Because of the increasing awareness around the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil supplements have become very popular in the past few years.
Let's first take a look into omega-3 fats and why they play such an important role in our health. Omega-3's are a polyunsaturated fat, which is one of the 3 forms of dietary fats. Omega-3's are essential fatty acids, meaning we must obtain them through diet because our bodies are not able to make them. This type of fat is needed for proper digestion, muscle activity, clear memory and brain health, proper blood clotting, eye health and many more bodily function.
There are a few different forms of Omega-3 fatty acids, some are found in plants while others are found in animals. Animal based Omega-3's are found in fatty fish, fish oil, krill oil and grass fed beef - this form of Omega-3 contains DHA (docosahexaeonic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Plant-based omega-3s are found in flaxseed, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, and leafy greens, and these foods contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), but no DHA or EPA.
ALA is a precursor to EPA and DHA which requires an important enzyme to complete the conversion of this short-chain fatty acid into a long-chained omega-3. The problem here is that for most people, the enzyme is unable to convert enough ALA to EPA and even less so when it comes to DHA. This small conversion rate makes it nearly impossible to get enough omega-3s from plant sources alone.
These long-chain fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA, make up the structure of our cells and are therefor vital to cell production, cell division and proper cell receptor function. DHA and EPA are also essential for our body's anti-inflammatory processes.
With all that said, when it comes to the efficacy of supplementing with fish oil, the research is a bit sketchy. Many studies show no benefit from taking a fish oil supplement, only benefits when obtaining Omega-3's through diet. Let's look at some of the reasons why this is.
First and foremost, anytime we take anything in capsule or pill form, it is not as easily absorbed and utilized as when we obtain it from a tincture or real food. Another factor is that people metabolize nutrients at different rates and need different dosages to achieve optimal results for their unique biology.
Another difference between Omega-3s and fish oil supplements is the form they are in and how these forms affect the gut. When processing, absorbing and utilizing Omega-3s, the gut is essential. This is because when we eat Omega-3's, our gut bugs help to metabolize the lipids before being sent off to the liver, brain and other parts of the body for use.
When we eat fish or other forms of omega-3's in real food form, we consume DHA and EPA in the bioavailable form of triglycerides. In order to be properly processed by the gut epithelium and transported through the bloodstream, fatty acids need to be in this triglyceride form. However in fish oil supplements, the DHA and EPA are often found in the form of ethyl esters, which are synthetic substrates. Ethyl esters are the least bioavailable form of omega-3 fatty acids. During the micro-distillation process, industrial alcohol is typically added to the mixture while the materials important for reducing inflammation are removed. This process creates a fish oil with products that must be processed by the liver and may also release free radicals and cause oxidative stress, which is very counterproductive to taking a fish oil supplement in the first place. Another problem is that many fish oil supplements on the market cut their products with other oils, because pure fish oil is very expensive. If it is not cut with other oils, the fish oil itself may be rancid and low-quality. One clear way to tell if a fish oil supplement is rancid is if it smells or tastes fishy. This can be hard to decipher with most fish oils however because many have added flavors to disguise the smell and taste. Some experts say that about 98% of omega-3 products on the market are rancid or toxic because of the way the fish are caught and processed. Consuming rancid fish oil in the ethyl ester form can lead to side effects like bad body odor, GI problems, cardiac effects, vomiting, and nausea. This is why, if you do decide to take a fish oil supplement, you must be very picky with which one you choose.
Of course it is always best to obtain Omega-3's from whole food sources, but if fatty fish like sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring and wild-caught Alaskan salmon are a straight up NO GO for you, then a fish oil will be an essential route to take to ensure you are receiving adequate amounts of this essential fatty acid.
If you have questions about which fish oil supplement is the best choice for you, feel free to send me an email and I will help guide you in the correct direction!