Science

Fish Oil May Cause More Health Problems Than It Solves

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One of the biggest health trends of late seems to be the taking of fish oil supplements.

We've all heard of it and many of us take it (without always knowing exactly why). Perhaps it's best to take a sober approach to what may be very good for you... with a few caveats along the way. 

What exactly is fish oil?

Extracted from the tissue of fatty fish, fish oil traditionally stems from: mackerel, lake trout, tuna, herring, sardines, and often salmon.

Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). It is these acids that give fish oil supplements a reputation for being beneficial to our health.

According to the America Heart Association, herring, sardines and mackerel contain the highest grams of omega-3 per serving.

It's of note, however, that of the fish oil that is produced for aquacultural feed, more than fifty percent goes to farmed salmon, according to studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

Why you might want to take fish oil supplements.

Studies have shown that fish oil may have many significant health benefits.

In addition to possibly preventing heart disease and lowering cholesterol, supplements may reduce one's risk of hypertriglyceridaemia (high levels of triglyceride, the most abundant fatty molecule).    

The reason taking omega-3 fatty acids help reduce these health risks is because they separate cellular platelets, which aids in the reduction of "clumping." Such clumping can lead to blood clots, which in turn can result in stroke or heart attack. 

Other possible health benefits of fish oil supplements include the lowering of risk for clinical depression and anxiety, cancer, lupus, arthritis, asthma, memory loss, schizophrenia, loss of concentration, bipolar disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, diabetes and macular degeneration (deterioration of vision).

Scientists are still determining whether these fish-oil-induced health benefits are valid, however, with no indisputable evidence as yet on the market.  

What is the best way to take fish oil supplements?

It is recommended that fish oil supplements be taken with meals in order to alleviate the often intense fish taste.

To avoid the "fish burps" that can result after ingestion, some supplements in pill form come with an enteric coating that allows the capsule to be digested in the intestines rather than the stomach.

The liquid form of fish oil does not have this option, but it is easier to swallow than its capsule alternative. As manufacturing of the liquid form has improved over the years, many companies offer "sweeter" tasting versions that won't be as unpalatable. Liquid fish oil can also be easily mixed into a fruit smoothie or other drink/food to mute the fishy taste.

Unfortunately, liquid fish oil can spoil easily, especially if bottles are not closed tightly after use.

"Exposure to light, heat and air expedites the oxidation of the oil, which transforms the healthy omega-3 fatty acids into a compound that not only lacks the healthful benefits of EPA and DHA, but it also might increase the risk of certain side effects, such as aftertaste, belching and gastrointestinal distress," writes LiveStrong.

Capsules are not at nearly as much of a risk of spoiling and can allow for an easier dosage monitoring than the liquid version of fish oil. However, some people may be allergic to the gelatin in said capsules and as gelatin is also made from pigs/cows, they are not kosher.

Fish oils from smaller fish might be a safer bet than larger fish (sharks, etc.). This is because smaller fish don't live very long and thus have less of a chance to soak up toxins, such as mercury, which can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women.

"When it comes to fish oils, remember, lower on the food chain, the better," says ConsumerLab.

ConsumerLab suggests looking into the following fish for your supplements: anchovies, hokies, whitings, pollocks, mackerel and sardines.  

Some reasons why fish oil supplements might not be such a good idea, after all.

Last year, PBS relayed some damning information about fish oils that may make you think twice about taking supplements at all.

"According to Dr. Steven Nissen, chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, much of the information Americans use as a guide for heart health is little more than folklore," said PBS.

Dr. Nissen, along with colleague Dr. Marc Gillinov (cardiac surgeon), wrote 2012's "Heart 411," a book the purports to be "the definitive guide to heart health, written by two of America's most respected doctors at Cleveland Clinic, the #1 hospital for heart health in America."

"None of these claims have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration," says Nissen.

"In fact, in a great national tragedy in 1993, Congress passed a law that barred the FDA from regulating dietary supplements. And so we don't even know whether most of the dietary supplements actually contain the ingredients they claim to contain."

Nissen goes on to state, surprisingly, fish oil doesn't actually lower cholesterol. In fact, the doctor says, it raises cholesterol.

"But the problem is those claims cannot be regulated because the FDA is virtually powerless," says Nissen. "Sooner or later there will be a major national catastrophe."

In Nissen's statement, he also mentions that another huge problem with any dietary supplement is that it can "interact with their prescription medications, causing them to become toxic or ineffective.

"And so there are no dietary supplements that we recommend for patients."

However you may feel about the fish oil debate, readers are reminded to always consult with a medical/pharmaceutical professional before making any decisions about health issues.

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