Health or Hoax? Should you put your faith in fish oil?
By Ari Snaevarsson, Features Editor
So let me begin by saying the topic of systemic inflammation is an absolute beast to tackle, and 700 words can only do so much. Think of this as a super basic overview of fish oil and not much more. I will undoubtedly be returning to this topic later, as most supplements with a track record of fighting chronic inflammation are worth examining.
To begin, let us define some operational terms. Eicosanoids are going to be our major player in this discussion; they are basically signaling molecules involved in the inflammatory and immune response, muscle protein synthesis, and CNS messaging.
Eicosanoids are derived from either omega-3 (n-3) or omega-6 (n-6) fatty acids, the structural differences between the two coming from where the double-bond is located. The former are commonly found in beef, fish, and eggs from animals fed natural diets (along with other non-animal sources we will not be getting into), while the latter most often comes from vegetable oils (so, what most of your restaurant food is being cooked in). Fish oil is generally composed of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two types of n-3 fatty acids found in animal sources.
What is more important than how much of these fatty acids you are getting from your diet is the ratio of them to their n-6 counterparts. While our ancestors may have been eating diets with n-6 to n-3 ratios of 1:1, as high as 1:4, the modern Western diet looks more like 15:11.
What this means for us is still a hotly debated topic, but studies do seem to reliably point to diets proportionately higher in n-3s yielding lower blood triglyceride counts2 and decreased rates of depression3. Not quite as universally agreed upon are its broader effects on systemic inflammation, muscle signaling, and so forth, but in theory, by increasing our n-3 to n-6 ratio, we are positively influencing the n-3-derived eicosanoids, which display more anti-inflammatory responses to exogenous insults to the body, compared to the more pro-inflammatory n-6-derived eicosanoids4.
While I am hesitant to place unquestionable faith in the effects of high EPA/DHA fish oil supplementation, it remains a staple supplement of mine and one I recommend to most everyone. Nearly every non-genetic disease (and even those can, to some extent, be influenced by inflammatory markers) can be ascribed to chronic inflammation, meaning our body is inappropriately expressing an excessive immune response to stimuli that do not warrant it. In this vein, I have a difficult time not giving nutrients with proven anti-inflammatory properties (especially ones as non-specific and widespread as n-3s) the benefit of the doubt.
The takeaway: Systemic inflammation is right there with gut microbiota in terms of huge topics in the field of nutrition which deserve a lot more research and carry some huge implications in treating chronic disease. For general health purposes, at least from a theoretical standpoint, I think supplementing fish oil high in EPA and DHA n-3s is a great idea, but, to come back to our discussion on ratios, the bigger picture needs to be kept in mind. 3g of fat from supplemental fish oil is not going to do you much good if the rest of your diet is loaded with fried foods and processed animal products.
- Simopoulos, A. P. “The Importance of the Ratio of Omega-6/omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids.” Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy = Biomédecine & Pharmacothérapie 56, no. 8 (October 2002): 365–79.
- Harris, William S., and Deepti Bulchandani. “Why Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Lower Serum Triglycerides?” Current Opinion in Lipidology 17, no. 4 (August 2006): 387–93. doi:10.1097/01.mol.0000236363.63840.16.
- Osher, Yamima, and R. H. Belmaker. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Depression: A Review of Three Studies.” CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics 15, no. 2 (2009): 128–33.
- Wall, Rebecca, R. Paul Ross, Gerald F. Fitzgerald, and Catherine Stanton. “Fatty Acids from Fish: The Anti-Inflammatory Potential of Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” Nutrition Reviews 68, no. 5 (May 2010): 280–89. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00287.x.