What are the benefits to consuming fish and fish oil?

Kat Barefield, MS, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
Over 20 years of published studies have demonstrated that people consuming at least 2-4 servings per week of fatty fish have many more health benefits when compared to others consuming little to none. Fish oils are fats found in fatty fish (e.g. mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon) and are responsible for the many potential benefits related to maintaining cardiovascular, brain, eye and hearing health.

Fish oils are a rich source of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, better known as the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. DHA is a key essential fatty acid found in the retina and is involved in visual development giving rationale for its potential to help maintain eye health. Because DHA is integral to the maintenance of the cell membranes in the brain and important to the overall central nervous system function, regular consumption of omega-3 fats is believed to dramatically reduce the risk of dementia, thus preserving cognitive function in the aging population and contributing to mood improvement.

The anti-inflammatory effects of DHA and EPA might be explained by competitively inhibiting cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), lipoxygenase-5 (LOX-5), interleukin (IL)-1a and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a), enzymes involved in inflammation and cartilage degradation. Therefore, the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, may possess anti-inflammatory activity, reducing rheumatoid arthritis and other arthritic conditions.

A recent published review concluded that there is extensive evidence from three decades of research that fish oils, or more specifically the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids contained in them, are beneficial for everyone. This includes healthy people as a supplement for disease prevention as well as those with heart disease -- including post myocardial infarction (MI) patients and those with heart failure, atherosclerosis, or atrial fibrillation.

If you are seeking the potential benefits of fish oils, look for fish oil capsules containing ~600 mg of omega -3s made up of 360 mg of EPA and 240 mg of DHA. Take 1 capsule daily if you’re not consuming 2 to 4 servings a week of fatty fish - unless a qualified health professional advises more for a specific condition.
According to the American Heart Association consuming fatty fish and fish oil provides remarkable benefits to the cardiovascular system. Clinical trials prove that the risk of heart attack, stroke, atherosclerosis and high blood pressure is decreased when fish or fish oil is ingested regularly. Fats are stored in the blood primarily in the form of triglycerides and evidence gathered indicates omega-3 fats reduce their numbers. While patients in the advanced stages of heart disease may not benefit, there is some suggestion that essential fatty acids can also help regulate heart rhythm. It is recommended that people ingest one gram of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) each day. These are the vital nutrients present in omega-3 fatty acids.

The primary health benefit of fish oil is its anti-inflammatory effect. Thus, it may provide relief to those with ailments such as joint pain, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, as well as inflammatory bowel disease. It has also been suggested that the omega-3 fatty acids may be help to inhibit the development of breast cancer. Researchers in Australia believe that the fatty acids in fish oil reduce the risk of asthma in children as it may help to inhibit the inflammation of respiratory airways.

Not only do these essential omega-3 fatty acids improve cardiovascular health, but they also play a critical role in our brain and its functioning. It is believed that because DHA is a significant component in the tissue of the brain, dietary supplementation of this nutrient can aid in preventing Alzheimer's disease and memory loss. Low rates of depression observed by researchers in people whose diets includes large amounts of fish, suggests a link with these nutrients. Schizophrenic patients have been treated with fish oil, too.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women are particularly vulnerable to dietary deficiencies and should be sure to get adequate amounts of EPA and DHA, since their bodies are providing sustenance to both themselves and their child. There may also be a correlation between postpartum depression, premature birth, low birth weight, ADHD and a dietary deficiency in DHA.
Kimberly A. Parks, DO
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
In small studies, fish oil has been found to improve many conditions. The most widely known use for fish oil is in treating and preventing heart disease. Fish oil has been shown to reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death in people who have coronary artery disease, reduce triglyceride levels, mildly reduce blood pressure and increase HDL or “good” cholesterol. 

In addition to affecting heart disease, fish oil may also have a positive effect on cognitive decline and dementia, depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders. It has been suggested to reduce rates of colon cancer recurrence, slow the biologic aging process and promote a reduction in inflammation. It may lead to improvement in chronic inflammatory conditions such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and certain types of arthritis. The most promising effects seem to be on the heart.
Want to live longer? Eat fish!

Studies show that consuming 8 ounces of fish weekly, especially omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish such as salmon and sardines, can reduce the risk of heart disease, the number one killer of Americans; slow the accumulation of artery-clogging plaque; and even slightly lower high blood pressure. 

Consider having at least two 4-ounce fish meals weekly.
Picture of salmon

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.