Next to vitamin C, fish oil is the world's best known and most frequently prescribed nutritional supplement. The benefits of fish oil can be felt literally in every cell in your body, because fish oil provides essential fatty acids every cell needs for making regulatory hormones.
Some hormones are made in endocrine organs and have to travel through the bloodstream to reach the tissues that need them. Insulin made by the pancreas, thyroid hormone made by the thyroid, and cortisol made by the adrenal glands are just three among many examples. These hormones take a few seconds to a few hours to arrive at the site where they are essential to health.
Other hormones are made where they are needed and go to work almost instantly. Chief among these are the eicosanoid hormones made from n-3 and n-6 essential fatty acids.
The body uses n-6 essential fatty acids to make hormones needed for inflammation. Sometimes inflammation is a good thing. Inflammation activates the immune system. It triggers stress hormones that can help us flee from or deal with danger. It stops bleeding.
But most of the time inflammation is not beneficial to the body. Every cell in the human body uses n-3 essential fatty acids to make the anti-inflammatory hormones that keep inflammation from continuing unchecked.
The chief of all fish oil benefits is correcting that imbalance.
The problem is, we get a lot more n-6 essential fatty acids in our diets than n-3's. The chief of all fish oil benefits is correcting that imbalance.
And what are the benefits of fish oil? Here are just a few.
- Pure fish oil is a way to get the n-3 essential fatty acids your body needs while consuming a minimum of calories. It's possible to get the essential fatty acids DHA and EPA from flaxseed oil, but the body can only convert about 1 to 9 per cent of the fatty acids in flaxseed oil to these forms. Pure fish oil already has these essential fatty acids, so it's possible to consume 90 to 99 per cent less.
- Certain marine algae contain all the essential fatty acids also found in pure fish oil. If you are a vegan, you may prefer to use a marine algae supplement. The difficulty in "catching" algae, however, adds greatly to its cost(read more about fatty acids for vegetarians).
- Fish and shellfish provide all the benefits of omega-3 essential fatty acids, but not necessarily in very high doses.
Pure fish oil is an easier way to get the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
A 3-1/2 oz (100 g) serving of farm-raised catfish, for example, provides 42 mg of EPA and 109 mg of DHA, provided it's served poached, not fried.A 3-1/2 oz serving of kippered (fermented and pickled) herring provides 1,000 mg of EPA and 800 mg of DHA-plus more than a day's allowance of salt.
- Fish that are higher in the food chain tend to concentrate heavy metals and other pollutants found in ocean water. The best quality fish oils are distilled and tested to make sure they do not contain heavy metals or other contaminants.
- The fish that offer the greatest benefits of omega-3 essential fatty acids, namely salmon, bluefish, mackerel, and sardines have the highest fatty acid content when they are eaten raw.
Canning or cooking these omega-3 rich fish greatly reduces the beneficial fatty acid content.The gentle steaming process used to release fish oils for nutritional supplements, however, preserves all the beneficial oils in the fish.
- Women who are pregnant or nursing need to take special precautions to avoid heavy metals in seafood, but their children also need DHA and EPA for normal brain growth. Pure fish oil supplements are an easy and safe way to provide the essential fatty acids needed for developing brains.
- Fish spoils quickly. Fish oil is stabilized with antioxidants that enable it to be stored in a cool, dry place for months or even years.
- Modern, distilled fish oils are easy to digest. Getting the omega-3 essential fatty acids your body needs from olives, olive oil, nuts, and seeds can upset your stomach, and add many additional calories.
- Pure fish oil is a ready-made source of DHA and EPA. Your body can use alpha-linolenic acid in plant oils to make DHA and EPA, but you need to consume 10 to 100 times as much fat to get the same amount of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
And the tenth important fish oil benefit? The US Food and Drug Administration strictly regulates the health claims supplement makers can make about their products, with just a few important exceptions. One of those exceptions is fish oil. The health benefits of fish oil are so well documented that American federal government regulators already know they are true, and so can you.
- Myhrstad MC, Retterstøl K, Telle-Hansen VH, Ottestad I, Halvorsen B, Holven KB, Ulven SM. Effect of marine n-3 fatty acids on circulating inflammatory markers in healthy subjects and subjects with cardiovascular risk factors. Inflamm Res. 2011 Jan 13. [Epub ahead of print]