Fish oil is one of the most popular supplements in the world, with Australians spending over $200 million on them annually. It is taken as a source of long-chain omega-3 fats- specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are known as ‘essential fatty acids’ (or EFAs) as the body is unable to produce them on its own and so must acquire them from foods- exclusively seafood and marine algae. Omega-6 (linoleic acid) is the other EFA, and ideally they should each be consumed in a balanced 1:1 ratio. The typical Western diet, however, contains an enormous excess of omega-6, largely due to the inclusion of highly processed vegetable oils like sunflower, cottonseed, safflower and grapeseed oil. This has caused the ratio to shift to 20:1, or perhaps even higher. This disproportionate figure is recognised to be the driver of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased omega-3 levels (and a lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio) is associated with the suppression of such conditions. Omega-3 supplementation is thus used to bring the EFA ratio back into balance, and protect from this broad array of illnesses.
Can I just get it from food?
Most people are probably not getting enough omega-3 from food unless they eat a lot of wild oily fish, such as mackerel, herring and salmon. There are plant sources of omega-3 (chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds), however these are of the short-chain alpha-linolenic variety (ALA), and are unable to exert the same protective benefits as their long-chain counterparts DHA and EPA. It is a common misconception that plant sources (ALA) are able to be adequately converted into EPA and DHA to meet daily requirements, but in actual fact this has less than a 5 per cent success rate.
How much do I need?
For general health and to reduce the risk of EFA deficiency, the NHMRC recommends at least 90mg of EPA and DHA and 0.8g of ALA for women, and 160mg of EPA and DHA and 1.3g of ALA for men. As a general guide, this target can be reached by including 2-3 serves of good quality fatty fish per week, as well as a variety of plant-based sources (chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds).
Choosing the right supplement
Fish oil supplements are available as liquids or capsules. Fish oil in a liquid form has been reported to leave a fishy aftertaste, and sometimes even to cause unpleasant burping. If this is a concern to you, you may want to try an enteric-coated capsule form that will not break down until it has reached the small intestine.
What about oxidation and mercury?
Oxidation and mercury are two concerns surrounding fish oil supplementation. The good news is that Australian supplements undergo some of the most rigorous testing in the world to ensure products are of the highest quality and purity, and that they contain everything they claim to, in the correct amounts. Manufacturers of Australian fish oil supplements are required to set limits for the maximum permissible levels of key oxidation markers, and some even contain natural antioxidants, such as carotenoid astaxanthin, in order to preserve the volatile fatty acids. As for mercury, Australian supplements are required to undergo thorough testing for purity and to ensure they are void of toxic heavy metals. The fish oils are mostly derived from smaller fish (e.g. anchovies, mackerel and sardines) which are lower down the food chain, thus accumulating lower levels of pollutants over their lifespans.
All in all, fish oil supplements are a safe and good all-rounder supplement that can be used to correct omega-3/6 imbalances that give rise to a broad array of diseases. Not only this but they are proven to maintain joint, skin, brain and eye health.