Health Matters – Fish Oil

Most of us have heard of fish oil. If a co-worker or friend isn’t surreptitiously popping the capsules with their lunch, then magazine ads have showcased the product, or radios have blared testimonials. What is all of the hype about?

Fish oil is, simply put, oil that is derived from fish. Some comes from the liver of the fish; think cod liver oil, the supplement that grandparents praised and kids disliked. Other fish oils are processed from the body of the fish itself. The oil can be derived from many different species: from large fish such as salmon to the popular smaller species, like anchovies, sardines, and herring.

Depending on the species and what part of the fish the oil comes from, fish oil can have different characteristics. For example, cod liver oil contains vitamins A and D, since these fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the fish’s liver and thus naturally become part of the oil. Other fish, like the smaller species, are naturally fatty, and thus the therapeutic benefits of their oil can be obtained through dosages far smaller than those required from the oil of larger, leaner fish.

The Good

Why would anyone supplement their diet with fish oil? There are two main components in fish oil: EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, respectively). They are what make fish oil ?work.?

There is excellent research showing the benefits of EPA on those with cardiovascular disease (or those hoping to prevent it). The EPA in fish oil helps maintain arterial integrity; less damage to the arteries means less plaque formation, and a lower chance of heart attacks, strokes, or other complications. Additionally, fish oil may help reduce high cholesterol and clot formation (when the body forms a blood clot, a stroke can result).

An additional well-studied benefit of EPA is its ability to reduce inflammation. Inflammation means the ?itis? conditions ?think rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, for example?and fish oil helps mitigate these.

Another aspect of fish oil That’s been extensively studied is its effect on the brain. The component DHA in fish oil works on brain tissue, helping people keep sharp with optimal brain function and promoting healthy brain development in children and unborn babies.

The Bad

So far, fish oil sounds like the wonder liquid! But is there a catch? Well, one area of concern is the dosage. The necessary dose depends on your reasons for using the fish oil. If You’re merely hopping on the bandwagon to ?try it out,? then lower doses (under 750 mg EPA and 500 mg DHA) will suffice.

If, however, You’re hoping to reduce the swelling and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis, for example, you’ve got to be picky about the amount of EPA in your daily dose. It’s recommended that more than 1500 mg of EPA is necessary as a starting dose to shift any inflammatory mediators. Less than this may not have any effect, and more may even be required.

In addition, your health care practitioner might prescribe a higher dose if you have had cardio complications in the past.

The Ugly

A bigger problem is the pollution issue. It’s well-known that conventionally farmed fish can be a hotbed for pollutants like mercury, PCBs, and other chemicals. When choosing a fish oil, check that it is from fish harvested from the wild; otherwise, be cautious about purchasing it.

But keep in mind that even wild-caught fish can be subject to a host of contaminants, especially heavy metals. Fish oil should always be third party tested, with a Certificate of Analysis (COA), and there should be concise information about this (including what contaminants were tested for) on the label. If there’s not, forget it.

Another point to consider is the food chain dilemma. If you consume fish oil from large wild fish, keep in mind that they have lived longer in potentially polluted waters, and often are predatory, consuming other small species (along with their contaminants). Because of lifespan and diet, the total toxin load in these large fish is potentially higher than that of small fatty fish.

Finally, not everyone can take fish oil without adverse effects. For instance, if You’re on blood thinning medication, you should consult with your health care practitioner prior to trying fish oil; fish oil has a mild, but definite, blood thinning effect.


What if You’re vegetarian, or have decided that the risks aren’t worthwhile? don’t worry! Nature has provided a way for you to gain some of the therapeutic benefits you might find in fish oil. Certain algae species contain EPA and DHA. There’s less concern over toxicity with algae oils, and there’s no worry about overfishing. Note, though, that the levels of EPA and DHA are significantly lower than those in fish oil. Flax oil also contains omega-3 fatty acids, but the body’s conversion of the omega-3 to EPA and DHA is limited.

In sum, should you be taking fish oil? It’s up to you and your health care practitioner. First decide what you might want to use it for, and whether its use is contraindicated for you. If you do choose to supplement with fish oil, read all the product labels carefully before buying!

Katie D?Souza is an AU graduate and a licensed naturopathic doctor. She currently lives in Ontario.

The information contained in this article is for personal interest only; it is not intended for diagnosis or treatment of any condition. Readers are always encouraged to seek the professional advice of a licensed physician or qualified health care practitioner for personal health or medical conditions.

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