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Fish Oil: Everything You Need to Know About the Nutrient

Fish Oil: Everything You Need to Know About the Nutrient

Is the food form enough or is a supplement necessary?

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About 10% of Americans take an omega-3 supplement like fish oil regularly, according to Harvard Women's Health Watch, and it’s easy to understand why. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil — a substance naturally found in certain types of fish — are essential to normal growth and development as well as reducing inflammation in the body and maintaining brain function. They can also help treat and prevent a variety of health issues.

But this doesn’t mean that you should start loading up on fish oil supplements, especially if you’re already a regular eater of oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring.

The exact science behind omega-3s is pretty complicated, but the most important thing to know is that it’s one of the “good fats,” and our bodies can’t produce it on their own. If you think that changing your diet or that taking a fish oil supplement could be good for your health, then make sure you talk to your doctor to work out a regimen. But before you even consider taking fish oil, there are some important things to know.

History of fish oil

History of fish oil

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Your heart rate can tell you a lot about your health, but so can your diet. More than 50 years ago, scientists found that the diets of people who ate lots of fatty fish — notably Greenland’s native Inuit population — led them to have lower rates of mortality from coronary heart disease when compared with Danish and American people.

Health benefits of fish oil

Health benefits of fish oil

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Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil can help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease and other ailments. Research has shown that additional benefits of omega-3 in fish oil include the prevention of eye ailments like macular degeneration and even protection against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Can treat high triglyceride levels

Treatment for high triglyceride levels

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One of the main benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil is treating high blood triglyceride levels. If you have high triglyceride levels, that essentially means that you have too much fat in your blood, which can lead to stroke and other ailments.

Can lower risk of heart disease

Beneficial effect on cardiovascular disease

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Working out can have a positive effect on your heart health, but so can adding more fish to your diet. Eating fish just twice per week can lead to lowered risk of developing heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

May help ease rheumatoid arthritis

May help ease rheumatoid arthritis

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Omega-3 fatty acids are known to help reduce inflammation, and many people take fish oil supplements to help with symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Some studies show that fish oil may aid in joint stiffness, pain and tenderness for those with rheumatoid arthritis.

Could be beneficial in a prenatal diet

Could be beneficial in a prenatal diet

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There are many foods pregnant women should add to their diet. The fatty acids found in fish, for example, are important for a developing baby’s brain both before and after birth. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends eating two servings of fish per week before birth and while breastfeeding. Note that there are certain fish that should be avoided during pregnancy because of higher levels of mercury.

Be conscious of mercury contamination

Mercury contamination

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If you’re concerned about mercury poisoning from consuming fish or a fish oil supplement, the FDA recommends sticking to options like canned light tuna, salmon or shrimp and avoiding orange roughy, swordfish and bigeye tuna.

Consult with your doctor

Consult with your doctor

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If you have symptoms that sound like they can be eased by taking a fish oil supplement, you should always ask your doctor first before starting a new supplement. Your doctor will be able to determine what your dosage should be or whether or not you need a prescription omega-3 medication.

There are two types of omega-3s in fish oil

There are two types of omega-3s in fish oil

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There are two primary types of fatty acids found in fish: EPA and DHA. Both of these fatty acids may prevent cognitive decline and may improve cardiovascular function and fetal development. You can get them from a variety of other sources.

One dosage doesn’t fit all

One dosage doesn’t fit all

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For patients with no signs of an unhealthy heart, the American Heart Association recommends eating oily fish at least twice a week and adding foods such as flaxseeds and walnuts to your regular diet. Anyone with documented coronary heart disease should consume about 1 gram of EPA and DHA per day from oily fish and should talk with a physician about taking supplements. Meanwhile, patients with high triglyceride levels should be getting 2 to 4 grams of EPA and DHA through capsules every day.

A high dosage doesn’t mean better health

A high dosage doesn’t mean better health

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For those with high triglycerides, there is an FDA-approved fish oil prescription in which one dose is 4 grams. For otherwise healthy individuals, the National Institutes of Health lists 1.6 grams as the adequate intake for males aged 14 or older and 1.1 grams for females aged 14 or older. Not only can taking fish oil supplements have side effects but it can also interact with certain medications such as blood thinners, blood pressure drugs and some contraceptive drugs. While supplements are a great way to make sure you’re meeting dietary requirements, one of the best things you can do is to regularly incorporate foods that boost your immune system into your daily meals.

Eating fish is still the best way to get your fish oil

Eating fish is still the best way to get your fish oil

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Just like popping powdered vegetables in pill form isn’t as nutritious as just eating your veggies, taking even the highest-quality fish oil on the market won’t have the same advantages as eating fish like salmon and mackerel a couple times a week. Fish doesn’t just contain healthy fat; it also contains vitamins and minerals that all work in tandem to provide you with the most complete, natural source of omega-3s. If you’re looking to incorporate more fish into your diet, here are some of our best recipes for grilling.

Certain fish are higher in omega-3s

Certain fish are higher in omega-3s

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In order to get your omega-3s through your regular diet, there are some tips that can help when you’re grocery shopping. The Seafood Nutrition Partnership recommends choosing fish that have a firm texture and deep color — they will be more fatty than others and thus higher in omega-3s. Atlantic salmon, anchovies, herring, mackerel and sardines are just a few of the options that have more than 1,000 milligrams of omega-3s.

Other foods are high in omega-3s as well

Other foods are high in omega-3s as well

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Though there are fewer grams per serving than there are in fish, certain oils, seeds and nuts also contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Another omega-3 acid besides DHA and EPA, called a-linoleic acid, can be found predominantly in canola and soybean oils, flaxseeds, soybeans, walnuts and chia seeds.

There are possible side effects

Possible side effects

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Taking fish oil supplements does come with possible side effects. They could increase your risk of bleeding or possibly your risk of stroke, give you indigestion or cause nausea.

Take fish oil supplements with fat

Take fish oil supplements with fat

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We’re not saying to wash your supplements down with a side of french fries, but taking them with food that contains some fat, like avocados, may aid in the absorption of the vitamins, such as vitamin D and vitamin A, found in fish oil. Making sure your vitamins are absorbed is just one of the surprising reasons you should eat more fat.

It’s important to read the label

It’s important to read the label

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There are many different types of fish oils on the market, and if you’re starting a fish oil regime, you should always look for one that mentions that it meets the GOED standards for purity or that it has been third-party tested. You can also look for labels indicating that it’s been certified by the MSC or the Environmental Defense Fund, which indicate sustainability. You could also ask for a COA, or Certificate of Analysis, from the manufacturer, which means that purity claims have been independently verified.

Fish oil supplements can go bad

Fish oil supplements can go bad

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Fish oil supplements can actually go bad. A few ways to help keep them fresh is to store your fish oil in the fridge after opening, buy supplements that are in dark bottles to prevent oxidation from light exposure, and make sure that they contain antioxidants, which also help reduce oxidation.

Capsules stay fresher longer

Capsules stay fresher longer

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Generally, fish oil products have about a 24-month shelf life, but fish oil capsules have a protective barrier that could keep them fresher longer than the liquid form. A 2015 study from the Journal of Nutritional Science found that the omega-3 products safest from oxidation are encapsulated, unflavored fish oils.

Store them in the freezer for less of an aftertaste

Store them in the freezer for less of an aftertaste

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Fish oil supplements are known to result in, shall we say, fish burps. To avoid this, stash your capsules in the freezer. Freezing them will cause them to release more slowly in your stomach, which should help mitigate the aftertaste.

You can find specific brands’ ratings online

You can find specific brands’ ratings online

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Some brands of fish oil contain additives, fillers and contaminants, including insecticides, mercury and hydrogenated oils, so consult the International Fish Oil Standards Program’s products list for certified brands and products.

Cod liver oil is another option

Cod liver oil

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Cod liver oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids as well as a great source of vitamin D and vitamin A.

Krill oil is too

Krill oil

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Krill oil, which comes from small shrimp-like creatures, contains both DHA and EPA, and a few preliminary studies have shown that it’s absorbed into the body better than fish oil. The antioxidant it contains, astaxanthin, may support vision health.

Or try wild salmon oil

Wild salmon oil

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Wild salmon oil has both necessary omega-3s, DHA and EPA, as well as the antioxidant astaxanthin.

There is a fish oil blend

Fish oil blend

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This may be a blend of oils from different fish including cod, sardines and anchovies; fish oil blends tend to be higher in EPA than DHA.

Algal oil is also a good option

Algal oil is also a good option

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Fish and fish oils both have DHA and EPA, but those two fatty acids are originally produced in microalgae, which the fish consume. Because of this, algal oil is an option for vegetarians. Note that not all algal oils contain EPA.

Processed fish oil isn’t absorbed as well as natural fish oil

Processed fish oil isn’t absorbed as well as natural fish oil

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The molecular structure of the fats in the oils themselves can play a role in the level of absorption, and natural fish oil (which is oil taken right from the fish) is more easily absorbed than concentrated and distilled “ethyl ester” oils. If you’re considering changing your diet or taking a fish oil supplement to help reduce inflammation, here are the most inflammatory foods you should be avoiding.

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