What is Fish Oil for and Do You Really Need It?


Fish Oil for Brain Health


One recent area where omega-3s failed to show benefits was for delaying age-related cognitive decline. Since omega-3s are so concentrated in the brain and are essential for normal brain development in children, the hope was that fish oil supplements might slow down brain aging or even prevent Alzheimer’s disease.


While some early studies showed benefits, the most recent research looking at omega-3s and brain aging did not. One such study was published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association.


What makes this study more credible is they actually gave participants omega-3 supplements for five years and monitored their cognitive function. This gives the study more legitimacy than the typical study where participants recall how much fish they ate etc.


One thing to keep in mind, the participants in this study were older, which may have skewed the results. Plus, a number of previous observational studies DID show the omega-3s in fish oil benefits brain health. It’s possible that getting omega-3s from eating fish has benefits that taking a supplement doesn’t.


Conclusion: There’s more evidence that eating fatty fish supports brain health as opposed to taking fish oil supplements. 


Fish Oils and Your Heart


You may have heard that fish oils are heart healthy – but are they really? Some studies show fish oils lower blood triglyceride levels and slightly raise HDL, both of which bode well for heart health.


Yet a large review of 20 studies spanning a period of 13 years showed taking long-chain omega-3s as a supplement was NOT linked with a lower risk of heart attack or stroke.


Sounds discouraging, doesn’t it? Before assuming fish and fish oils have no heart health benefits – research does show that eating 2-4 servings of fish weekly was linked with a modestly reduced risk of stroke. Other good news – a study also showed fish oil seems to reduce the risk of blood clots.


When you take all the research into account, there’s no strong evidence that taking a fish oil supplement will lower your risk for heart disease or heart attacka, although it may modestly reduce your risk of stroke. It also may lower the risk of blood clots.


On the other hand, EATING fish high in omega-3s twice a week may offer some heart-protective benefits.


Conclusion: Again, fatty fish itself seems to offer more benefits than supplements, although fish oil supplements may reduce the risk of stroke and blood clots. 

Inflammation and Omega-3s


We know that long-chain omega-3s in fish oil seems to reduce inflammation. One disease marked by inflammation is rheumatoid arthritis. Some studies show long-chain omega-3s relieves the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and may even lower your risk for getting the disease, although it doesn’t slow progression of the disease once it’s established.


In addition, fish oil shows promise for treating other inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease. If you have arthritis or another inflammatory condition, you may benefit from taking a fish oil capsule.


Most of the time, people with arthritis take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications that have numerous side effects. Fish oils are a safer alternative. If you can get relief from fish oils without taking non-steroidals, take that route.


Combining fish oils with other supplements with anti-inflammatory activity like curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, and tart cherry may give you additional relief.


Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.