The Magic Supplement: Fish Oil

Want a pill that can boost memory, prevent heart attacks and make your brain function more efficiently?

What can fish oil do? A better question might be - what can't fish oil do? 

My first encounter with fish oil came when I was battling a mild case of eczema. The four year old I babysat for and I both developed a terrible case of the condition - which was made almost unbearable by the 100 degree temperatures and 95% humidity in New Orleans that summer.

The steroid creams we were both prescribed were awful - and they didn't actually prevent outbreaks. I did some research online and discovered several homeopathic forums that lauded fish oil for the treatment and prevention of eczema and dry skin.

According to these forums, the lipids between your skin cells that form a barrier between the cells are made mostly of Omega fatty acids. Getting insufficient amounts of Omega weakens these barriers and causes them to break - letting normally harmless irritants like soaps and perfumes underneath your skin cells and leading to the itchy little bumps. Taking high doses of fish oil could help thicken these lipid barriers.

I added fish sticks into the dinner rotation twice a week and started taking fish oil supplements myself. Almost immediately I saw a significant improvement in my skin and hair and I haven't had an eczema outbreak ever since (almost 10 years now!). 

A few years later fish oil become the hottest supplement on the market. Combined with regular exercise fish oil would also make me smarter, stronger, happier and live longer. It seemed like suddenly fish oil and Omega 3 fatty acids were everywhere!

Should you be taking fish oil? Is it really the magic bullet everyone thinks it is? Read on and find out!

The Pros:

Fish oil is one of the best sources of Omega 3 fatty acids - essential nutrients your body needs to function properly.

Studies have shown that proper levels of Omega 3s contribute to:

Improved Mood & Memory

Studies have shown that fish oil can help fight depression. Fish oil also has seratonin reuptake properties which help to control mood.

Fish oil also improves memory in older adults. A 2009 study found that people 55 and older with age-related memory complaints who took the fatty acid supplements for six months had almost double the reduction in errors on a test that measures learning and memory skills, compared with those who took a placebo.

Preventing Heart Attacks

The American Heart Association reccomends fish oil supplements for people with coronary artery disease. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), also known as heart attacks.  According to the AHA, Omega-3 fatty acids also decrease triglyceride levels, slow growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, and lower blood pressure (slightly).

Improving Brain Function

Brain cell membranes change shape in order to allow the flow of electrical signals into the cell. These structures are called ion channels. About 20% of the membranes that make up these ion channels are composed of Omega 3 fatty acid -specifically Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

If there is not enough DHA available to create and maintain these membranes then your brain substitutes it with a different fat molecule called DPA (n-6). This substitute is almost identical to DHA- the only difference being that the molecular structure of DPA (n-6) makes it significantly less flexible.

Less flexibility means that these ion channels can't move and adjust as quickly...which means they can't control the electrical impulses entering the brain cells as well. 

Supplements vs. Fish

In order to get fish oil at the dose recommended for therapeutic benefits you would need to eat about four servings of fatty fish each week. Because of current levels of mercury contamination in most fish this high of a dose could lead to potential health risks. Supplements are recommended for people who consume fish oil in therapeutic dosages to avoid this contamination.

The Cons:

Fish Burps

The most common complaint from people who take fish oil supplements are the "fish burps". This unpleasant aftertaste can linger for hours after taking the supplements. Taking the supplements with food or at bedtime has been shown to prevent this unpleasant side effect. You can also find "odorless" fishoil-  the capsules are made with a lemony scent that can mask the fishy taste of the supplements.

Mercury & PCBs

Fish oil supplements, like seafood, recieve criticisim for mercury and PCB content. Like all seafood, the fish used for the supplements can be exposed to the chemicals through environmental pollution. Manufacturers claim that the distillation process removes the PCBs and mercury from the oil and that the supplements contain these chemicals at a safe level.

Consumers should also look at the type of fish used in their supplements and avoid supplements made from fish which are typically higher in levels of mercury.

Avoid supplements made with:

Highest Levels of Mercury: King Mackerel, Swordfish, Tilefish, Shark

Mid-Range Mercury Levels: Tuna (all varieties except skipjack), Marlin, Grouper, Spanish Mackerel, Chilean Seabass, Bluefish, Halibut, Sablefish

Look for supplements made with:

Very Low Mercury Levels: Catfish, Mullet, Flounder, fluke, plaice, sand dabs, Herring, Anchovies, Pollock , Crayfish, Haddock, Sardine, Hake, Salmon, Tilapia

Vegetarians & Seafood Allergies

If for whatever reason you can't consume seafood Omega 3s can also be found in flax seed or flax seed oil. Flax seeds contain the Omega 3 Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is one of two fatty acids that your body needs to function properly which it cannot produce.

However flax seed oil does not contain EPA and DHA - the Omega 3 acids linked to brain function. EPA is used to create many hormone-like substances that reduce inflammation and raised blood pressure. EPA and DHA make up 8% of your brain.

The Verdict

Fish and fish oil are important and should be a regular part of your diet and supplements are a convenient way to introduce them. If you have issues with cholesterol or are in a high risk category for heart disease many doctors recommend combining fish oil supplements with a low-fat diet and regular exercise.

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  • Expert

    Dena Stern (DenaStern)

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