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Fish oil is one of the most common and widely-used supplements on the market today with a wide range of purported benefits. With the rise of cardiovascular disease and other chronic health problems, fish oil has become a valuable supplement for combatting many modern-day health issues.
In fact, it is so popular that some medical professionals even include it in their arsenal of health supplements. If you struggle with cardiovascular issues like high blood pressure or heart disease, suffer from a neurodegenerative disorder, or if you are an athlete looking for quicker recovery, your physician may have recommended that you start taking fish oil.
However, even though fish oil comes with a wide array of reported health benefits, its less-than-sustainable production and lack of compatibility with certain diets might give some pause.
So what exactly is fish oil, and should you be adding it into your routine?
Why Is Fish Oil Such A Popular Supplement?
Chronic disease is a major problem today. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, closely followed by other chronic illnesses like cancer, respiratory diseases, and diabetes.
While genetics and aging play their part in contributing to less-than-optimum health, many instances of chronic disease can be linked to lifestyle factors, including sedentary lifestyles and poor nutrition. Even if you do follow a healthy lifestyle, nutritional deficiencies are still common.
So it’s no wonder that nutritional supplements have become so popular, as they can help provide nutrients that may be lacking in your diet. In particular, fish oil has become a go-to supplement because it is one of the most accessible sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Healthy fats are necessary for absorbing nutrients, providing energy, and (perhaps surprisingly) managing your heart health. Some of the healthiest forms of fat are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which can be broken down into two categories: omega-3 and omega-6.
Fish oils are valuable because they are rich in two of the three omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Other plant sources contain the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
It might seem contradictory to say that taking a supplement of fatty acids can help combat heart disease, but having a high ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids has been proven to be protective against inflammation, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
The Importance of Omega-3s
It’s important to understand that the primary value of taking fish oil is because it contains large levels of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. There is a myriad of benefits to getting enough omega-3s in your diet, including:
One of the main reasons that omega-3s supplements are so popular is that they can help fight inflammation which can lead to chronic illness and other health issues.
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to protecting you from injury and toxins, but chronic inflammation can lead to chronic illness. Many common health issues are inflammatory, including atherosclerosis, a “hardening” of your arteries, leading to high blood pressure, and heart disease. Other common inflammatory diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and asthma, to name a few.
Both EPA and DHA work to combat inflammation by changing the composition of fatty acids in your cell membranes, which can help lower your risk for and manage symptoms of heart disease.
Combating High Triglycerides
Another way that omega-3s can help your heart health is by lowering your triglyceride levels. When you eat more calories than you use, triglycerides store the extra energy in your fat cells. In excess, this can also contribute to atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids can help to lower your serum triglyceride by reducing fatty acid delivery to your liver and preventing the further creation of triglycerides.
Lowering High Blood Pressure
Chronic high blood pressure, or hypertension, makes your heart work harder to circulate nutrients through the rest of your body and can lead to serious health issues like coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke.
Studies have suggested that both EPA and DHA play a role in reducing blood pressure readings and contributing to better heart health.
Preventing Neurodegenerative Disorders
Besides being protective against heart disease, your omega-3 intake is also essential for your brain development and maintenance. A lack of these essential fatty acids can lead to memory and cognitive issues down the road.
Studies have shown that a lack of DHA and EPA have been linked to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s Disease.
Improving Mood Disorders
In addition to possibly preventing neurodegenerative disorders, omega-3 supplementation may also help with mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.
If you’re concerned about preventing osteoporosis and improving your bone health, you may want to pay attention to your omega-3 intake. Diets high in omega-3 acids have been shown to result in better bone health, as this essential nutrient can play a role in your calcium balance to promote stronger, healthier bones.
Improving Muscle Health
You can also benefit from increasing your omega-3 intake if you are physically active. Several studies have shown the benefit of omega-3 supplementation in increasing your muscle strength and improving your muscle recovery after strenuous exercise, making it a good supplement for athletes.
The takeaway here: the list goes on and on for the benefits of omega-3s, so it’s no wonder that people look for ways to supplement it in their diet, and fish oil is one of the most well-known ways to do it.
The Benefits of Taking Fish Oil Supplements
Fatty fish are a popular source of omega-3 fatty acids because they have high levels of EPA and DHA. In fact, fish is such a valuable source of omega-3s that the American Heart Association recommends that you eat fatty fish two times a week.
However, many people do not eat fish regularly enough to capitalize on the health benefits, and this is where fish oil supplements come into play.
Taking fish oil supplements may be a good choice if you need to get more omega-3s since they:
- Are rich in both EPA and DHA
- Are readily available in many health food and drug stores
- Come in pill or capsule form
- May be easier/more palatable than eating fish several times a week
When Should I Take Fish Oil?
Doctors and physicians will sometimes recommend fish oil as a supplement if you have a chronic heart condition or other inflammatory chronic illness. Some will also advise you to take it in addition to prescribed medication as a supplement for other diseases such as depression and anxiety.
If your health professional advises that you take fish oil, there are no standard recommended dosages, as it is a nutrition supplement and not a medication. However, you should be getting EPA and DHA daily.
The bottom line: you should speak with a health professional to determine whether fish oil supplements are right for you.
The Downsides of Fish Oil Supplements
While fish oil may be the most popular supplement for increasing your omega-3 intake and protecting yourself against many health issues, they ultimately are not a medication, nor can it solve all of your health problems. For example, taking fish oil has not been found to increase your longevity.
In addition, taking fish oil supplements is not the only option for getting your omega-3s, and it might not be the right fit for you for a couple of reasons:
According to the World Wildlife Fund, overfishing is one of the major causes for the declines in ocean wildlife, with overfished stocks tripling over the past fifty years. Because fish oil comes from fish, it directly contributes to the depletion of natural resources.
2. Potential contamination
Any time you ingest seafood, you run the risk of also ingesting dangerous pollutants. For example, mercury is a common pollutant found in fish that can be toxic when eaten in large amounts.
3. Not vegan or vegetarian-friendly
If you follow a plant-based diet, fish oil is not a supplement that is compatible with your lifestyle.
Even though most fish oils come in a pill or capsule form, they can still hold traces of fish odor and taste that may be non-palatable for you even if you are not plant-based.
A Better Approach: Plant-based Alternatives For Omega-3s
Since fish oil is not necessarily the safest or more eco-friendly supplement out there, it’s important to consider that there are several dietary and vegan alternatives for getting your omega-3s.
Omega-3s are present in other foods, including flax seeds, chia seeds, and some nuts. However, while these sources are excellent sources of fatty acid ALA, they do not have significant amounts of EPA or DHA.
EPA and DHA come mostly from marine sources – but this doesn’t mean you’re out of luck if you don’t eat fish! Studies are showing that microalgae sources are a promising substitute for fish oil.
Microalgae-based Omega-3 Supplements
The microalgae that fish eat are actually the initial producers of EPA and DHA, meaning that this is where fish get their rich omega-3s. In other words, you can get the same benefits of fish oil straight from the original omega-3 source, without having to actually eat fish.
Even better, growing microalgae is more sustainable than fishing or farm-fishing. Because of this, research shows that omega-3s from microalgae can give you the same health benefits as a fish oil supplement while being easier on the planet and more compatible for vegans and vegetarians alike.
However, while this is an exciting development for those seeking omega-3s, it is important to note that not all microalgae-sourced omega-3 supplements are created equal. Several microalgae-sourced omega-3 supplements on the market contain carrageenan, which comes from seaweed and is often used as a thickening agent for these supplements. Many studies suggest that carrageenan can actually be inflammatory and cause stomach issues.
Therefore, while omega-3s from microalgae sources might be a vegetarian- and planet-friendly source for supplementing your DHA and EPA, it’s important to research your supplement choices thoroughly.
The best omega-3 sources will be:
- sustainably sourced and easier on the planet
- compatible with vegan/vegetarian diets
- rich in DHA and EPA
So, Should I Take Plant Based Omega-3 Supplements Or Fish Oil?
Fish oil has proven time and time again to be a valuable source for DHA and EPA, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all of omega-3 supplements, and it does have some pretty significant drawbacks. Its lack of sustainable sourcing and incompatibility with plant-based lifestyles might be reason enough for pause, and the fishy taste and potential contaminants don’t help.
It’s well worth it to consider taking omega-3 supplements instead - after all, that’s the main ingredient that makes fish oil such a valuable supplement.
As long as your omega-3 source is rich in EPA and DHA, it can come with the same health benefits as fish oil.
So if you want to reduce your impact on the planet and/or do not want to compromise on your plant-free lifestyle, you may want to go straight to the source and get your EPA and DHA intake from the same source that fish get it from – microalgae!
Fish oil supplements are most valuable for their high levels of EPA and DHA, which have been proven to be vital in the fight against many inflammatory and chronic illnesses. Still, it is by no means the only source that you can get these essential nutrients. While fish oil might be the most well-known source of supplemental omega-3s, its unsustainable sourcing and lack of compatibility with plant-based lifestyles mean that not everyone can or should take it.
Getting your omega-3s straight from the source – microalgae – can protect both your health and the planet.