The therapeutic effects of fish oil have been studied for over 50 years, revealing many benefits. And supplements present more options today than ever. Some offer higher concentrations of the EPA and DHA omega-3s, which means you don’t have to take as many pills. And others come in flavored liquid formulations, gummies, other chewable forms, or are made from vegan sources.
With so many choices, how do you decide? The answer boils down to your goals and overall diet, and it helps to understand a bit of science.
Why Fish Oil Is Beneficial
The key omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), drive its benefits. DHA is a major building block of the brain, central nervous system, and the retina. EPA works with DHA to reduce inflammation and help prevent or relieve a variety of conditions. Both are absorbed throughout the body, including into cell membranes, where they help to maintain the integrity of each cell and keep it functioning optimally.
The human body can make EPA and DHA from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the form of omega-3s found in plants, but only a small portion of ALA is converted. It’s estimated that men convert about 8 percent to EPA and 0–4 percent to DHA; women convert about 21 percent to EPA and 9 percent to DHA.
Although ALA is essential, EPA and DHA are the specific omega-3s shown to have heart-health and other benefits. Vegan supplements of EPA and DHA are made from algae, which is the food source of omega-3s for fish. Although algal supplements contain smaller amounts of EPA and DHA than fish oil, they are a valuable option.
Consider Your Diet
Most Americans don’t eat a lot of fish that’s rich in omega-3s. A study that looked at American blood levels of EPA and DHA found that they were below the threshold that can help prevent chronic disease.
The basic recommendation for maintaining good health is to eat fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, or sardines, twice a week. It’s estimated that this would provide the equivalent of about 250 mg daily of the combination of EPA and DHA, but it may not be enough.
If you routinely eat food from popular fast-food or family-style restaurants, you’re consuming quite a bit of inflammatory refined omega-6 oils. You’ll need more omega-3s to counteract the effect (and better yet, improve your diet).
As we get older, levels of inflammation naturally increase, and anyone who regularly does intense exercise or is experiencing signs of inflammation see “Benefit Snapshot,” below) likely needs more EPA and DHA.
A Healthy Daily Dose
Essential nutrients usually have government-recommended daily intakes and safe upper limits. For omega-3s, the only official recommendation is for ALA: 1.6 grams daily for men and 1.1 grams for women, amounts most people easily get. As an example, a tablespoon of canola oil contains 1.28 grams and a tablespoon of flaxseed oil packs over 7 grams.
When comparing fish oil or algal supplements, pay attention to the amounts of EPA and DHA listed separately in the Supplements Facts. There is no official recommendation for daily EPA and DHA intake, but many integrative practitioners recommend 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA daily if you’re in good health. If you’re dealing with a chronic or recurring health condition, up to 3 grams daily is often recommended. For lowering triglycerides, 2 grams is the usual minimum dose.
No safe upper limit has been set in this country. However, the European Food Safety Authority has concluded that supplements of up to 5 grams daily of EPA and DHA are safe for long-term use. Higher doses may be especially helpful when you’re dealing with PMS or other temporary health situations.
Choosing the Best Product
Supplements deliver the best benefits when they’re taken regularly, so it’s important to pick a form that will be easy and convenient for you to use. And then compare products to match your desired dose.
Studies have found that healthy levels of omega-3 fats can help to prevent or reduce:
- Age-related macular degeneration
- Atrial fibrillation
- Bipolar disorder
- Coronary disease
- Death from heart disease
- Dry eye
- Dry, rough, or scaly skin
- Fertility problems in young men
- Frequent infections
- Heart attacks
- Heart failure
- High blood pressure
- High triglycerides
- Joint stiffness and pain
- Memory problems in older people
- Menstrual pain
- Neurological problems in infants and children
- Overall age-related mental decline
- Unhealthy weight loss during cancer treatment