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Omega 3 Info

Pure EPA is part of the Omega 3 family

It is estimated that 85% or more of people in the Western world are deficient in omega-3  and most get far too much of the omega-6 fatty acids. Vegetarian diets, for example, tend to be very high in omega-6.
Seemingly minor differences in their molecular structure make the two  Omegas  act very differently in the body. Although we do need both omega-3s and omega-6s it is becoming increasingly clear that an excess of omega-6 fatty acids can have dire consequences. Our ancestors evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of about 1:1. (most of theIt is estimated that 85% or more of people in the Western world are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids and most get far too much of the omega-6 fatty acids. Vegetarian diets, for example, tend to be very high in omega-6.

Seemingly minor differences in their molecular structure make the two EFA families act very differently in the body. Although we do need both omega-3s and omega-6s it is becoming increasingly clear that an excess of omega-6 fatty acids can have dire consequences. Our ancestors evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of about 1:1. (most of the omega 3 came from consuming fish ) A massive change in dietary habits over the last few centuries has changed this ratio to something closer to 20:1 and this spells trouble. came from consuming fish ) A massive change in dietary habits over the last few centuries has changed this ratio to something closer to 20:1 and this spells trouble.

Fish Oil Production , Fish Oil Supplements

Fish oil around the world

Over the past decade or so, fish oil production has been steadily decreasing across the world but at the same time, the demand for fish oil has been increasing. Fish oil is required for both animal feed and for human consumption. Currently, around one million tonnes of fish oil is produced annually. The main producers of fish oil are Peru, Chile, the USA, Japan, and Scandinavian countries, however, Peru is by far the world leader and contributes around a third of all fish oil stocks globally.

The biggest exporters of fish oil are Peru, Chile, Iceland, Denmark and Norway and the two countries importing most of the Peruvian fish oil are Denmark and Belgium who between them take around 50%.

Type of fish used for fish oil

Although fish oil can be produced from fish caught in any sea, anywhere in the world, fish oils that are produced from the coastal waters around South America are particularly in high demand as they are relatively low in toxins compared to fish caught elsewhere.

The fish containing the most toxins, like mercury, dioxins and PCBs, are the larger predatory fish that have longer life spans, for example Shark, Swordfish and Tuna. These fish eat smaller fish, which then eat smaller fish, and so on, and as they have quite long lives the level of pollutants in their bodies’ increases cumulatively so that over time the amount of toxins concentrated in these types of larger fish can be extremely high.

The type of fish is also important for the production of fish oil destined for the supplement market because Omega 3 nutrients are only really concentrated in cold water fatty fish and not in white fish. Ideally for fish oil production the fish should be smaller, with a shorter lifespan. This is partly so that the fish can reproduce faster and stocks can replenish quite quickly and also because there is less build up of toxins. So for example, anchovies, sardines, and horse mackerel are popular fish for fish oil.

Although there is a large amount of Omega 3 nutrients in Shark and Tuna, these are also eaten as foods so fish oil made from these types of fish tends to be produced from the left over parts of the fish that aren’t destined for the human food market, for example off-cuts, the intestines and the eyes.

So to sum it up, the ideal fish for fish oil production destined for the health food supplement market are smaller whole fatty fish that can reproduce quickly and which live in relatively unpolluted colder waters. This is perhaps why the Peruvian anchovy industry is such a successful and major producer of this kind of fish oil.

The Peruvian Anchovy Industry

It was in the late 1940’s that anchovy production in Peru really started to take off. Sardines had been overfished in California and when production was no longer viable, some of the equipment was sold to Peru allowing the industry in Peru to boom.

Obviously with the same technology and desire to profit from the fish stocks there was also the risk of overfishing in Peru and in order to try and reduce this risk the Government of Peru tried to ensure that anchovies were only fished at levels which could be sustained year after year. Several studies have shown that the sustainable amount of anchovies that can be harvested indefinitely is somewhere in the region of nine and a half million metric tons a year. However, the Peruvian industry with its efficient fishing fleets, sophisticated technology and willing workforce, could actually be capable of producing five times that figure if they wanted to. As such, the fishing industry in Peru is heavily restricted in order to preserve future generations of anchovies.

Some of the measures the Government of Peru introduced in the early days were a shorter working week and a shorter season in which anchovies could be harvested. As the Peruvian anchovy industry became more efficient and technology improved, more and more measures were put in place to try and keep the annual harvest down.

In the 1993’s a major challenge was the fact that the fishing season only lasted for about 7 weeks of the year which put an enormous amount of pressure on fleets to catch the anchovies in that space of time. Competition was great between fleets and the bays were filled with ships and as a result working conditions were not as safe as they could have been.

Then in 2009 the Peruvian government introduced new measures. The fishing season was increased to twenty seven weeks and an individual quota system was introduced for each boat along with more rights for the workers. It is generally agreed that this was a positive move for the industry because it meant that not so many fish were caught in such a short space of time. Working conditions have also been a bit safer and there haven’t been so many boats around at the same time all competing for the same resource. However, it still hasn’t been enough to prevent declining stocks.

El Nino

One of the challenges facing the Peruvian fishing industry is the impact of the El Nino Southern Oscillation phenomenon or ENSO. This change in the conditions in the water takes place roughly every three to four years and it negatively impacts on the amount of anchovies harvested. No one yet really fully understands what is happening and why it happens but fishermen around the coastal areas of Peru have been aware of the phenomenon for centuries. So what happens during an El Nino?

Well normally, when there is no El Nino, what happens is the winds push the warmer water away from the coastal areas and this causes something known as ‘upwelling’. An Upwelling is a current of cold water that takes the space left by the warmer water that has been pushed out by the wind. This cold water current is very rich in nutrients and provides food in the form of phytoplankton for many species of fish, including anchovies.

Every few years the pattern of the wind changes and instead of cold water welling up it is warmer water containing very few nutrients that wells up. This means the surface temperature of the water can rise by up to two or even three degrees and this has an enormous knock on effect on the ecosystems in the area and also on fishing hauls.

Without an adequate food supply near the surface, Anchovies basically move down deeper in the ocean and the fishing nets are no longer able to reach them. As a result of the anchovies moving position the food supply for the some of the marine birds that feed on anchovies is also removed which results in the birds disappearing for a while too.  Bird droppings from some of these birds’ acts as a profitable and effective fertilizer for farmers but during an El Nino the population of the birds can be decimated along with the amount of fertilizer available for collection.

Recent measures

 Last year the government of Peru implemented even stricter measures in order to try and protect future supplies of anchovies. They have basically banned fishing across a whole strip of coastal waters and larger boats are no longer allowed to fish within ten miles of the coastline although in the south of Peru the limit is reduced to seven miles. They also slashed the quota to the smallest level it had ever been.

Demand for Fish Oil

The demand for fish oil has been steadily growing over recent years and this is unlikely to stop in the years to come.  Demand for fish oil for human consumption is on the increase and that is not showing any signs of slowing down and understandably so.

It is now well accepted that Western diets are deficient in important Omega 3 fatty acids such as Eicosapentaenoic acid and Docosahexaenoic acid. There is also a growing awareness of the health benefits to be gained from these Omega 3 fatty acids, such as a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, mental health problems and inflammatory conditions like arthritis, but the list of potential health benefits is growing all the time. This has resulted in an ever increasing demand for fish oil capsules that are highly concentrated in these Omega 3 fatty acids.

Coupled with that is the knowledge that eating too much fish isn’t a viable option for getting enough Omega 3 nutrients in the diet due to the amount of pollution in the oceans because of course these pollutants are also in the fish. Governments and health professionals are aware of the double edged sword here and recommend that people still eat fish but limit the amount to two portions a week.

As the demand is increasing and at a time that world production of fish oil decreasing, this means that the price of fish oil is likely to rise and will no doubt continue to rise in the future as competition for supplies increases. On saying that though, according to Globefish, fish oil prices are expected to remain stable during the first three months of 2014 but after that though, no one seems to be sure and everything could change.

Types of Fish Oil

When fish oil first appeared on the market all those years ago, it was in a much cruder form than it is now. Think of the foul tasting Cod Liver Oil that your grandparents had. Cod Liver Oil is produced from the liver of the fish and this is where the Omega 3 fatty acids are concentrated. However, also stored in the liver are all the pollutants as well as high levels of Vitamin A. Too much of this fat soluble vitamin can be toxic to humans and pregnant women are advised to avoid this type of fish oil altogether.  In fatty fish, Omega 3 fatty acids are stored in the darker meat of the fish and not just in the liver and the fish oil produced from this type of fish doesn’t contain excessive amounts of vitamin A.

Since those early days of crude Cod Liver Oil and then the discovery by Danish Scientists back in the 80’s about the protective benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids, countless studies have been carried out showing just how beneficial fish oil can be for health. This awareness resulted in fish oil becoming the new ‘must have’ for health and fish oils started appearing in supermarkets everywhere. These ‘standard’ type fish oils contain around 18 percent EPA and 12 percent DHA.

Recently though, there has been a much bigger demand for more concentrated fish oils containing much higher amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids. Production of this type of fish oil requires more sophisticated production methods which can produce superior quality oil but it is also a more expensive fish oil.

How is fish oil produced?

Think of fish as a mixture of solid type flesh and oil and water. The oil in the fish consists of something called triglycerides. Triglycerides can be described as a glycerol backbone with three fatty acid groups attached to it. Also in the fish of course are some undesirable ingredients like Mercury, PCBs and Dioxins.

When producing fish oil, especially concentrated fish oil, the fatty acids and all the other ingredients need to be separated out into their individual parts so that some parts can be removed and others retained. There are several ways of doing this, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The dilemma facing the fish oil producer is how they can do this as efficiently and as cost effectively as possible without damaging the oil.

There are basically two main methods of sophisticated fish oil production and the first is Supercritical Fluid Extraction (SFE) along with Supercritical Fluid Chromatography (SFC), and the second is Molecular Distillation (MD). Regardless of which processing method used, the fish have to go through a process of cooking and pressing before any refining and further processing can take place.

‘Cooking’ the fish

The purpose of the cooking phase is to ‘coagulate’ and separate out the protein part of the fish from the oil and water part. These days this is more often than not carried out in a steam cooker with even heat distribution. The solid parts are then used for fish meal. Once the fish has been cooked the oil is then extracted, often by centrifuge. Centrifuge is a process whereby a machine with a rotating container applies centrifugal force in order to separate the contents, i.e. oil from water, liquids from solids and so on. The oil and water are separated from the liquid parts and the oil is then “polished” which basically means it is cleaned up, but this is a much more basic form of cleaning and nothing like the processes that are used for eliminating toxins.  Most of the oil at this stage of production is destined for use as animal feed.

Until not so long ago the general consensus was that in order to obtain the best results from the cooking phase it was necessary to subject the fish to extremely high temperatures. However, recent research shows that this is not the case and the oil can be ‘freed’ up at much lower temperatures. It has also been discovered that it doesn’t take very high temperatures for the solids to coagulate either. Therefore, most fish oil producers have come to the conclusion that there is no point of using really high temperatures when the same effect can be achieved at lower temperatures at a faster speed and with less expense.

After cooking and pressing, a relatively small amount of oil destined for human consumption then goes for further processing and this involves bleaching and deodorizing at temperatures of up to 200 Degrees centigrade. This fish oil can then be put into capsules and sold as a fish oil supplement as it is or it could be further processed to decontaminate and purify the oil a bit more. Obviously this would incur greater costs and this cost would ultimately be reflected in the price of the fish oil. You certainly get what you pay for here.


In order to produce concentrated and purified omega 3 fish oil supplements it is necessary to remove the shorter chain fatty acids by converting them into either free fatty acids or ethyl esters. To convert them into ethyl esters, ethanol is used at temperatures of between 80 and 93 Degrees centigrade and this frees the fatty acids up from the glycerol backbone in the oil.

There are three ways that the fish oil can be decontaminated further. The main challenge here is to be able to remove the pollutants and undesirable components without altering the quality of the oil and the nutritional value of the oil.

One of the most popular ways that contaminants are removed from fish oil is by absorbents such as activated carbon. Activated carbon is carbon that has been treated so that it becomes highly porous and therefore is able to absorb undesirable elements in the oil.

The other two more sophisticated methods of purifying and processing fish oil are molecular distillation and supercritical CO2 extraction.

Molecular Distillation

In this method the fish oil is put into a vacuum and heated to temperatures of between 140 and 160 degrees centigrade. At this temperature the free fatty acids evaporate and what is left is oil that is concentrated to contain about 55% omega 3 fatty acids. This type of oil is now readily available on the market as fish oil today along with the cheaper 30% Omega 3 Oil.

How it works is that based on molecular weight, the various components can be separated. So because EPA, DHA and all the undesirable toxins have different molecular weights, they can be identified and separated out.

However, there are some disadvantages to using this method. Really high concentrations of Omega 3 fatty acids aren’t really possible as it would involve reheating and reheating the oil over and over again to obtain only slighter higher concentrations and this isn’t desirable. On a more positive note, this method is highly effective for decontaminating the oil and removing all the undesirable toxins and pollutants.

Something that should be mentioned here is a process called Flash Distillation (FD). This is also sometimes carried out and it does exactly the same thing but the process is carried out using steam as opposed to using a vacuum.

 Supercritical CO2 Extraction

Carbon Dioxide is stable and is normally used in both Supercritical Fluid Extraction and Supercritical Fluid Chromatography. Supercritical Carbon Dioxide is Carbon Dioxide in a fluid state above its critical temperature and critical pressure. When temperature and pressure are increased beyond the standard temperature and pressure for Carbon Dioxide to a point above the critical temperature and pressure for Carbon Dioxide, the carbon starts to behave differently in that it expands in the way a gas does but still has the density similar to a liquid.

We need to explain what a supercritical fluid actually is though. It can be described as any substance that is above its critical point in terms of pressure and temperature.  It is not strictly a normal state liquid, and is not solid and it is not a gas but a “fluid” that is neither solid or gas but is in between both these states.

This process is carried out on oil that has previously been subjected to molecular or flash distillation. This method uses much lower temperatures in the region of 40 to 50 Degrees centigrade in order to extract and concentrate the fish oil. No organic solvents are used in this process. It is an excellent technology for concentrated Omega 3 fish oil as concentrations of up to 99% is possible.

The extraction can be rapid and selective and simply by lowering the pressure and controlling the density, any extracted material can be recovered.

Advantages of CO2 Extraction


Lower temperatures are possible which preserves the integrity of the oil

  • It is safe as it is non inflammable and non toxic and it doesn’t use any solvents
  • The separation of substances within the oil is particularly easy
  • There is very little waste with this type of production method
  • There is minimal impact on the environment with this production method


Omega 3



In scientific terms Omega 3 fatty acids are long chain polyunsaturated essential fatty acids (PUFAs) with three cis double bonds, with the first double bond located at the Omega end of the chain on the third carbon atom from the end. You might also see Omega 3 fatty acids written as w-3 or n-3.

Think of the Omega chain as a bit like a backbone with connections all the way along it and like the first letter of the Greek alphabet the beginning of the Omega 3 chain is called the alpha end of the chain, and this happens to be the carboxylic acid end of the chain, and the end of the chain is the Omega end of the chain or methyl end.

Omega 3 has a long chain, or backbone, compared to some other fatty acid chains and because in their configuration they have more than one cis double bond, separated by a single methylene bridge, they are classed as polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs. Cis means ‘on the same side’ as opposed to Trans, which means ‘across from’.  Omega 3 is called Omega 3 simply because of the position of the first double bond.

Just for clarification, fatty acid chains with only one double bond are called monounsaturated so Olive oil for example. Monounsaturated fats or MUFAs tend to be liquid at room temperature but would start to solidify a bit if they are chilled. They are fairly stable but you can’t heat them to high temperatures in cooking or their structure will change and they can become unhealthy for humans to eat.

PUFAs are much more unstable than other fats and highly susceptible to going rancid so shouldn’t be used for cooking and should be stored in the fridge.

If there are no double bonds at all then the fat is called saturated fat.  It is stable so ideal for cooking and is usually solid at room temperature. This type of fat mostly comes from animal fats.

Within all fats there are fatty acids. Essential fatty acids like the ones in Omega 3 fats are called essential in that the body needs them to maintain and promote good health but the body cannot make them so they need to be sourced from the diet. To explore Omega 3 a bit more, there are in fact many different types of Omega 3 fatty acids but the three types which are most important as far as human health is concerned are ALA, EPA and DHA.


Alpha Linolenic Acid or ALA is an Omega 3 fatty acid with an 18 carbon chain and three cis double bonds with of course the first double bond located at the third carbon atom from the n- end of the chain. You will sometimes see it written as 18:3(n-3). ALA is found in some plant oils and vegetables.


Eicosapentaenoic Acid or EPA has a 20 carbon chain with five cis double bonds so may be written as 20:5(n-3) and like the other Omega 3 fatty acids it has its first double bond situated at the third carbon atom from the Omega end of the chain. EPA is commonly found in oily fish, marine oils, and algae.


Docosahexaenoic Acid or DHA, also written as 22:6(n-3) in the nomenclature of fatty acids, has a 22 carbon chain with six cis double bonds, the first at the third carbon atom from the end. Like EPA, DHA is commonly found in marine oils and algae.


Omega 3 fatty acids are important because our bodies need Omega 3 for the metabolism to work properly and these EFAs play an important role in many physiological functions within the body and the brain; however, as we cannot produce them or synthesize them we have to source them from the diet.

Theoretically, if we get enough ALA in our diets, our bodies should be able to convert this into EPA and DHA. However, our ability to do this has been significantly impaired in recent decades, more than likely because of changes in our diet with the introduction of vegetable oils, cereals and grains and processed foods.

There is also evidence that ageing reduces our ability to convert ALA into EPA and DHA and there appears to be differences between men and women too regarding how efficiently they are able to do this.

The bottom line though, is that most studies agree that the ability to convert ALA into the longer chain more important fatty acids of EPA and DHA is severely limited and in most cases much lower than 5 percent.

This means that most of us are not getting enough Omega 3 in our diets in order to maintain health and some experts believe that the decline of Omega 3 in the diet along with an increase of another Essential Fatty Acid called Omega 6, is the single most common reason for the rise in diseases like cancer, heart disease and depression that we have seen over the past few decades, and that is despite advances in medical science and understanding.

What is Omega 6? 

Omega 6 is another family of polyunsaturated fatty acids except that this time they have a common double bond located at the sixth carbon atom from the Omega end of the chain. Just like Omega 3 fatty acids, Omega 6 fatty acids are essential for good health and yet our bodies cannot make them so we have to get them from the diet. Unlike Omega 3 though, Omega 6 is not difficult to find in our diets, particularly Western diets as these fatty acids are abundant in processed foods, vegetable oils, cereals, bakery items, dairy produce and meats.


Omega 3 fatty acids help to regulate many physiological functions in the body and the brain and also play a role in the production of something called eicosanoids. Eicosanoids can be described as messenger molecules in the body and are produced from either Omega 3 or Omega 6 fatty acids and as such can either be pro-inflammatory if coming from Omega 6 or less inflammatory if coming from Omega 3.

It is the interplay of these two different types of Omega fatty acids that can have such a profound effect on our health.

Omega 3                                                        Omega 6

Reduces inflammation                               Increases inflammation

Helps to inhibit tumour growth                  Helps to promote tumour growth

Thins the blood                                            Thickens the blood

Helps keeps cell membranes fluid                       Reduces fluidity in cell membranes

Long ago, before the introduction of processed foods, grains, cereals and vegetable oils into our diets, we had a ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 of roughly 1:1. Now that ratio is more like 10:1 or even in some cases as much as twenty five to thirty times higher in favour of Omega 6.

Bearing in mind the role that these fatty acids play in the body it isn’t hard to see how this imbalance might have a devastating effect on our health and the evidence suggests that it is.

Omega 6 isn’t the bad guy though, because we need Omega 6 as much as we need Omega 3. Take something as important as blood clotting for example, we need our blood to be able to clot in order to stop us from bleeding to death, however, we also need our blood to be thin enough not to cause excessive clotting and possible thrombosis. This is only one example of the interplay of Omega 3 and Omega 6 but it gives you an idea of how important balance is.

Inflammation – Omega 3 applies the brakes

When the two fatty acids exist together they basically compete to be transformed into Eicosanoids and we need this to be roughly equal. However, when one is completely dominant, then eventually the body and health is going to suffer.

Many experts now believe that inflammation in the body, caused by an imbalance of Omega 3 to Omega 6, is the main cause of most health problems today.

Doctor Michael Roizen, a former Chair of a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee and a former editor for several medical journals as well as a best selling author, a co founder of RealAge Inc, and a world expert on preventative medicine, is one of them. He says:

“The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is important, the higher the ratio, the more omega-6, or the less omega-3, the more inflammation”

Another world expert, a Dr Andrew L Stoll says in his book The Omega 3 Connection:

 “High levels of Omega 6 are almost always associated with inflammation; omega 3 applies the brakes.”

Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency 

An Omega 6 deficiency is not common due to the fact that it is so abundant in our diets. An Omega 3 deficiency would be much more common and some of the signs that you are not getting enough Omega 3 in your diet include feeling tired a lot of the time, having wounds that are slow to heal, experiencing mental fog, low moods or depression, possibly dry scaly patches on the skin, dull and lifeless hair, and poor circulation.

Interestingly, according to Smit et al, a biological marker of an essential fatty acid deficiency is synthesis of an Omega 9 fatty acid known as Mead acid as the body shows a preference for Omega 3 first, then Omega 6 and therefore synthesis of Omega 9 mead acid or eicosatrienoic acid increases when the amount of Omega 3 and Omega 6 in the diet is very low.

It’s quite incredible really that it is not that long ago that we discovered Omega 3 and it is only in the past few decades that we have come to understand the importance of Omega 3 fatty acids and the implications for our health. So how did it all begin?


The health properties of Omega 3 were only really discovered just over forty years ago by Danish researchers studying the Eskimos (Inuit) in Greenland. Scientists H. O. Bang and J. Dyerberg couldn’t understand why the Inuit didn’t seem to suffer from heart attacks or other inflammatory diseases in the same way that Danish people did despite the Inuits eating a diet that was extremely high in fat.

The Inuits tended to eat massive amounts of fatty fish such as salmon, whale and seal. Further investigation revealed that the one thing these fish had in common was a high quantity of a type of fatty acid which of course was Omega 3.

This led to the discovery that a diet rich in Eicosapentaenoic acid, an Omega 3 fatty acid, and lower in Arachidonic Acid, an Omega 6 fatty acid, promoted good health and inhibited disease.

Now most of us have been told by health professionals that eating a diet that is high in fat is not ideal. The reality though is that fats in general are not bad, in fact they are absolutely essential, but it is important to eat the right kinds of fats.


Most people who are trying to lose weight or improve their health think about reducing the amount of fat they have in their diet. In the light of all the evidence from numerous studies this would now seem to be the wrong way of going about it, in fact, this could even prove disastrous to health. The body absolutely needs fats to survive but the idea of eating a diet that is high in fat is controversial to say the least. What most health professionals now agree on is that eating Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated fats are ok, but eating too much of the wrong kinds of fat is detrimental to health, the wrong kinds being saturated fats or the really nasty ones, hydrogenated or Trans fats. Omega 3 is obviously one of the good fats but what sort of quantities are we talking about?

How much Omega 3? 

No one has come out and said exactly how much Omega 3 we need to consume in order to promote and maintain good health. It isn’t that straightforward either because if our conversion rates from ALA to EPA and DHA is not very efficient, that means we would have to get our Omega 3 primarily from fish, in particular oily fish.

Unfortunately this isn’t ideal either as we have effectively polluted all the fish in the oceans and rivers, especially predatory fish which happen to be the fish with the highest Omega 3 content.

On saying that, most health professionals agree that the benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks of avoiding it so although they advocate that we continue to eat oily fish, they also tell us we shouldn’t eat too much. Most would agree that two portions of fish a week (one of them oily) is better than eating no fish at all or going to the other extreme and eating too much fish.

The American Heart Association recommend that people with heart disease eat fish at least twice a week and include in their diet plenty of plant based Omega 3 fatty acids too.


Marine Sources

The following fish contain high quantities of Omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA:

  •  Herring
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Halibut
  • Tuna
  • Swordfish

Plant Sources

The following foods/vegetable oils contain high quantities of the Omega 3 fatty acid ALA:

  • Flaxseed or linseed
  • Perilla
  • Kiwi
  • Chia seed
  • Camelina
  • Hemp
  • Canola
  • Walnuts


There have been countless studies carried out now looking at the health benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids. Some of the results of these studies have been more conclusive than others. However, the most significant have been in the area of Cancer, Cardiovascular Disease and Mental Health although new studies are being carried out all the time.

.Omega 3 and cancer

Whether or not long chain Omega 3 fatty acids can inhibit cancer tumours or help to prevent cancer from developing in the first place still isn’t really clear. On the one hand there have been plenty of randomised double blind trials showing that Omega 3 fatty acids can help to reduce inflammation and inhibit tumour growth, there equally have been plenty of studies showing no difference between the control group and the study group.

Groundbreaking Study – Omega 3 and Cancer

A ‘National Institute of Environmental Health Science’ (NIEHS) funded study carried out by a team of researchers from the University of California, UC Davis, have found a way that Omega 3 might help combat cancer.

Dr Guiodong Zhang from the Department of Entomology at the UC Davis centre who led the study discovered that Cytochrome P450 epoxygenase metabolites of 22:6(n-3) could help block the supply of blood and nutrients to a tumour and in doing so help prevent the tumour from growing or spreading.

Although the results of many studies have indicated that Omega 3 fatty acids could inhibit tumour growth, how it actually did this has not been clear.

“Many human studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risks of cancers, but the mechanism is poorly understood,” said Zhang,

“Our study provides a novel mechanism by which these omega-3 lipids inhibit cancer.”

This research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April 2013.

Jonathan Lindner, a renowned scientist from the Oregon Health and Science University who was not involved in the research study had this to say:

“The study by Zhang and colleagues has uncovered a previously unrecognized anti-cancer effect of omega-3 fatty acids which are an important lipid component of diets that have been developed to prevent heart disease and cancer. The authors have demonstrated that metabolites of these lipids can act to suppress the growth of new blood vessels that are necessary to feed tumor growth. By shutting off the tumor’s blood supply, these compounds can act to dramatically slow tumor growth and prevent metastasis. The results from this suggest that new drug strategies for fighting cancer could emerge from knowledge of how the body uses nutrition to promote health.”

 Omega 3 and Heart Disease

Undoubtedly a condition where the benefit of Omega 3 fatty acids is most well known is Cardiovascular Disease. However, even there, the exact mechanisms as to how and why Omega 3 is beneficial are not entirely clear. It is postulated that Omega 3 may help to keep arteries clear and unclogged, and of course reduce inflammation.

Evidence has also shown that although Omega 3 can help prevent sudden death from a heart attack in people who have already suffered a heart attack, a diet rich in Omega 3 will not necessarily prevent heart disease.

A study by Zhang et al, that spanned more than 35 countries, found that a diet that included regular amounts of fish was associated with a reduction in death from heart disease and stroke.

There have also been studies by Kromhout et al, Shekelle et al and Dolecek et al that have reported a lower incidence of heart disease in those who regularly included fish in their diet.

Omega 3 and Mental Health

Although many studies have shown that Omega 3 can help protect mental health and alleviate depression, there has been some debate as to which Omega 3 fatty acid is most beneficial. A number of scientists claim that Docosahexaenoic Acid or DHA is most beneficial, whereas others claim it is Eicosapentaenoic Acid or EPA that is most effective. Most would agree that DHA is important for the structure of the brain and that EPA is important for brain function.

What is interesting is that in cases of depression and other mental health problems including childhood disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) blood tests reveal a low level of Omega 3 fatty acids.

What has been shown in some studies across the world is that there appears to be a direct association between the amount of seafood consumed and the incidence of depression and other mental health problems. The more that a country eats fish, the lower the rate of depression, although no one really knows why this is the case. The results suggest that eating seafood in some way helps to prevent depression.

Some studies have also revealed that supplementation with Omega 3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil have helped to alleviate the symptoms of depression although other studies have found no significant benefit at all.

One major randomized double blind placebo controlled study carried out by Frangou et al over 3 months found that individuals diagnosed with bipolar depression who took either 1 or 2 grams of Ethyl EPA a day experienced an improvement in the symptoms of their depression, however there appeared to be no effect on mania.

Taking all the evidence, both anecdotal and from studies into account, there is little doubt that Omega 3 fatty acids do have a role to play in promoting and maintaining mental health and efficient brain function, even in more serious mental diseases.

Studies carried out by Peet at al looking at EPA as a possible treatment for Schizophrenia revealed that EPA in addition to standard therapy was superior to DHA or a placebo. Other studies using EPA have had mixed results. In another study by Peet and Horrobin, it was found that ethyl EPA helped alleviate symptoms in Schizophrenic patients who were taking the antipsychotic medication Clozapine, but it didn’t help those on other types of medication.

Alzheimer’s disease is a particularly devastating form of dementia characterized by progressive brain degeneration and cognitive decline. Initially the symptoms include memory loss and confusion which deteriorates over time. Some studies, including those carried out by Kalmijn et al have been able to make a connection between increased omega 3 consumption and a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Others have associated lower amounts of DHA as a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia. This isn’t really surprising if we consider that the human brain is composed largely of fat and in particular the Omega 3 fatty acid DHA.

Lower levels of Omega 3 fatty acids have also been implicated in postpartum depression. The implication is that if a woman does not get enough Omega 3 during pregnancy, what she does get will be used up by the baby and she will suffer from a lack of Omega 3 as a result and this could potentially trigger low moods and depression.

Omega 3 during pregnancy and lactation

 Nutrition is obviously of particular importance during pregnancy, not only so that the mother can remain healthy at a time when her body is under a lot of pressure, but also to ensure that the developing baby has enough nutrients to develop properly. An adequate intake of Omega 3 fatty acids is essential during pregnancy for baby’s healthy brain and vision development.

Many women take supplements during the time as opposed to increasing the amount of fish in the diet in order to get enough Omega 3. However, it is important to discuss the prospect of taking supplements with a doctor or health care provider before starting to take them.

It is during the final three months of pregnancy that is the most important regarding getting an adequate amount of Omega 3 in the form of DHA in the diet. DHA will help the baby develop a healthy brain and will also help vision as not only is there an accumulation of DHA in the brain but in the retina too.

After pregnancy the baby will rely completely on the mother for nutrients if being breast fed. Breast milk also contains DHA, but how much will depend on whether the mother has enough in her diet. Infant formulas now contain added Omega 3.

A number of studies have been carried out on whether maternal Omega 3 levels had an impact on the cognitive ability of the child later on. One randomised placebo controlled study by Dunstan et al found that children whose mothers were given Omega 3 fish oil during pregnancy showed better eye and hand coordination when they were two years old than those children whose mothers received olive oil instead.

Although getting enough Omega 3 during pregnancy is important, it is also wise to be cautious as pregnant women need to avoid fish with high levels of mercury and shouldn’t take Cod Liver Oil either as that can contain high amounts of Vitamin A which is inadvisable during pregnancy due to the association between high levels of Vitamin A and birth defects.


 Omega 3 is without a doubt perfectly safe for the majority of people most of the time.

It has always been an important part of the human diet and it is only in recent years that there has been such a decline in the consumption of Omega 3.

People are eating more processed foods and meat and dairy produce and that combined with the fact that fish can contain high levels of toxins and heavy metals, means that the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 has changed so dramatically in favour of Omega 6.

When we consider the roles that Omega 3 and Omega 6 play in the body then it isn’t hard to understand why some experts basically blame an overdose of Omega 6 for the increases in heart disease, cancer and depression. In order to redress this imbalance we would either have to lower the amount of Omega 6 in the diet or increase the amount of Omega 3. One way of increasing Omega 3 is to supplement.

One of the benefits of supplements is that they can be free of mercury and other toxins. There are also very few side effects, if any, for most people. The most commonly reported side effects are fishy burps, a fishy aftertaste in the mouth, and mild gastrointestinal upset. This can be eliminated by choosing a high quality oil.  Some people may experience nausea and loose stools. More serious side effects are quite rare.

Bearing in mind the anticoagulant effect of Omega 3 then bleeding times could potentially be increased and there may also be an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke, however, the amount of Omega 3 ingested would have to be extremely high. According to the FDA, up to 3 grams a day of EPA and DHA is unlikely to cause any problems whatsoever and most people would be taking less than this.

There are some contraindications too. Those who are taking anticoagulant medication to thin the blood should avoid Omega 3 supplements unless under the supervision of a doctor.

Caution is also advised for people who have compromised immune systems as it is possible that the anti inflammatory effect of Omega 3 could dampen down the immune system and subsequently impair the body’s ability to fight off pathogens.


We’ve come so far in our understanding of the potential health benefits of Omega 3 yet at the same time we have as yet barely scratched the surface. Future studies will no doubt reveal more about how and why Omega 3 is beneficial for health in so many different ways and this can only help to improve intervention strategies, treatment options, and also the way nutrition can play a part in disease prevention.


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