Busting the Most Common Fish Oil Myths
There are plenty of good reasons to take a fish oil supplement, but if lowering your cholesterol is the ultimate goal, you’re wasting your money. The same may hold true if you think there’s not much difference between the various types of fish oil and omega-3 supplements on store shelves except, perhaps, the capsule sizes and the magnitude of the smelly, fishy belches some cause after you take them.
Not knowing what to look for in omega-3 supplements and what they are capable of may prevent people from getting any health benefits from these supplements—and it could be hurting their wallets. After more than 40 years of experience in the health research field, I am determined to dispel some of the most stubborn misconceptions about fish oils and omega-3 supplements.
Myth: Omega-3 supplements help lower cholesterol.
Not true. Too many people say their doctors recommended that they start taking fish oil because their lipid profile was high. They mistakenly think this supplement will help raise their HDL (good cholesterol) and lower their LDL (bad cholesterol). But the omega-3s found in fish—in particular the EPA and DHA fatty acids—work on different blood lipids called triglycerides. Triglycerides are basically blood fat. Imagine having blood the consistency of chocolate pudding. High triglyceride levels make your blood extremely thick and hard for your heart to pump. When your heart works harder, it needs more blood to supply needed oxygen. Our bodies are very efficient at eliminating fish fat from our blood but struggle to remove fats from other animals. Omega-3s help prevent the production of triglycerides in the liver by replacing one type of blood fat with another, effectively lowering your triglyceride level.
Here is the relationship of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol: Cholesterol, a fatty substance present in all human cells and fluids, builds up around triglycerides. If you were to cut open a diseased artery, you’d see something that looks like a pimple. The triglycerides would be the pus, and the LDL cholesterol would be built up around it. A triglyceride level above 300 mg/dl puts you at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Anything above 500 mg/dl increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Myth: The only way to avoid the fishy aftertaste of omega-3 supplements is to take krill oil.
Not anymore. Most omega-3 and fish oil supplements are simply mixtures of unrefined fish fat, which can quickly turn rancid and create an unpleasant odor. To eliminate the odor, the manufacturing process requires repeated distillation of fresh fish oil, which removes the unpleasant odor. Refined pharmaceutical-grade oils are carefully prepared. Fishy burps are an indication that your supplement has gone rancid. In the best case, many of the benefits of supplementation are lost. In the worst case, these rancid oils could actually harm your health.
Myth: The giant bottles of low-cost fish oil are just as good as the higher-priced brands.
Most fish oil is typically made from the by-products of fish that have been processed for food and other uses. This oil is unrefined and not concentrated, resulting in low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and high levels of saturated fats; this is the oil that is used in most omega-3s and fish oil supplements. Because the US does not standardize the quality of fish oil, companies selling higher-priced supplements will use a highly refined omega-3 and follow other countries’ standards.
Myth: You can get plenty of DHA and EPA from eggs that contain omega-3s.
Not true. The omega-3 found in these eggs is plant-based alpha-linolenic acid. It does not contain EPA or DHA.
Myth: Only people with heart disease should be taking omega-3s.
There is significant scientific evidence that omega-3s reduce systemic inflammation and may benefit vision, brain, joint, and bone health. The World Health Organization recommends that people without a history of heart disease consume 200-500 mg per day of EPA and DHA. The American Heart Association recommends 500 mg daily. Those who have a history of heart disease or related concerns should strive for at least 1,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA, and those who have high triglyceride levels should be getting 2,000 to 4,000 mg per day. Ensure you match the product you choose with the amount of omega-3s you should be consuming.
Myth: Omega-3s can’t do anything to relieve pain.
Omega-3s help reduce the body’s inflammatory response. Every cell membrane is made of omega-6, omega-3, phospholipids, and cholesterol. If you damage a cell membrane, the omega-6 starts the healing process and switches on the pain. At the same time, the omega-3 starts the anti-inflammatory process that turns off the pain. We need a balance of omega-3s and omega-6s in order to support this process. However, most people consume excess amounts of omega-6s (commonly found in soy, vegetable, and corn oils and plentiful in grain-fed meats). Fried foods are also drenched with omega-6s.
Even though finding the right omega-3 supplement may seem daunting, there are many benefits to be had by restoring balance to your body. The majority of people consume well below the recommended daily amount of omega-3s. Getting your body back on track can reduce the risk for chronic illness later in life, but remember: Even with adequate omega-3 supplementation (and an awareness of omega-6 overload), it may take two or three months to get your system in the correct balance. Have patience; your body will thank you.
Fred Sancilio, PhD, is the founder, President, and CEO of Sancilio and Company Inc. He has more than 40 years of experience in pharmaceutical research, development, manufacturing, and distribution industries. Sancilio has published more than 20 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals and also has presented at scientific conferences all over the world.