Omega-3 oils from fish may actually activate our DNA, resulting in a long list of health benefits.
Illustration by Yunmee Kyong
Fish fat has gained tremendous popularity because it is the richest source of omega-3 fats. These fats are essential, meaning your body can’t make them, and inadequate amounts can kill you. As many as 96,000 people die each year in the United States due to lack of omega-3s in their diets, according to research led by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the Public Library of Science Medicine Journal.
On the other hand, getting sufficient omega-3s offers multiple benefits, including a longer life, overall improved health, a leaner physique, a clearer head, and younger-looking skin. In fact, scientists are discovering that omega-3 fats affect how our genes work.
“The most interesting research occurring in the field of fatty acids, especially omega-3 essential fatty acids, is the concept of human genetic activation by the actions of these important food and supplement products,” says Joseph Maroon, MD, professor of neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and author of Fish Oil: The Natural Anti-Inflammatory. In a nutshell, says Maroon, omega-3s “activate DNA to reduce inflammation, reduce cancer formation, protect from clot formation, and improve nerve cell communications.”
Decades of Discovery
The benefits of omega-3 fats were initially identified in the 1970s, when researchers began examining why Greenland’s Eskimos, who ate a high-fat diet of oily fish, rarely developed heart disease. Since then, hundreds of studies have validated the therapeutic value of omega-3s. Research compiled by the FDA, the American Heart Association (AHA), and published in a variety of journals shows that these are some of the specific benefits of eating oily fish or taking fish oil:
- Reduced risk for heart disease.
- Relief from inflammatory diseases.
- Higher levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol.
- Lower levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
- Lower levels of triglycerides.
- Less likelihood of high blood pressure.
- Reduced risk of artery-clogging plaque or blood clots.
- After a heart attack, less risk of sudden death from another heart attack or stroke.
- Improved blood-sugar control.
- Less joint pain and stiffness among people with arthritis.
- Improved bone health.
- Improved mood.
- Less hostility and improved overall function among children with attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders.
- Improved healing of skin conditions such as psoriasis.
- Reduced sensitivity to the sun.
- Reduction of asthma symptoms among children.
- Lower risk of macular degeneration.
- Relief from PMS and menopausal symptoms.
- Reduced risk for colon caner and possibly other cancers.
- Healthy development of the neurological system in the womb and among infants and children.
3 Ways to Add Omega-3s to Your Diet
no. 1 Supplements
The key omega-3 fats in fish are EPA and DHA. As a rule, approximately one-third of fish oil in supplements is a combination of EPA and DHA. Look for specifics on product labels. Nutritionally oriented physicians usually recommend 1 gm daily of an EPA/DHA combination for healthy people and up to 3 gm for those with heart disease, diabetes, inflammatory diseases or other chronic conditions. Supplements usually state that they do not contain mercury or other toxins.
no. 2 Fish
One 3-oz serving (about the size of a deck of cards) of fresh, frozen or canned salmon, or sardines, can provide between 1 and 2 gm of omega-3 fats with negligible levels of mercury. In contrast, fast-food fish sandwiches are usually made from cod, which is relatively low in omega-3s. You would need to eat 1 to 1.5 lbs of the fish to get at least 1 gm of the healthy fats. And, the mercury content is about 50 times that of a 3-oz serving of salmon or sardines.
no. 3 Plant Sources
Flax seeds and oil, chia seeds, and hemp are popular plant sources of omega-3 fats in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Our bodies convert ALA to the EPA and DHA forms found in fish. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 2.4 to 3.6 gm of flax oil significantly increased EPA and DHA to levels that are therapeutic. When taking these plant forms of omega-3s, follow directions for specific products.
Supplement Safety Tips
Fish oil capsules can be a mercury-free source of omega-3s, but be sure to read labels carefully. Here, Stuart Tomc, CNHP, national educator for Nordic Naturals, tells what to look for:
Purity is a significant concern among fish oil consumers. Certain processing methods can and do remove both harmful and benign contaminants. Some form of heat is necessary to remove contaminants such as mercury, dioxins, PCBs, and lead. Chemicals are not necessary to remove these contaminants. A low-heat process such as molecular distillation will not damage the oil if there is an oxygen-free environment.
Be wary if a company says that they are not purifying their oils. To produce a quality product, it is necessary to remove harmful environmental toxins. In addition, each batch should be tested by a third party company to determine purity (oils should be tested to very refined levels for more than 200 different contaminants). A quality company will try to exceed the industry standards. For example, third-party tests have documented that Nordic Naturals fish oils are completely pure from heavy metals and environmental toxins. The oils are tested three times during manufacturing to show that each softgel is at least 750 times purer than the source fish, which provides all the benefits of omega-3 essential fatty acids without the risk of toxicity.
Look for products that adhere to or exceed stringent standards such as Norwegian Medicinal Standard (NMS) and the European Pharmacopoeia Standard (EPS), as well as voluntary standards set by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) and the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). These standards guarantee quality products by setting maximum allowances on peroxides, heavy metals, dioxins, and PCBs.
It is up to the consumer to do their own research and purchase from companies that follow GMP (Good Manufacturing Process) guidelines and use third-party testing, or to purchase from a reputable retailer. Either way, it is best to ask a lot of questions, and make requests from companies to see their third-party testing, quality assurance, quality control, and raw material documents to verify purity and quality.
Also, look at the trade organizations to which a company belongs. Often in being a member, the company agrees to follow voluntary standards with regards to fish oil. This is true for GOED (the Global Organization for EPA and DHA). Scrutinizing marketing claims can be helpful. If a company says that they are the only brand that is good and all others are bad, one might suspect that they are using fear tactics to drive sales.
Basic guidelines: fish oils should be manufactured from reputable companies that follow GMPs and institute third-party testing for purity, freshness, and potency, verifying label claims. This information should be available on the company’s website. Labels can hold only so much information, so to get all the facts about safety. Consumers will have to look for information on a company’s website or get information from the company directly by email. Sometimes, you can get information on a company’s products from a public website such as IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards) at www.ifosprogram.com. IFOS also rates fish oils with a numbered system of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest rating.
—Stuart Tomc, CNHP
North American Herb & Spice Polar Power is a whole-food fish oil supplement with all the natural fatty acids and the full complex of vitamins A and D.
Barlean’s Omega Swirl in Orange Cream tastes like the famous ice cream treat, and gives you a full spectrum of omega -3, -6, and -9s.
Nature’s Way Fisol Enteric-Coated Fish Oil contains clinical potency omegas (20% DHA, 30% EPA), coated for intestinal delivery.
The Vitamin Shoppe Omega 3 Fish Oil EPA/DHA blends omega-3s from concentrated fish oils, molecularly distilled and free of contaminants.