Fish Oil: Health Benefits for Your Body and Brain

Though most people know fish oil is an important supplement to use each day, surprisingly, few people take it consistently. I’ve even been surprised by how few of my nutrition coaching clients use it regularly when we connect for our first session.

It is often advertised for its heart health benefits, but fish oil benefits much more than your heart. You’ll see how it affects your heart, body composition, brain, and even the rate at which you build muscle.

An online survey completed by Equation Research showed that only 26 percent of Americans said they take fish oil supplements, even though 63% of the respondents said they felt their diet did not have enough omega-3 fatty acids.

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What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Like omega-6 fatty acids, omega-3s are part of a select group of fats: essential fatty acids. Like essential amino acids, essential fatty acids are nutrients you need in your diet because your body can’t make them on its own.

We eat plenty of omega-6 fatty acids, so you don’t need to supplement with them. We don’t get nearly enough omega-3s, in total, and compared to omega-6s.

Oily fish, like wild-caught Alaskan salmon, contains the greatest concentration of omega-3s from food. More specifically, oily fish are rich sources of the omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA).

DHA and EPA are the sources of the health benefits fish oil is known for.

To make things a little more confusing, plants like flaxseeds, walnuts, soybean, and wheat germ also contain omega-3 fatty acids. However, they contain the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Humans have trouble converting ALA to DHA and EPA, so you don’t get the same benefit from them.

If you don’t eat fish every day, you’ll need to supplement with fish oil to reach an optimal intake of DHA and EPA.

Not surprisingly, fish oil is part of my Foundational Five, the best supplements to support health. If I had to narrow my list down to just two supplements, it would still make the cut.

You’re about to find out why. The following are seven significant health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

1. Enhances Fat Loss

While you can eat fat on Keto and drop body fat, most dietary fat doesn’t cause fat loss. However, supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids does enhance fat loss, according to research. It seems to be especially effective at reducing visceral, or belly fat.

A small 2010 clinical trial, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found the following:

Forty-four men and women supplemented with either four grams of safflower oil or four grams of fish oil. Those taking the fish oil decreased body fat and body fat percentage, increased lean body mass, and experienced a decrease in cortisol levels. Interestingly, the study participants were not instructed on diet or exercise. They were encouraged to keep their nutrition and exercise patterns the same as before the study.

Noreen, et al. 2010

That isn’t an excuse to just take fish oil and avoid exercise, but it’s still impressive that the study participants saw the changes they did without any instruction on diet or exercise.

Research shows fish oil supports weight loss by:

  • Stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, which activates brown adipose tissue, raising metabolic rate and heat production
  • Causes fuel partitioning, which directs storage of glycogen and mobilization of stored body fat for energy
  • Enhances satiety, making you feel full longer so you eat less

The research that showed omega-3s stimulated the SNS used only 2.4% of the animals’ total calorie intakes. An equivalent amount for an adult on a 2000-calorie diet would be five grams of fish oil per day.

2. Supports Healthy Lipids and Blood Glucose

Your doctor probably still focuses on your total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). The more important cardiovascular markers are your triglycerides and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). High triglycerides are a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

TRIGLYCERIDE/HDL RATIO
RatioRisk Level
1:1 or LessOptimal
2:1Low Risk
3:1Moderate Risk
4:1High Risk

Supplementing with omega-3s has been shown to:

  • improve insulin sensitivity
  • lower triglycerides
  • improve HDL cholesterol levels

Blood glucose and triglycerides go hand-in-hand, as you need glucose to build triglycerides. The more sugar in your diet, the higher your triglyceride levels rise.

Between EPA and DHA, EPA affects triglycerides the most. It has a positive effect in adults as well as children.

Research shows it’s a potent nutrient for supporting patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

3. Increases Lean Body Mass and Strength

Research shows fish oil increases strength and lean body mass in both young and old adults. It may also slow loss of muscle mass due to age or disease.

This makes it a great complement to a high-protein dietamino acid supplementation, and other muscle-building supplements.

Protein synthesis increased by 30% when people took fish oil in addition to a sufficient amount of protein or amino acids, compared to amino acids or protein alone!

Of the two most important omega-3s, DHA and EPA, it appears EPA has the most significant effect on muscle growth. It seems to both increase protein synthesis and decrease protein breakdown. Of course, it’s critical to consume enough protein to build muscle as well.

4. Supports normal inflammation and healthy blood pressure levels

Chronic inflammation increases the risk of heart disease. Fish oil protects the heart by supporting healthy levels of inflammation.

In a study that used human blood samples, EPA+DHA intake changed the expression of 1040 genes and resulted in a decreased expression of genes involved in inflammatory and atherogenesis-related pathways.”

Bouwens M, et al. 2009

Imagine that! The habit of taking fish oil every day positively affects more than 1000 genes that regulate inflammation!

Those who do a lot of chronic cardio or large amounts of endurance training should make their omega-3 supplementation a top priority as they’re more likely to experience inflammation.

The endocannabinoid system regulates inflammation. DHA and EPA can be metabolized into cannabinoids, making these omega-3s important for your endocannabinoid system. As CBD oil becomes more mainstream, you’ll probably see many formulas combine CBD oil and fish oil.

Inflammation and blood pressure often rise together. Supplementation with fish oil either on its own, or in combination with resistance training, improves blood pressure levels.

These outcomes suggest chronic RT and FO treatment as a therapeutic intervention for improving the muscular and vascular function, respectively, of older adults.

Lee SR, at al. 2019

Omega-3s may also reduce symptoms or slow the development of other inflammatory conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Omega-3s increase production of short-chain fatty acids, which improve the health of endothelial cells and reduce the risk of gut problems, such as dysbiosis and leaky gut.

5. Improves nutrient delivery to cells

Higher intakes of omega-3s change the cell membrane’s composition, allowing nutrients to flow in and out easier.

Not only does fish oil help with nutrient delivery to the cell, but a multivitamin may also improve the assimilation of omega-3s into the cell membrane:

Taking a multivitamin and fish oil improved the red blood cell’s ability to take up omega-3s into the cell membrane.

This is yet another example of why omega-3 fish oil and a high-quality multivitamin and are the first two supplements I recommend for most people.

6. Supports brain function

Doctors often recommend fish oil during pregnancy. DHA plays an essential role in brain function, from a developing baby to an aging adult.

At 2.5 years after birth, toddlers of mothers who supplemented with fish oil during pregnancy had significantly better hand and eye coordination compared to toddlers of mothers who did not supplement.

The effect of DHA on brain health continues throughout life. Some research indicates DHA could ward off or slow the effects of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other cognitive diseases.

It also helps reduce signs of psychological distress and symptoms of depression.

7. Additional Benefits

In addition to the benefits mentioned above, fish oil supplementation may:

  • Enhance eye health
  • Improve skin health
  • Possibly reduce the occurrence of infant allergies if used during pregnancy
  • Possibly reduce chest pain (acute coronary syndrome)
  • Reduce age-related sight loss

How much fish oil should you eat or take?

In most of the research, participants take one to two grams of EPA/DHA per day, or two to six fish oil softgels.

Conservative recommendations for daily DHA and EPA intake range from one to four grams. Omega-3 softgels vary in their DHA and EPA content, so check the label for the actual DHA and EPA content, not just the total amount of fat in a serving.

Some practitioners recommend high-dose fish oil for a short period of time. I’ve even seen recommendations as high as 1 gram per percent body fat. That means an average male at 22% body fat and female at 30% body fat would take 22 grams and 30 grams, respectively, per day.

Though such an amount would not be harmful, it likely isn’t necessary.

Higher quality softgels often have 500-600 mg of combined EPA and DHA per softgel.

A typical salmon steak provides about one gram of EPA and DHA. Of course, most people do not eat fatty fish, like Wild Alaskan Salmon every day, so supplementation should be a regular part of the diet.

All that said, supplementing with omega-3 fish oils is extremely safe. One of the only side effects from fish oil consumption is that it can thin the blood. So, patients on blood thinners should talk with their doctor before they get started.

What about the studies that say they don’t work?

Some studies suggest omega-3 fatty acids may not reduce heart disease risk as once thought. As usual, this is a result of the types of studies used. Also, these studies have only pointed at heart health, not all the other benefits mentioned above.

Observational studies haven’t shown a significant effect in reducing heart disease risk. In such a study, researchers ask groups of people whether they use fish oil or not. The “yes’s” go into the fish oil group. The “no’s” go into the non-fish oil group. Many of those who say “yes” to taking fish oil say yes because they have fish oil in their cupboards, not because they remember to take them every day.

The other issue with many of these studies is that they use a very low dose. When people take only a gram of fish oil per day, especially low-quality fish oil, they’re unlikely to gain many positive benefits.

Summary

Several years ago, my wife Vanessa was in the checkout line at the grocery store. A couple of women were in front of her. One was buying a bottle of fish oil.

The other woman saw the bottle and said, “I heard that fish oil is good for you.”

The woman holding the bottle looked at it, and then looked up at the other woman and said, “I wouldn’t know. My vet told me to get it for my dog.”

Sometimes, we take care of the nutrition needs of our pets better than we do for ourselves. Go ahead and share with your dog, but don’t miss out on the benefits of fish oil for yourself.

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