of fish oil supplements or eating more cold water fatty fish can reduce or improve your risk factors of cardiovascular disease, and while it is not to be considered an absolute cure per se, risk reduction is the most you can realistically hope to achieve when it comes to the unpredictable human body.

6. Can Support Weight Loss

Would you be surprised to learn that almost 40% of adults across the world are overweight, with an estimated 10 to 15% being classified as obese? These numbers tend to be even higher in the developed Western world, where almost 50% of all adults are considered to be overweight.

Not surprisingly, obesity increases the risk for several other associated diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.

A large part of the frequency of obesity is attributed to poor dietary consumption patterns, and the reliance on artificial and processed foods.

Studies have shown that consumption of fish oil supplements can have a favorable impact on overall body composition helping to reduce BMI and overall waist circumference.

While fish oil is not neither preventative nor remedial when it comes to ideal weight it does contribute to attaining optimal BMI.

7. May Help Prevent Neurodegenerative Disorders

The effects of oxidation and inflammation on multiple body processes is usually additive. Nowhere is this more evident than the brain, which may be subjected to the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

Not surprisingly, people residing in areas where fish consumption typically exceed that of terrestrial sources, have shown strong associations with lower frequency of these disorders. Even in advanced age these individuals demonstrate superior level of brain function, lesser cognitive decline, and maintain many mental faculties well into old age.

There is even the belief that fish oil may help to bolster memory in older populations, attributed in large part to the anti-inflammatory effects of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.

8. Helps Manage Asthma Symptoms

Asthma is usually diagnosed in early childhood, first manifesting as shortness of breath and labored breathing. It is believed to be attributed to hypersensitivity of the immune system to allergens, and is more common in babies that are shielded from the outside world, or those that are delivered via cesarean section.

In addition to the mainstay of citrus bioflavonoids, it was found that young children given supplements fortified with omega-3 fatty acids primarily that obtained from fish or whose mothers supplemented with a fish oil supplement during pregnancy had a reduced likelihood of developing asthma, or managing symptoms if already present.

It is believed that women that consume omega-3 fish oil supplements during their pregnancy had an average 25% reduced risk of the baby developing asthma shortly after birth.

On that note, these children are also less likely to develop allergies and related disorders such as eczema.

9. May Help Manage Symptoms Of Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome usually rears its ugly head following the development of type II diabetes in adults, frequently occurring with hypercholesterolemia, hypertension and excessive accumulation of fat around the abdominal area.

Adults diagnosed with metabolic syndrome typically have exceedingly high LDL cholesterol values, while simultaneously having low levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.

People diagnosed with metabolic syndrome have a significantly higher risk of experiencing a life-threatening cardiovascular event, and they’re more likely to have poor control of blood glucose and blood pressure.

Supplementation of a fish are supplement may help improve this prognosis, owing to the fact that omega-3 fats might favorably help to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce overall inflammatory load, and decrease the likelihood of atherosclerotic plaques developing. All of these seemingly minor changes can add up to a significant risk reduction, and the potential for weight loss might even help eventually reduce the individual’s need for medication.

10. May Reduce Cancer Risk

Cancer is ranked among the top five causes of death across the world, linked heavily to poor dietary and lifestyle habits.

Excessive oxidative and inflammatory load is implicated as one of the primary contributors to the development of various types of cancer, as damage may occur to healthy cells or at the level of DNA, causing replication of faulty cells. Consumption of fish oil omega-3 supplements can reduce the risk of many types of cancer, showing great promise particularly in reducing colon cancer risk, which may be cut by more than 50%.

The reduced risk of oxidative damage affecting healthy cells seems to be one of the primary mechanisms behind this action, and coupled with diets rich in green vegetables and antioxidant safeguard you a great extent.

11. May Help Treat Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease is a growing public health concern, being common in both alcoholics and non-alcoholics like.

Previously limited to alcoholics only, the reliance on poor quality dietary fats has led to an uptick in diagnosed cases of this condition.

People diagnosed with fatty liver disease typically will not manifest symptoms, but prolonged or continuous deposition of fat within the liver might result in impaired metabolic functioning of this organ, along with chronic inflammation and more seriously – fibrosis. Liver fibrosis basically equates to scarring of the functional tissue, known otherwise as cirrhosis. Severe nonalcoholic fatty liver disease might even result in the need for liver transplantation.

Consumption of fish oil can help to reduce liver fat, along with the chronic inflammation, and if combined with improved dietary habits might allow the liver to resume normal function.

The liver is an extremely hardy organ and resilient to damage so there is hope for people with early stage fatty liver disease.

12. Supports Joint Health

Fish oil supplements are frequently included in joint health formulations, with the belief that they improve lubrication between joints.

Unfortunately, this is not entirely correct, since fish oil primarily helps to alleviate inflammation and tenderness from bone on bone contact, but does not necessarily have a direct role on joint lubrication.

Rather, the omega-3 fats play a role by helping to restore damaged joint tissue, which then produce natural chemicals including synovial fluid that act as lubricants between joints.

Nevertheless, reducing inflammation is helpful overall for the management osteoarthritis and other painful joint conditions, since it allows you to maintain day-to-day mobility and combined with other ingredients, synergistic relief from pain.

13. Helps Improve Sleep

Have you ever used fish oil as a natural sleep remedy?

We wouldn’t be surprised if you answered no, as the vast majority of people would have never heard of it having any application in this field.

Turns out, the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are very important when it comes to sleep, with low levels associated with generalized sleep difficulty in children, and even obstructive sleep apnea.

Melatonin is the hormone that helps us get and stay asleep in the dark, and appears to be tied into overall blood levels of DHA, with lower levels correlating to increased sleep difficulty.

The importance of DHA in the brain may also help explain how it benefits sleep so significantly– perhaps by influencing neurotransmitters and synaptic transmission as well.

14. Neuroprotective Benefits

Fish oil is considered neuroprotective in many ways, as it helps to safeguard the brain and nervous system against certain conditions that get progressively worse. Take for example Alzheimer’s as previously mentioned, but by ensuring that you consume at least small amount of Omega-3 fish oil daily may help to reduce the frequency of epilepsy symptoms, or the progression of multiple sclerosis.

Frequent seizures or spasticity as a result of multiple sclerosis may eventually trigger a cycle or nerve fiber damage that eventually worsens the disease. Although the mechanisms are unclear, it is believed that fish oil’s ability to reduce the impact of these conditions may lie in its ability to stabilize cell membranes, and also reduce inflammatory processes.

15. Reduces Post Workout Muscle Soreness

Muscle soreness the day to two after your workout session often occurs, causing major muscle discomfort that makes it difficult to facilitate normal activity.

Although generally accepted for the most part, anything that could ease the discomfort is a welcome addition in this case, fish oil may be your salvation

Fish oil may help to reduce the production of prostaglandins that trigger the sensation of pain, which even though essential to the muscle building process, does not need to be elevated over the course of 48 hours for hypertrophy to occur.

This is also one reason why bodybuilders commonly take fish oil supplements daily with their breakfast in order to help reduce the post workout muscle pain experienced.

How Much Fish Oil Should I Take?

The answer to this question is completely subjective, as it depends on multiple factors including the amount of Omega-6 and 9 fatty acids consumed. It is considered generally safe, and for the average individual, the American Heart Association says that up to 3 g of fish oil consumed daily is fine.

Athletes and other high-performance individuals often exceed this amount and sometimes consume as much as 10 g daily based on their consumption of other animal fats. Unless you have a specific indication for a higher dose, we do not advise overdoing it. Be sure to consult with your physician or dietitian should you be desirous of increasing this dose.

Also, even though fish oil supplements have their doses represented as total mg, their actual EPA and DHA content is only equivalent to about 50% of this number. Thus, consuming 3g of total fish oil daily equates to about 1500mg combined EPA and DHA.

The precise dose required changes through life, with children between age 4 -8 requiring about 100mg total EPA and DHA, 8-13 years old requiring 200mg combined, and after the age of 14 the usual adult dose.

Side Effects Of Fish Oil Supplements

For the most part, any side effects experienced while supplementing with fish oil is generally mild and only self-limiting. However, as you increase the dose your risk of complications go up in like manner.

The most commonly encountered adverse effects of fish oil consumption includes:

  • Nausea and upset stomach
  • Diarrhea or watery stools
  • Fishy aftertaste in your mouth or fish breath usually a result of the capsule shell disintegrating in your stomach.
  • Allergic reactions if you have pre-existing sensitivities to fish proteins.

Drug Interactions With Fish Oil

Fish oil consumed in low doses is generally considered safe, even though it may interact with certain classes of medication and supplements. These include:

  • Vitamin D – simultaneous consumption of vitamin D and fish oil may lead to poor absorption of the vitamin.
  • Hormonal or contraceptive drugs – as hormones are primarily fat-soluble, increasing the consumption of fish oil or taking at the same time may cause displacement of the hormones from their storage site in the body, and promote their excretion.
  • Certain weight loss drugs – these include the popular Alli, which works by blocking the absorption of fats. The net result will be increased excretion of fat in the stool. For best results, separate the dose to at least two hours apart.
  • Blood thinners – at doses above 3 g daily, fish oil supplements exhibit anti-platelet properties. Combined with common blood thinners, including aspirin and warfarin, this may cause dangerous changes to normal clotting. The risk of bleeding also goes up significantly.
  • Medication for hypertension – since fish oil exhibits mild antihypertensive action on its own, the dose of antihypertensive medication may need to be reduced a bit to compensate.

Other Fish Oil Warnings

Though considered extremely safe for the most part, it is important to know special situations that may be troublesome.

For instance, the consumption of fish oil may reduce immune system activity, leading to increased risk of infections. This is an important consideration in people with compromised immune systems that may be subject to opportunistic infections.

Fish oil may have an adverse effect on overall testosterone levels, based on its chemical nature. Classified as a polyunsaturated fat, fish oil doesn’t have a beneficial effect on serum androgens. Monounsaturated and saturated fats are considered testosterone friendly, so if your testosterone levels are already subpar it would be in your best interest to be careful with overall consumption.

Other major consideration when using a fish oil supplement is the possibility of mercury toxicity as fish accumulate more mercury in the fatty tissue from which oil is extracted. While manufacturing techniques have come a far way eliminating the majority of mercury present in the oil, small amount still persist.

Mercury is classified as a heavy metal, since once in the human body does not easily remove itself from sequestered fat. Effects may become additive, and the individual may even be the victim of unwitting mercury poisoning.

Conclusion

The importance of fish oil in today’s world in more essential than ever. We consume more processed foods than any time in history, and our Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio is totally out of whack.

Virtually everyone on the planet stand to benefit from increasing their fish oil consumption (with the exception of people with allergies), as its anti-inflammatory benefits translate to many benefits on our overall wellbeing.

Be sure not to go overboard with its consumption for risk of mercury poisoning, but opt for a fair amount every day. Coupled with a deliberate reduction in lower quality meat sources (such as pork), and you stand to improve your health regardless of your current stage in life.

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