Before we dig in, let’s remember that most of the benefits of fish oil can be traced to two factors: (1) their status as an omega-3 fatty acid and (2) their ability to be formed into prostaglandins, the signaling molecules in cell membranes.
4 Benefits of Fish Oil
Adding fish oil to your diet won’t necessarily result in these 4 benefits, but is likely to help if your omega-3 and omega-6 intake is currently unbalanced. You’ll benefit from addressing the ratio of omega fatty acids, rather than from taking the fish oil itself.
We’re going to cover 4 potential benefits of taking fish oil. But do note that most of the health benefits come from an imbalance of omega-3 to omega-6 intake. Through a normal diet, we get a lot of omega-6 (from red meat), but very little omega-3.
It’s when the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is off that potential issues may come up. By supplementing with fish oil (which isn’t necessary if your diet already includes fatty fish), the balance in omegas is restored, and you will begin to notice some of the benefits listed mentioned below.
The two ways fish oil may benefit your brain is by helping depression and cognition. As for depression, fish oil supplements alone don’t seem to have the effects of standard antidepressants. However, high doses of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—one of the main Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil—help maximize the effects of pharmaceutical antidepressants, thus improving mood in people who don’t respond well to antidepressants. (Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the other primary Omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil.)
A recent study also suggests that fish oil could possibly be considered a nootropic, a substance that can enhance cognition and memory. The evidence particularly points towards using fish oil to preserve brain function in the elderly, noting too much omega-6—and too little omega-3—is known to be detrimental to neurological health.
Fish oil is commonly used to improve joint health. However, these benefits aren’t as well researched as other supplements commonly used for joint health—like curcumin or glucosamine—despite its popularity. If you’re healthy and plan to take fish oil for joint health, opt for higher doses. But be aware that too much omega-6 can worsen joint health, especially if you have arthritis.
Immune system benefits
Although it’s been suggested that supplementing fish oil can boost your immune system, the evidence behind this theory is weak. In fact, high doses of fish oil may actually do the opposite. If you’re prone to colds and fatigue, a well-balanced omega intake through good diet and nutrition seems to be your best bet.
The latest research on fish oil protecting cardiovascular health can be summed up as, “much less promising than once thought.” It’s now thought that the first slew of studies to come out supporting fish oil for heart health may have been overly enthusiastic. It’s generally accepted that a low omega-3 intake (300 milligrams combined EPA and DHA) from either supplementation or diet seems protective, but that higher doses aren’t necessarily better.
So should we supplement with fish oil?
The popularity of fish oil supplementation is because the standard western diet is traditionally heavy in omega-6 fatty acids (corn, soy, and meat products) and low in omega-3. Fish oil supplementation was seen as a simple and effective way to close the gap.
If you eat a Mediterranean diet—with plenty of fish— chances are, you might not notice the benefits associated with fish oil supplementation because your diet will already have a healthy balance of omega-3 vs. omega-6 fatty acids.
People who typically notice the benefits after introducing fish oil to their diets usually have a high-fat diet with little to no fish intake. Adding fish oil will help close the gap by restoring balance to a diet that is too high in omega-6 and too low in omega-3.
So what does this mean for some of us? If you have a well-balanced diet and regularly eat fish, you might not need to supplement fish oil at all. In fact, it might actually be more beneficial to start introducing more fatty fish into your diet before considering a visit to your local supplement aisle.