By Sean Field
More recent data show the biological effects that omega-3s confer extend beyond cardiovascular issues and impact virtually every aspect of our health.
Fish-oil benefits range from improved cognition to reduction of metabolic disorders.
Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA have benefits in metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes, in neurological disorders like depression and Alzheimer’s, as well as in cancer and autoimmune disease.
Omega-3s favorably affect this wide variety of conditions because they reduce the body’s overall burden of inflammation.4
Chronic inflammation plays a key role in the diseases associated with aging.5 By combatting inflammation, omega-3s help us combat numerous age-related issues.
This is especially evident in metabolic disorders.
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that includes some combination of high blood pressure, belly fat, high blood sugar, and abnormal lipid profiles. Metabolic syndrome is associated with a sharp increase of risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.6
Omega-3 supplements show remarkable effects on the causes7—and the consequences—of metabolic syndrome. And one of the main driving forces behind metabolic syndrome is obesity.
Obesity is a major risk factor for chronic illnesses, in large part because in obese individuals, fat cells churn out massive amounts of inflammation-inducing proteins (called cytokines).8 These cytokines play a role in promoting insulin resistance as well as two related diseases: non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and type II diabetes.9-12
Omega-3 oils from fish exert beneficial effects against obesity. A study published in 2016 concluded that fish-oil supplementation reduced waist circumference and blood pressure.13,14
Human studies confirm that supplementing with omega-3s each day may reduce weight, body mass index (BMI), waist/hip ratio, and total fat mass—when combined with sensible diet and exercise.15,16
Omega-3s achieve these effects through mechanisms that include enhancing oxygen consumption (indicating increased fuel-burning), boosting levels of the protective signaling molecule adiponectin (which mitigates insulin resistance and inflammation), and favorably modulating the gut microbiome.16-18
Type II diabetes is a common consequence of obesity, because the inflammation it causes leads to insulin resistance, high blood sugar, and worsening obesity—creating a vicious cycle.19
Fish-oil supplementation has been shown to have remarkable benefits in people with type II diabetes. These include decreasing fasting blood sugar, markers of sustained high blood sugar (e.g., hemoglobin A1c), and insulin requirements, as well as reducing episodes of dangerously low blood sugar.14,20
Quality counts with all supplements, but it is especially critical when considering fish-oil.
The sources, processing, shipping, and final concentration of fish-oil products are critical indicators of their quality—and many fall short.
Before choosing a fish-oil supplement, you should consider two important categories:
As an example, a readily-available commercial “natural fish oil” supplement sold at a major US pharmacy chain offers an enormous jar of softgels at an apparently reasonable price. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that the recommended dose contains 3,600 mg of “total fish oil,” but only 1,080 mg of “total omega-3” fats—and there are no details about exactly how much EPA and DHA is present.
That means that just 30% of the daily dose may be composed of beneficial EPA/DHA.
To achieve desired intake, you would need to take six large softgels of the commercial product, risking fishy burps and other unpleasant side effects.
In addition, few major fish-oil distributors reveal their geographical location, the amount of processing, or the environmental impact of their operations. Many processing plants are located far from the harbors where fresh fish are brought. And few fish-oil operations are owned or operated by the fishermen who bring home the harvest, limiting their personal and ethical investments in the product.
A partnership between a “lipid technology” expert and the two largest fishing companies in Chile (a major source of ocean fish worldwide) began active production in 2012.56
This partnership has a pilot processing plant on-site, where fishing boats arrive daily to unload the freshest possible catch. The operation has a tiny ecological footprint and is in compliance with the very latest sustainable fisheries recommendations and certifications.
Achieving a high concentration of the active EPA and DHA forms of omega-3 is a priority. At their new seaside plant, fish are harvested, and oil is extracted with a process called selective crystallization, which achieves final concentrations of EPA and DHA in the range of 60% to 85% of the product (compared with 30% in most commercial products). This high concentration means smaller softgels are packed with more essential omega-3 fatty acids.
A daily dose of the new fish-oil composition (two softgels, taken twice daily with meals), provides a total 3,580 mg of fish oil that supplies 1,500 mg EPA and 1,000 mg DHA. That means 70% of the daily dose is composed of the beneficial omega-3 fats.
Omega-3s are a virtual necessity for sustaining heart, brain, and overall body health. Choose fish oil as selectively as you would choose fish for the table—wholesome, sustainably harvested, and fresh.
Omega-3s play vital roles in the brain’s very structure and function.31-34
The amount of omega-3 fats in the brain dwindles as we age.35 This leads to losses of brain plasticity, which is the ability to rapidly form new connections and retain new impressions and memories.33 It is also correlated with the diminished ability to use glucose as fuel—an energy deficit that has been linked to mental slowing and neurological impairment.34
The good news is that supplementing with omega-3s can favorably alter brain structure and function. And what’s more, supplementing with omega-3s improves age-related conditions associated with inflammatory changes, such as memory impairments and Alzheimer’s.36-38
Cognitive impairment, dementia, and neurodegenerative diseases are now recognized as inflammatory conditions.
The inflammatory changes may begin years—perhaps decades—before symptoms occur,36-38 which reinforces the importance of supplementing with fish oil before major symptoms arise.
For example, in a study of adults with mild cognitive impairment (which often precedes dementia), a daily supplement of 720 mg EPA/480 mg DHA improved basic cognitive aptitude, speed of perception, and working memory compared with people receiving a placebo.39
Depression comes in many different forms and can arise for any number of reasons. Studies consistently show that omega-3s have benefits against depression, regardless of the cause.
For example, one study evaluated the impact of omega-3s on women with major depression associated with menopause. After eight weeks of taking 930 mg EPA/750 mg DHA daily, the average standardized depression score fell by 56%.
Even more compelling data from this same study showed that 45% of participants reported feeling normal and experiencing no depression by the end of the trial.40 As an added benefit, the women experienced a reduction in the frequency of hot flashes with supplementation.
In a more recent study, young adults with symptoms of depression were randomly assigned to take either a placebo or 1,000 mg EPA/400 mg DHA daily.41 After just 21 days, scores on the depression inventory (a self-reported test that measures the severity of depression) fell significantly in supplemented subjects, but not in the placebo group. This study found that 67% of the patients taking omega-3s “no longer met the criteria for being depressed.”41
A human and an animal study both suggest that the antidepressant effects of fish oil/omega-3s may be a result of anti-inflammatory activity.42,43
The ability of omega-3 fats/fish oil to fight inflammation and induce favorable gene expressions in various tissues is now attracting the attention of researchers in virtually all fields of medicine.
Here are just a few highlights of some recent studies:
These findings are almost certainly the tip of a very large iceberg, as researchers pursue potential benefits of omega-3s in a host of inflammation-related disorders.
Peer-reviewed published studies continue to document the anti-inflammatory value of omega-3 supplements in some of the most troubling symptoms and chronic diseases of aging.
Metabolic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, and fatty liver are yielding to treatment with omega-3s, as are numerous brain-related conditions including major depression and dementia.
Evidence is also accumulating about roles of omega-3s in inflammation-dependent conditions such as cancer, autoimmune disease, and chronic kidney disease.
Supplementing with fish oil ensures you remain on the higher end of the omega-3 scale that has been shown to reduce human mortality rates, along with many chronic conditions of older age.