The health benefits of fish oil have been widely acclaimed throughout the past three decades. As fish oil is one of nature’s best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, it has been extensively studied around the world, and the evidence for its health benefits is overwhelming!
Fish oil is packed with two of the healthiest fatty acids, namely docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These components cannot be produced by the body, so we need to get them from food or supplements. If your diet is low in seafood and omega-3’s, a fish oil supplement can provide you with the health benefits you may be missing out on.
The body’s cells and organs need fatty acids to make up their outer layers or membranes. Much of these membranes are made up of omega-3 fatty acids. Organs like the brain and eyes also need a high amount of fatty acids to be able to develop and function well. As such, fatty acids are critical to maintain a multitude of bodily functions. Likwise, a lack of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet can lead to a host of diseases, such as heart conditions, mental disorders, and eye problems.
There are undoubtedly many health benefits of fish oil that are as yet unresearched, but here we we have collated the definitive list of proven health benefits.
Proven Health Benefits of Fish Oil
- It protects against heart disease
Heart disease is among the leading causes of death around the world. You can, however, fight off heart disease by adopting a diet that is rich in fish oil.
One of the most well-known health benefits of fish oil is its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease. Studies compared people whose diets were rich in omega-3 containing seafood with those who consumed less seafood. They found that a diet rich in fish oils significantly reduced the risk of death from heart disease (1).
Additionally, fish oil also benefits those who have had a heart attack. It’s been shown to lower the chances of having another heart attack or stroke, and also lowers the risk for abnormal heart rhythms (2).
Plus, many of its other amazing benefits result in boosting heart health. So if you think you’re at risk for cardiovascular disease, or simply want to lower the probability of getting a heart attack, stroke, or other forms of heart disease, then a fish oil supplement may be helpful.
- It reduces levels of triglycerides
Triglycerides are a type of fat found in various foods. Though they are a component of a normal diet yet too much triglycerides in the blood can increase the risk for heart disease.
One of the most well-established benefits of fish oil is its ability to lower triglyceride levels in the body (2). It works by speeding up the breakdown and clearance of these substances from the blood (3).
In fact, just recently, there has been renewed interest in lowering triglyceride levels due to its interrelation with insulin resistance and obesity (4).
Lower triglyceride levels not only helps prevent the need to take fat reducing medications in the future but also contributes to overall health and better management of other conditions like type 2 diabetes (5).
- It treats atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis is a condition where plaque builds up and causes hardening of the arteries. It can mark the start of various cardiovascular conditions. Having atherosclerosis can lead to serious health problems, including stroke, heart attack, and even death.
The good news is that taking fish oil can help treat and prevent this condition. Since it helps break down bad cholesterol more rapidly, it can slow down the formation of plaque and blood clots, and thus prevents clogging in the arteries (2).
A healthy diet rich in fish oil, along with exercise and certain other lifestyle changes, can help stop atherosclerosis in its tracks.
- It helps your body fight inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s natural mechanism for fighting off invading toxins. Chronic inflammation, however, can pose serious damage to various body organs and systems. In certain conditions, excessive inflammation also usually occurs with pain.
A study that involved patients who had neck and back pain demonstrated that fish oil supplements were able to offer pain relief by its ability to reduce the inflammatory response. The study postulates that fish oil may be a safer remedy for neck or back pain compared to traditonal medicines that have harmful side effects like gastric ulcers and bleeding (6).
It has also been established that fatty acids found in fish oil decrease the production of compounds that lead to inflammation. It’s also able to alter certain genes that play a role in inflammation. This means that one of fish oil’s benefits is that it can be used therapeutically to treat certain types of inflammatory conditions (7).
- It helps keep blood pressure in control
As if its heart-healthy benefits weren’t enough, fish oil can also help reduce blood pressure, even in just small doses. Various studies have found that the EPA and DHA in fish oil work to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (8).
Even doses as low as 0.7 grams taken daily can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure (9). Fish oil’s antihypertensive effect is also more evident in patients with high cholesterol and hardened arteries (10). Increasing your intake of oily fish or taking a fish oil supplement can help keep hypertension at bay.
- It helps manage depressive disorders
Fish oil has also been investigated to help balance depressive disorders. Surprisingly, this is because people with major depression were observed to have a low level of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood (11, 12).
Studies conducted on patients with manic-depressive disorder were able to show that fish oil has a positive effect on their condition. It may also help patients with symptoms of depression even if they haven’t been diagnosed with major depressive disorder (13).
Additionally, supplements rich in EPA have been shown to be more effective than only DHA, and may be responsible for fish oil’s anti-depressive effects (14).
These findings only mean that fish oil can be used for its role in managing depressive disorders. For people who are taking antidepressants, a fish oil supplement can be taken as an adjunct to medications. It may also be taken to help balance mood and emotions when taken regularly.
- It helps alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common forms of autoimmune arthritis. It affects about 70 million people worldwide. Rheumatoid arthritis causes stiff, inflamed and painful joints all over the body.
Various studies have investigated fish oil’s benefits on rheumatoid arthritis. Participants in these studies reported that fish oil has been useful in reducing the symptoms of arthritis, such as joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. They also observed that episodes of morning joint stiffness have been briefer and more manageable (1, 15).
One study has also suggested that taking fish oil regularly can allow patients to take lower doses of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a common medical treatment for arthritis. By taking less medication and more natural remedies, the adverse effects of such medications are reduced (1, 2).
Another analysis of 17 studies has also found that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce joint pain associated with other inflammatory conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and dysmenorrhea (2).
Though fish oil can help lessen arthritis symptoms, it cannot, however, slow the progression of joint damage due to the disease.
- It aids in weight loss and managing obesity
Taking an omega-3 enriched fish oil supplement daily together with regular exercise can significantly benefit weight loss compared to only exercise or fish oil alone. An Australian found that regular exercise and intake of fish oil was able to enhance weight loss and promote better body shape and composition (16, 17). Thus, fish oil may be a helpful addition to exercise programs and other lifestyle changes that aim to counteract obesity.
Losing weight can also help reduce chances for cardiovascular disease and other risk factors for heart attack and stroke. If you’re at risk for obesity, or simply intend to have a healthier body weight, fish oil coupled with exercise may just be the answer!
- It can boost bone health and combat osteoporosis
Osteoporosis results from a lack of calcium or an imbalance in the factors that maintain bone density and strength. This usually occurs in old age, as bones get depleted in minerals, making them weaker and prone to breakage.
Certain studies have suggested that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may play a role in helping increase calcium levels. This results in improved bone strength and lower risk for osteoporosis (2).
Additionally, a study on men found that intake of omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, is associated with a higher bone mineral density (19).
Another study in osteoporosis patients who were women over 65 years of age showed that supplements rich in EPA and gamma-linolenic acid (another type of fatty acid) had positive effects on bone health compared to placebos. The women who received these supplements had lesser bone loss and an increase in bone density (2).
All of these findings show that an important benefit of fish oil is its potential in boosting bone health. Taking a supplement or having a diet rich in fish oil can potentially help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, bone loss, and fractures.
- It helps protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia affecting those of old age. In the US alone, about 5.4 million people have Alzheimer’s disease (20). This isn’t even counting other forms of dementia and cognitive decline.
Fortunately, a diet with adequate amounts of fish, most likely including DHA and EPA found in fish oil, may help slow down dementia (21).
Though studies on supplements have yet to come up with clear evidence of fish oil’s ability to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, some small studies show that fish oil supplements may help improve memory in older people.
One study, in particular, suggests that intake of EPA and DHA from fish oil is associated with improved cognitive performance (22).
- Maintains healthy eyes
Omega-3 fatty acids make up certain eye structures. Thus, a diet rich in omega-3s helps maintain general eye health and even prevent age-related vision loss. Increasing your dietary intake of fish and fish oil can lower your chances of vision problems and protect against age-related eye conditions.
People who lack omega-3 fatty acids have a higher chance of getting eye problems (24). This becomes more evident upon the onset of old age, where eye health begins to deteriorate.
In particular, a condition called macular degeneration (AMD), can be aggravated by low levels of fatty acids. The macula is at the centre of the retina and responsible for what we see directly in front of us. A damaged macula leads to blurry vision that can later progress to vision loss.
Studies have found that consuming fish and omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk for this condition ( 25) as well as showing that a high fish intake can slow AMD progression to a more serious stage (26).
- Slows Colon cancer
Colon cancer seems to develop due to a direct relation to the food we eat. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk for colorectal cancer. This property may be due to certain actions of EPA on the pathways that lead to cancer development in the colon (27, 28).
Preliminary data also propose that daily intake of fish oil can help slow down the advancement of early colon cancer into later stages (2).
- Aids fetal growth and development
Since omega-3 fatty acids are components of various organs, an adequate amount in the diet is important for fetal growth and development (29). Women are encouraged in pregnancy to consume foods rich in omega-3s to support healthy growth of the fetus. The same is also the case for breastfeeding mothers as well.
Aside from supporting overall growth, studies show that taking fish oil during pregnancy and breastfeeding can improve infants’ hand and eye coordination skills (30).
The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil have also been found to reduce the chance of having premature or low birth weight infants, as well as miscarriages and infant allergies (31). As a plus, it also has a beneficial effect on depression during pregnancy (32).
There is also some evidence that having a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, may play a role in enhancing visual and cognitive development in infants (33).
Supplementation with fish oil is also safe during these stages, though it’s still best to seek medical advice before taking any supplements while pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Promotes Healthy skin
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in the membranes of cells and tissues throughout the body. The skin, being the largest organ, contains a considerable amount of these fatty acids.
Studies have investigated the effects of dietary fish oil supplementation on the skin, particularly in a disease like psoriasis. One study showed that fish oil was able to moderately improve the condition in more than half of the subjects tested (34).
Another study observed that patients with psoriasis who received fish oil supplementation for eight weeks experienced an improvement in psoriasis symptoms including itching, redness and scaling (35).
Additionally, fish oil may be able to help prevent skin damage. Ensuring that your diet has enough fish oil is one great way to maintain healthy, youthful skin.
- Management of mental health disorders
Omega-3 fatty acids make up a large portion of the brain’s structure. Thus, for proper brain functioning, we need a diet rich in omega-3s (36).
Research has shown that majority of people with mental disorders have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids (37). This has driven many studies to investigate fish oil’s benefits in managing and treating mental disorders.
A study reports that supplementing with fish oil can improve symptoms of psychosis and schizophrenia. Plus, it’s also an effective measure in preventing the development of psychotic disorders, especially in younger people who are prone to psychotic states (38).
Additionally, a pilot study of omega-3 supplementation for six weeks also showed marked improvements in people with schizophrenia. Patients who raised their dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids were observed to have a decrease in the severity of their symptoms (37).
Fish oil supplements have been shown to balance mood in patients with bipolar disorder and are recommended as an adjunct to therapy, along with medications (39).
- Prevents breast cancer
Women who consume a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids from fish over an extended period are less likely to have breast cancer (40).
This is especially true for those with a higher ratio of EPA and DHA compared to arachidonic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) intake. This may be because of a reduction in inflammation, along with inhibition of certain compounds and signaling associated with breast cancer development (41).
Additionally, other studies have shown the potential of omega-3 supplementation in suppressing progression and metastasis of breast cancer (42).
- Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children
Clinical studies have found that children with ADHD, as well as learning and behavioral problems, had reduced levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood (2).
Since omega-3s are an important component of brain structure, getting enough EPA and DHA from the diet can significantly prevent behavioral disorders. This is especially important in children since they undergo rapid brain growth and development during their early years (43, 44).
In one study, children with learning disabilities and ADHD symptoms were given either a placebo or a highly unsaturated fatty acid supplement for 12 weeks. Results showed that this supplement had a favorable effect on cognitive and behavioral scores. Thus, it shows that a supplement with HUFAs such as those found in fish oil can help reduce symptoms of ADHD and thus can benefit children with learning difficulties (45).
Supplementing with fish oil can improve impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and inattention in children. Such effects possibly stem from fish oil’s anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to alter cell membranes in the central nervous system. This, in turn, can improve the balance of compounds that contribute to ADHD symptoms (46).
Additionally, fish oil is safe and well-tolerated in children. This makes it a good supplement to lessen ADHD symptoms and as an adjunct for medications.
Tips and Precautions
- Before taking any supplement, it’s best to consult your doctor.
- When deciding to supplement with fish oil, check that the dose is suitable for your age and health status.
- The usual dose of combined DHA and EPA recommended is 200-500 milligrams. In certain cases, however, a higher dose may be needed such as if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or have been diagnosed with an increased risk for heart disease (47).
- Fish oil supplements come in a variety of forms. Choose one that is in the form of free fatty acids, triglycerides, or phospholipids. Those that are labeled as ethyl esters may not be well absorbed (48).
- Fish oil supplements are prone to oxidation which then causes a decrease in potency. It’s best to choose one that contains an antioxidant preservative. When storing these supplements, keep them in a cool, dark place, like in the refrigerator.
- Always check the label before buying a fish oil supplement. Make sure that it specifies the amounts of EPA and DHA and not just the amount of fish oil. Some supplements contain up to 1 gram of fish oil but may have less than 300 mg of DHA and EPA. Choose one that has at least 300 mg of combined DHA and EPA in it.
- Fish oil along with its EPA and DHA contents are more readily absorbed when taken with a fatty meal.