About 10 percent of Americans take an omega-3 supplement like fish oil regularly, according to Harvard Medical School, and it's easy to understand why. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil are essential to normal growth and development as well as reducing inflammation in the body and maintaining brain function. Omega-3 deficiencies can lead to cancer, cardiovascular disease and other ailments. 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 our own. Research has shown that additional benefits of omega-3 in fish oil include the prevention of eye ailments like macular degeneration, relief of rheumatoid arthritis and even protection against Alzheimer's disease and dementia, so it's certainly up there with the supplements you should start taking when you turn 50.
If you're not a fish eater and think 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.
It's a good treatment for 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. According to a 2013 study, taking 3.4 grams of omega-3s per day for one month lowered blood triglyceride levels by 25 to 50 percent.
Some are more sustainable than others
If you have an eye toward sustainability, then you should probably stick with krill oil or wild salmon oil, which are both more sustainable than other oily fish and are generally lower in contaminants like mercury.
It's important to read the label
There are many different types of fish oils on the market, but you should always look for one that mentions that it's reached the GOED standard for purity or that it's been third-party tested. You can also look for labels saying that it's been certified by the MSC or the Environmental Defense Fund, which indicate sustainability. You should also ask for a COA, or Certificate of Analysis, from the manufacturer, which means that purity claims have been independently verified.
It can go bad
If you're taking liquid fish oil (as opposed to capsules), make sure to store it in the fridge after opening to slow oxidation (which will make it go rancid). And it can go bad even if you're taking capsules; cut one open every so often and give it a sniff to make sure it's hasn't turned. Rancid oil can easily make you sick.
It should contain antioxidants
One way to ensure freshness is to make sure that they contain antioxidants, which naturally prevent oxidation. Krill and wild salmon oil contain a natural antioxidant called astaxanthin.
Capsules stay fresher longer
It's advised that you stick with capsules instead of the straight oil. Not only will they last longer, but fish oil in liquid form is not exactly delicious. All fish oil is perishable, though, so it's one thing sold at Costco that you should probably avoid buying in bulk.
Side effects can include indigestion and gas
Taking fish oil supplements doesn't have major side effects, but as with any time you're consuming straight fat, it could leave you in search of Tums. It should also be noted that if you have a bleeding condition, or take medicines like Eliquis and Xarelto that can increase bleeding, you should definitely talk to your doctor before taking omega-3 supplements.
It should be taken with food that contains fat
We're not saying to always wash your supplements down with a side of fries, but taking them with food that contains some fat may aid in absorption. Making sure your vitamins are absorbed is just one of the surprising reasons you should eat more fat.
Store them in the freezer for less of an aftertaste
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 the oil lower down in your digestive tract, which should help mitigate the aftertaste.
You can find specific brands' ratings online
Some brands of fish oil contain additives and fillers including pesticides, mercury and hydrogenated oils, so consult the International Fish Oil Standards Program's website for individual ratings; supplement bottles should also mention whether they have a five-star rating or not.
There are two primary varieties
There are two primary types of fatty acids found in fish: EPA and DHA. Most fish oils are naturally higher in EPA than DHA. They're both beneficial, but knowing what they do - and tailoring the supplement you choose to your specific needs - is key.
Different formulas can suit different purposes
A high-EPA formula is recommended for joint, skin and cardiovascular health. A high-DHA formula is best for cognitive function and vision support as well as for brain development in children. Different types of fish oil supplements have different ratios of EPA to DHA, as well as other vitamins and nutrients:
Cod liver oil
Cod liver oil is high in DHA, as well as vitamins A and D.
Krill oil (which comes from small shrimp-like creatures) contains a smaller amount of both DHA and EPA, but 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.
Wild salmon oil
Wild salmon oil has the right balance of DHA and EPA for general health, as well as astaxanthin.
Fish oil blend
This may be a blend of oils from fish including mackerel, salmon, sardines and anchovies; fish oil blends tend to be higher in EPA.
High-DHA fish oil blend
This fish oil blend is higher in DHA, so is better for cognitive and vision support.
High-EPA fish oil blend
Blends that are higher in EPA are better for cardiovascular and inflammatory conditions.
Processed fish oil isn't absorbed as well as natural fish oil
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.
Eating fish is still the best way to get your fish oil
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 few 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 great recipes.
Algal oil is also a good option
Fish get their omega-3s from algae, so it would only make sense that going right to the source and extracting oil from the algae itself would be another good method to get your omega-3s. If you're a vegan or are otherwise hesitant to consume fish oil, algal oil can be another option, although you'd need to up the dosage for as much EPA and DHA as in fish oil.
Other foods are high in omega-3s as well
Walnuts, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil and chia seeds contains a type of omega-3 fatty acids called ALA. These are beneficial, but are far less potent than the omega-3s in EPA and DHA found in fish, so you would need to consume a lot more to get the same benefits.
One dosage doesn't fit all
Doctors recommend 1 gram of fish oil per day for general health, and 2 grams for specific concerns like inflammation or cardiovascular issues.
A high dosage doesn't mean better health
While dosage of up to 4 grams per day can help with high triglycerides, the more doesn't mean the better. High doses can interact with certain medications, like blood thinners, so again, always consult with your doctor before beginning a regimen. Which supplements are best for you to take is just one of the questions you should be asking your doctor but aren't.
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