By Simone Stromer, MD, CHC [AADP]
Omega-3 fatty acid supplements (usually referred to as fish oil) are amongst the most commonly consumed dietary supplements and yet many people are confused about their health benefits and the extent to which they are effective in disease prevention. Dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and anchovies) and plants (flaxseed, hempseed, walnuts, and linseed). Eating fish (particularly those high in omega-3 fatty acids) about twice a week is part of a well-balanced and healthy diet. Fish oil contains the omega-3 fatty acids called DHA and EPA, while plant sources contain ALA. It is the DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids that have been repeatedly studied in a variety of medical conditions and found to be beneficial - but not unequivocally.
There is research evidence suggesting that intake of recommended amounts of DHA and EPA in the form of dietary fish or fish oil supplements lowers triglycerides (a type of cholesterol) and blood pressure, and may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (especially in those people who have already suffered it beforehand). In addition, it has been suggested that fish oil supplementation may improve brain development of a growing fetus, prevent postpartum depression and improve cognition in older people; however, there really is not enough evidence to recommend fish oil supplementation for these reasons at this point in time.
All of us should strive to eat a balanced diet that includes natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, because many of us do not manage to get two good servings of fish per week, especially those oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, nearly everyone could benefit from the recommended amount of EPA/DHA supplementation, unless your doctor advises against it.