Fish oil is a commonly used supplement, but few people actually know what it’s for or why they’re taking it. Those who don’t take it often wonder: should I be using fish oil supplements?
If you don’t regularly eat fatty fish in your diet, at least three to five times per week, you likely aren’t getting enough fatty acids.
Fish oil supplements can help ensure that your body has the fatty acids it needs for cellular health, anti-inflammatory protection, and more.
What is Fish Oil?
Fish oil is a supplemental form of polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, which can also be known as omega-3 fatty acids (although omega-6 fatty acids are also PUFAs).
Omega-3 fats are required from dietary sources because the body cannot make them on its own, and they’re necessary for numerous body processes.
These required fatty acids are also referred to as essential fatty acids, or EFAs, because they’re required for health. Since the body can’t synthesize them on its own, deficiencies can be common, and when they occur, can impact every cell in the body.
Essential fatty acids and fish oil are necessary for good health!
Fish oil supplements tend to come in gel capsules or liquid form, in most cases, with lemon or other flavorings added to tone down the extremely fishy taste.
Most supplements are designed to be taken daily, but the types, doses, and forms can vary dramatically from one product to another.
Even if you eat seafood in your diet, you may still benefit from a daily fish oil supplement since, as you’ll see below, fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids are essential for numerous body processes, and few people actually consume too much.
10 Amazing Health Benefits of Fish Oil
Fish oil comes with a long list of research-backed health benefits.
Inflammation initially starts in the body as a healing response, but the chronic nature of many diseases and a stressful modern way of living can leave inflammation continuing unchecked, resulting in inflammatory diseases, conditions, and damage within the body. This can range from gut problems, digestive issues, autoimmune diseases, and joint pain, among many other things.
Inflammation is commonly associated with many conditions such as:
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune disease
- Digestive disorders
- Hormone problems
- Mood disorders
- Kidney and liver disorders
The reach of inflammation is not limited to those conditions, and it can be associated with nearly every condition. Even healthy people have a certain level of inflammation within their bodies.
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are highly anti-inflammatory and work to cool the flames of chronic inflammation. When taken regularly, fish oil can even help to reverse damage done by inflammatory processes like joint pain, leaky gut, and other chronic conditions.
How does fish oil reduce inflammation? It can reduce production of cytokines, which are inflammatory molecules that perpetuate inflammatory responses within the body. Fish oil can also suppress gene expression by pro-inflammatory genes.
Fish oil can also reduce physical pain felt from inflammatory conditions, like arthritis. It can even help to reduce dependence on anti-inflammatory medications, which often come with hefty side effects.
Research has shown that fish oil can specifically help to work against the inflammatory cytokines that drive autoimmunity in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, providing some relief from painful and life-altering symptoms. (source)
Protects brain function.
Fish oil is protective of a healthy brain, whether it’s in utero before a baby is born, as a child, a teen, an adult, or even the elderly. Fish oil benefits don’t age out and should be considered as vital for every phase and season of life.
A pregnant woman requires ample amounts of DHA to ensure that fetal brain development is on track; deficiency in DHA during this crucial time can have damaging effects on brain formation and even intelligence. DHA during the first months and years of life is required for continued brain development and building.
In children, fatty acids and fish oil can help to bring balance to childhood disorders like ADHD, ADD, and other behavioral problems. Fish oil supplementation can help to address attention problems, aggressive behavior, impulsiveness, and can even improve learning ability and decision-making skills.
Beyond that, fish oil is protective of the youthfulness of the brain and can help to work against the onset of age-related breakdowns like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Research shows that those who have more fish oil and eat more fish experience reduced brain decline as they age. (source) Fish oil even has the potential to improve memory.
Keeps skin healthy and supple.
It’s not vanity to want healthy skin. The skin is the largest organ that protects our bodies from exposure to a toxic and dirt-filled world. When skin is dry, cracked, and aged, its barrier function is less effective than if it is supple, moisturized, and healthy.
Skin requires omega-3 fatty acids to maintain a supple and moisturized state, and fish oil supplements work as an internal moisturizer and lubricant for healthy skin.
You can smear all the creams in the world on your skin, but if you’re deficient in these skin-moisturizing nutrients from the inside, you’ll always battle dry and deprived skin problems.
Aging naturally leads to skin that is more dry, wrinkled, and prone to problems with healing, but fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and other age-related skin problems.
Even psoriasis, dermatitis, and eczema have all been shown to improve as a result of balancing internal fatty acid levels by supplementing with EPA and DHA. (source)
Protects cardiovascular health.
Heart disease is the primary cause of death across the world. While there is no one thing that causes it, research shows that people who have a higher fish oil intake have lower occurrences of heart disease. (source)
Several risk factors associated with heart disease are associated with inflammatory processes within the body, which fish oil can help to protect against.
Fish can both boost levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol while reducing LDL cholesterol. It can even work to lower triglyceride levels by as much as 30 percent.
High blood pressure is another risk factor associated with heart disease, and regular intake of fish oil can help to lower blood pressure. Even if just by a few points, this can be heart-protective.
Heart disease occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries, causing them to harden, and leading to a greater risk of heart attack. Fish oil intake can help to prevent plaque from setting in in the first place.
Promotes weight loss and fat loss.
Nearly 40 percent of adults across the world are overweight, with well over 10 percent of them facing chronic obesity. These numbers are dramatically higher in the US alone.
Obesity itself is a risk factor for many chronic and deadly conditions like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, and many autoimmune or inflammatory disorders. (source)
While fish oil isn’t a magic cure-all for obesity or weight problems, it can help correct some underlying imbalances that may make it difficult for people to lose weight, such as inflammation, digestive issues, and hormone problems.
Fish oil can even help to improve body composition and can help lead to fat loss.
When paired with a healthy diet and regular exercise, fish oil has been shown by research to be promoting of healthy weight loss and a reduced waist-to-hip ratio.
Protects the liver from damage.
The liver is the largest internal organ that is responsible for detoxing the body from toxins. It is also involved in digestion, hormone breakdown, and alcohol metabolism.
We’re really only as healthy as our liver, and sadly, modern society has seen an uptick in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease as a result of poor diet, gut microbiome imbalances, and other digestive and health disorders. (source)
Fish oil is protective of the liver and can not only improve the liver’s ability to function, but it can reduce inflammation and even reverse some symptoms and damage from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
When given the right nutrients, like fish oil, the liver has the amazing capability of being able to regenerate and repair itself, but this can only happen when it has the nutrients it needs and a break in the constant barrage of inflammation.
Supports mental health.
The brain is made up of almost 60 percent fat, and a majority of that is omega-3 fatty acids. Without enough EFAs in the diet, brain health and function will suffer. This doesn’t only refer to intelligence and brain function, but also to mental health such as depression and anxiety.
Research has shown that people who have major depression often have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. (source) Research has also shown that regular supplementation with fish oil can help to moderate symptoms of depression and actually improve it overall.
Specifically, EPA is more effective at improving depression versus DHA, which focuses more on building the brain’s function, instead of nourishing existing pathways.
Regular intake of fish oil, either from eating fish or taking fish oil supplements, can help to prevent or decrease symptoms of mental disorders, including psychotic problems, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Depression has been referred to as inflammation of the brain, and by supplementing with regular intake of fish oil, it and all other brain-related conditions can be improved or supported naturally.
Protects against asthma and allergies.
Asthma and allergies are on the rise in today’s world, especially in babies and young children. Some research has tied it to the lack of omega-3 fatty acids naturally found in dietary sources, especially in those who are so young.
Fish oil has been shown to reduce asthma symptoms and attacks, especially in children. (source)
Research has even shown that pregnant women who supplement with fish oil can help to reduce the occurrence of allergies in her baby, even before birth.
Builds healthy bones.
Osteoporosis and brittle bones are a major concern for adults over age 50, and especially women, since hormone shifts can alter how bones are rebuilt. As the body ages, mineral stores are lost, and this can interfere with how the body continues to remake bone structures.
While calcium and vitamin D are known to be required for bone health, fish oil is often overlooked, but equally as essential for healthy bones and the prevention of osteoporosis.
Research shows that people who have higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids have better bone density. (source)
Supports clear vision and eye health.
Aging naturally impacts many areas of the body, but assuming that eye health has to worsen as you get older is unnecessary. Omega-3 fatty acids are an important structural component of the eyes, and research shows that people who don’t get enough in their diets are more prone to having eye disease, poor vision, and other complications, like macular degeneration. (source)
Fish oil supplementation can help to improve eye health when regularly taken for at least four months. More research is needed to further explore the impact on eye health that balanced omega-3 intake levels may have.
Types of Fish Oil Supplements
While there are many different formulations of supplements on the market, you’ll notice that fish oil is commonly broken down into two types: EPA and DHA.
These are two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids. Often, they’re seen together, but sometimes a supplement will be only EPA or only DHA.
While EPA and DHA have overlapping benefits, they do have some distinct differences.
EPA focuses more on reducing inflammation, where DHA is more of a building block and structural component of skin, eyes, and even the brain, with deficiencies being noted to have strong impacts on intelligence, brain health, and neurological disorders.
DHA is commonly recommended for pregnant women, but it’s beneficial for everyone else, too. Likewise, pregnant women also need EPA.
Fish oil supplements tend to be sourced from herring, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and salmon, but sometimes they’re more specific versions, like cod liver oil or krill oil.
So how do you know which supplements are best?
First, if you don’t consume fish regularly—at least three to five servings per week—you could likely benefit from a fish oil supplement.
Fish oil supplements come in varying degrees of concentration. While one might be 1,000 milligrams, it may only contain a few hundred milligrams of EPA or DHA.
These types are less beneficial than more concentrated versions, such as a 1,000-milligram supplement that contains 500 or more milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids. You want to take into consideration how much DHA and EPA are in them, and not only the total fish oil milligrams.
You’ll also want to read the inactive ingredients in supplements to ensure that they’re not using fillers or strange ingredients.
Fish oil is prone to oxidative damage because omega-3 fatty acids are not stable fats and can be damaged from light, heat, and air. Fish oil supplements include antioxidant ingredients for this reason, often vitamin E.
How to Take Fish Oil + What Dosage is Best?
Fish oil dosage recommendations are typically dependent on age and health conditions. The World Health Organization suggests 200 to 500 milligrams of EPA/DHA, but higher levels may be needed for pregnancy, breastfeeding, heart disease, or other conditions, with the tolerable upper limit being 2,000 to 3,000 milligrams.
As always, supplements should only be taken under the direction of your medical practitioner.
While fish oil taken in supplement form is ideal for a consistent daily intake, you should also eat foods to boost your omega-3 fatty acids. Foods that are rich in these nutrients include:
- Grass-fed beef
- Chia seeds
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.