You’ve heard that fish-oil supplements offer a host of health benefits, with research, experts and anecdotal accounts espousing the benefits. Yes, these capsules have been linked with everything from lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease to boosting mental health, never mind, helping people achieve a balanced, healthy diet – if it’s omega-3 fatty acids that are missing. But should you be taking these, and if so, why? Accredited practicing dietitian Robbie Clark explains. 

Studies continually observe an association between regular fish consumption and lower rates of illness and disease. The polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the health-enhancing compounds found in fish, and these essential fatty acids play many distinct roles in the body such as: maintaining cell membrane fluidity, maintaining cell membrane-bound enzyme and receptor function, foetal development, brain development, visual function, cognitive function and cardiovascular health.

In addition to the above, the key benefits of supplementing with a high quality fish oil is that it is anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic, reduces triglyceride levels, maintains normal neural function, supports metabolic activity and influences brain function, for starters. 

Why should we supplement with fish oils?

The typical Australian diet is too low in omega-3 oils and too high in omega-6, saturated and trans-fats. A deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with an increased risk of the following health conditions: 

• Heart disease 

• Stroke 

• Type 2 diabetes 

• Skin disorders 

• Allergies 

• Cognitive dysfunction 

• Mental health 

• Vision problems 

• Arthritis and other inflammatory disorders

Who will benefit?

Fish oils have not only been seen to help prevent and manage the above conditions, they have also been seen to help many other health problems. Therefore, people with the following health concerns may also benefit from supplementing with fish oil:

• Skin problems – acne, psoriasis, eczema

• Arthritis – rheumatoid and osteoarthritis

• Behavioural disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

• Cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure

• Diabetes

• Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

• Obesity and insulin resistance

• Asthma

What are the concerns with taking ordinary fish oils?

Fish oil’s reputation has taken some hits lately, but you may not want to write them off completely. Fish oil quality can vary dramatically between brands, and it is of utmost importance that the purest and highest quality fish oil is used to reap the true benefits and ensure therapeutic efficacy and safety. Your doctor will be able to advise if you should be taking these, and which one is right for you.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the Global Organisation for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) provide strict guidelines for the maximum allowable content for a range of contaminants including PCBs (pesticides and dioxins) and heavy metals (e.g. mercury), as well as oxidation residues. And by choosing a fish oil that conforms to these criteria, individuals can be certain they are receiving purity, strength and quality. 

How much?

For the general population, to receive a decent amount of the healthy omega-3 fats, they need to consume oily fish e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, sword fish, about three times a week, which will provide 500mg of omega-3 fat. Although we can make some of these fats ourselves by eating plant foods like flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts which contain another omega-3 fat – alpha linolenic acid (ALA) – we only produce a small amount.

The recommended daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids is as follows:

• Infants – 500mg

• Children – 700 – 1,200mg 

• Adults – 1,100 (women), 1,600mg (men)

• Pregnancy and breastfeeding – 1,300 – 1,400mg (including 200mg DHA)

Please note that these doses will vary for specific health conditions and is best to be advised by and used under a health care professional.

Who should be cautious about using fish oils?

• Individuals with bleeding disorders should use fish oil supplements under medical supervision.

• Higher doses of fish oil might cause suppression of immune and inflammatory response. Immunocompromised patients should avoid exceeding 3,000mg/day.

• Theoretically, some people who are allergic to seafood such as fish might also be allergic to fish oil supplements. There is no reliable information showing how likely people with seafood allergy are to have an allergic reaction to fish oil, so they should use them cautiously.

• People with bipolar disorder should avoid high doses as it may increase the symptoms associated with hypomania.

If you are concerned, book an appointment with your GP who will advise a correct treatment plan.  

nutrition | body+soul

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