Fish oil supplements are not for everyone, but many people swear by them. Why? Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are naturally found in many foods such as avocados, eggs, and peanut oil. But, what are the benefits of taking fish oil? Does it help with a wide variety of health conditions? What are the side effects?

Fish oils have a bad social reputation – they’re sold as “fat pills” – but the truth is, fish oils are a great supplement to help improve your health and well-being. You may already know this, but fish oil can help prevent heart disease, improve brain function, support the immune system, and prevent cancer.

What is fish oil?

Fish oil is generally a fat derived from fish.

It is rich in two specific groups of omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA, as well as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in foods such as flax and walnuts, are part of the omega-3 fatty acid subcategory. (See All About Healthy Fats for more details).

EPA and DHA are often cited as beneficial components of fish oil. EPA and DHA are actually derived from algae, which form the basis of the food chain of fish. Fish eat these algae and thus concentrate large amounts of healthy fats.

Why is fish oil so important?

General health

Omega-3 fatty acids are very important for health, a.o. :

  • cardiovascular function
  • Functioning of the nervous system and development of the brain
  • Immune health

Studies show that low DHA intake (and low blood levels) is associated with memory loss, concentration problems, Alzheimer’s disease and other mood problems.

Cell membranes

Essential fats play an important role in promoting cellular health.

Human somatic cells have a lipid-containing membrane (called the lipid bilayer). This membrane is semi-permeable: It regulates what enters and leaves the cell. The fluidity of cell membranes depends on the fatty acid composition of the diet.

  • When the fatty membranes surrounding brain cells are relatively fluid, as is the case with large amounts of omega-3, messages from neurochemicals such as serotonin can be more easily transmitted.
  • On the other hand, if you eat too much saturated fat (which is solid at room temperature) without getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, these membranes become stiffer and substances cannot penetrate them.

Cells also need these good fats to repair and regenerate.

With large amounts of omega-3, muscle cells become more sensitive to insulin and fat cells decrease. This can mean that the body can direct more nutrients to the muscle tissue.

Metabolic health

Finally, DHA and EPA can boost metabolism by increasing levels of enzymes that increase the ability to burn calories.

What you should know

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids cannot be produced by our bodies, so we have to get them through our diet.

Ratio of omega-3 to omega-6

It is easy for us to ingest omega-6 fatty acids. They’re z. Omega-6, for example, is found in vegetable oils, and factory-farmed animals (fed large amounts of corn and soy) are generally rich in omega-6. (See All About Vegetable Oils for more information).

But people in Western countries have difficulty including omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. We eat far more processed foods and far less wild and wild plants than our ancestors. And we don’t usually eat snails and insects, which are also rich in omega-3, although many people around the world still eat them as part of a traditional diet. Today we rely largely on omega-6 vegetable oils.

We evolved with a fat intake ratio of about 1:1 between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It’s closer to 1:20 now.

Because omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete for space in cell membranes and for the attention of enzymes, the ratio is more important than the absolute amount of fat ingested.

fat heads

When it comes to fat consumption, you (and your cells) are really what you eat.

Years of research have shown that low-fat diets are associated with aggression, depression and suicidal thoughts. Over time, your brain cells absorb the fat you eat. DHA is the active fat in the brain and is particularly important during the developmental stages.

Fish oil depletion

About a third of the world’s total fish catch is used to produce fishmeal and fish oil for farmed fish and other animals. Many deep-sea fish, such as menhaden, anchovies, herring and mackerel, are caught primarily for this purpose. Competition for fishmeal and fish oil could lead to higher fish prices and make this food source unaffordable for many of the world’s poorest people.

For more details, see All About Seafood Nutrition.

Summary and recommendations

Aim for 3-9 grams of total fish oil (about 1-3 grams EPA + DHA) per day from a supplement manufacturer that is not directly contributing to the depletion of fish stocks (e.g., using primarily fish waste).

Look for formulations based on small fish (e.g., herring, mackerel). Smaller fish are lower on the food chain and less likely to accumulate environmental toxins. You can also opt for krill oil or seaweed oil (see All about seaweed-based food supplements).

Avoid cod liver oil.

Avoid trans fats; they can interfere with the formation of EPA and DHA in the body.

If you are using more corn oil, cottonseed oil and sunflower oil (vegetable oils rich in omega-6), try to use less of these products that have a negative effect on the fatty acid ratio.

For additional credit

The amount of DHA in a woman’s diet determines the amount of DHA in her breast milk.

Omega-3 fatty acids are generally not used in processed foods because they tend to oxidize.

According to researchers at the NIH, the billions we spend on anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen are money spent to counteract the effects of too many omega-6 fats in the diet.

There is a hypothesis that populations may drift towards lower omega-3 intake because faster metabolism (with high omega-3 intake) increases the need for food and the risk of starvation.

Fish oil seems to be safe (except for people taking blood thinners).

You will learn the best nutrition, exercise and lifestyle strategies – unique and individual – for you.


Click here to see the sources of information referenced in this article.

Borer K.T. Exercise Endocrinology. Human Kinetics. Champaign, Illinois. 2003.

Mahan LK & Escott-Stump S. Eds. Krause’s Food, Nutrition, & Diet Therapy. 11. Traffic. Saunders Publishers, Philadelphia, PA. 2004.

Groff JL & Gropper SS. Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. 3. Traffic. Wadsworth Thomson Learning. 2000.

Barnard ND, et al. A guide to nutrition for clinicians. 1. Traffic. PCRM. 2007.

Hibbeln J, et al. Consumption of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids for health: Estimates based on global diversity. Am J Clin Nutr 2006;83(suppl):1483S-1493S.

Daviglus ML. Fish consumption and risk of myocardial infarction at age 30. NEJM 1997;336:1046-1053.

Arterburn LM, et al. Bioequivalence of docosahexaenoic acid from different algal oils in capsules and in DHA enriched foods. Lipids 2007;42:1011-1024.

Church MW, et al. Abnormal neurological reactions in young adult offspring caused by excessive maternal consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) during pregnancy and lactation. Neurotoxicol Teratol 2009;31:26-33.

Nair GM & Connolly SJ. Should patients with cardiovascular disease take fish oil? CMAJ 2008;178:181-182.

Lee KW, et al. Effect of fat intake on sudden death: Reducing mortality with omega-3 fatty acids. Curr Cardiol Rep 2004;6:371-378.

Jacobson TA. Beyond lipids: the role of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils in the prevention of coronary heart disease. Curr Atheroscler Rep 2007;9:145-153.

Lemaitre RN, et al. Plasma phospholipid fatty acids, fatal coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death in the elderly. Circulation 2006;114:183.

Mozaffarian D, et al. Fish consumption and stroke risk in the elderly: Cardiovascular Health Study. Arch Intern Med 2005;165:200-206

Virtanen JK, et al. Circulating omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and subclinical brain abnormalities on MRI in the elderly: Cardiovascular Health Study. J Am Heart Assoc 2013;2:e000305.

Chowdhury R, et al. Relationship between dietary, circulating and supplemental fatty acids and coronary risk: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Internal Med 2014;160:398-406.

Ning-Ning Lee et al. Do patients benefit from intravenous administration of fish oil after surgery? A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clin Nutrition 2014;33:226-239.

Peskin BS: Why fish oil doesn’t work: A complete physiological analysis based on 21st century lipids. The century. Journal of Lipids 2014:495761.

Bernstein AM, et al. A meta-analysis showed that docosahexaenoic acid from algal oil reduced serum triglyceride levels and increased HDL and LDL cholesterol levels in people without coronary heart disease. J Nutr 2012;142:99-104.

Sinto L, et al. A randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study of omega-3 fatty acids and alpha-lipoic acid in Alzheimer’s disease. J Alzheimers Dis 2014;38:111-120.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of fish oil supplement?

Fish oil is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for the body. It can help to reduce inflammation and improve mood.

Should you take fish oil daily?

There is no evidence that taking fish oil daily is beneficial.

Does fish oil actually work?

Fish oil is a popular supplement that has been shown to have some benefits for the heart and brain. It is also thought to help with joint pain, skin health, and eye health. Fish oil is a popular supplement that has been shown to have some benefits for the heart and brain.

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