If “fish burps”—the admittedly gross side effect that often goes hand-in-hand with fish oil supplements—are the only reason you’re not taking it, we’re gonna let you in on a secret that will change everything! (More on that below.)
But first things first: our bodies need omega-3 fatty acids—the primary beneficial fats found in fish oil—but can’t make them from scratch. As with the essential amino acids (the building blocks the body uses to make protein), the only way to get omega-3s is through food or supplementation.
And trust us, you don’t want to skimp on them. They’ve been linked to improving heart health, reducing symptoms of depression, increasing brain power, and lowering overall inflammation in the body.
Getting your dose through food sources is definitely the preferred method—walnuts, vegetable oils, flaxseeds, and leafy vegetables are all high in omega-3s. But the ultimate source of this super-beneficial fat? Fish.
The idea of swallowing fish oil (which, yes, is often a little stinky even in capsule form) can be hard to get used to. But there’s a pretty good chance you could really benefit from it—read on to find out why.
What does fish oil do?
Omega-3s have sort of the opposite story of vitamin E. Initially researchers thought vitamin E was going to be a super-powerful compound—something that could potentially cure serious diseases like cancer and prevent dementia. But after studying it for some time, they found it actually wasn’t as effective as they’d hoped.
Fish oil, on the other hand, is now one of the best-studied beneficial compounds and continues to dazzle scientists with its positive effects on the body.
Before we dig into the good stuff, it’s important to make the distinction between omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids; the latter aren’t found in fish oil, but are far easier to find in our regular diets. The body needs a proper balance of these for optimal health. Omega-6s play an important role in brain health and development, but elevated blood levels of this fat have been linked to increased inflammation; the Standard American Diet tends to have 25 percent more omega-6s than omega-3s, while the more heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet has a much more even balance between the two. Omega-6 is usually found in nuts, vegetable oils, and some meats. As long as you make an effort to get about the same amount of both omega-3s and omega-6s, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Fish oil is made up of two types of omega-3 fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), both of which are only found in animal sources. While plants can create an omega-3 fatty acid called Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), it’s become clear that ALA doesn’t have as many health benefits as the combination of DHA and EPA, which is why fish (and fish oil) is considered the superior source of omega-3s. Here are just some of the benefits of this amazing supplement.
Together, DHA and EPA reduce the overall number of triglycerides, or blood lipids—which means fish oil is a good thing for the heart. The combo also lowers blood pressure in people with hypertension, but in those with normal levels there doesn’t seem to be a change for better or worse.
Research has also found that supplementing with fish oil daily reduces bad cholesterol by 15 to 30 percent.
There are quite a few studies that examine the relationship between DHA, EPA, and depression. A clear link has been established between chronic inflammation and symptoms of depression, so it makes sense that anti-inflammatory fish oil might help alleviate those symptoms. In those diagnosed with major depressive symptoms, the EPAs in fish oil have effects comparable to major pharmaceutical drugs like fluoxetine.
EPA shines when it comes to stabilizing mood, but DHA takes the cake for equalizing energy levels. Parents who have tried everything to treat kids with ADHD might want to experiment with daily fish oil capsules: 300mg of DHA appears to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity in children. Kids who took fish oil also improved their levels of working memory and overall cognition—no word yet on whether it has the same effects on adults.
Reviews are mixed when it comes to fish oil supplements and overall inflammation. Some studies seem to be proof positive that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial in reducing it, and it does seem that diets high in omega-3s, like the Mediterranean diet, are anti-inflammatory in nature. That being said, some studies have shown that supplementing with actual fish oil has no effect on inflammation, positive or negative. More research is needed before any conclusions can be made.
Forms of fish oil
There are three different ways to get beneficial DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids: eating whole fish, taking fish oil pills, or cod liver oil. To get the recommended value, the American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish (like salmon, catfish, halibut, striped sea bass, and albacore tuna) twice a week, or taking a supplement daily.
Do you need to supplement with fish oil?
If you’re not eating fish regularly, it’s probably a good idea. DHA and EPA in particular are the most beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and can’t be obtained through plant sources. Considering that fish oil supplements have been proven to improve cognition and support heart health, they’re worth adding to your regimen no matter your age or health status. As always, check with your doctor before you start any new supplement, and note that fish oil can have some contraindications that affect prescription drugs. Fortunately, you don’t need to worry about mercury levels if you take fish oil (mercury is found in the meat, not the lipids).
If you’ve avoided taking fish oil because you dread “fish burps”—the nasty side effect of taking fish oil—try storing the capsules in the freezer. The oil freezes, sealing in the smell, and doesn’t defrost until it gets further along in the digestive tract. Genius, right? The “non-smelling” pills can be more expensive, but they’re just made with a thicker capsule that breaks down more slowly in your digestive system.
Want to learn more? Check out our primers on:
Illustration by Foley Wu