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The Truth About Fish Oil

Our expert explains everything you need to know about fish oil.

Fish oil seems to have become a staple in living a healthy lifestyle. But what exactly does the popular supplement do to your body? We asked Spencer Nadolsky, D.O., the director of examine.com—an independent research company that analyzes evidence behind supplements and nutrition—to give us the latest update on what science has to say about fish oil. “Despite what some people would say, it won’t hurt you to supplement with fish oil,” says Nadolsky. “Take it if you’re worried about heart health.”

Need further convincing? We've got the scoop on what’s in each capsule, and what fish oil can do for your overall health. 


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Men's Fitness: What is in fish oil, and is it beneficial?
Spencer Nadolsky: EPA and DHA are omega fatty acids found in fish oil and evidence shows that those with low levels of EPA and DHA have higher cardiovascular risk. So, from a heart health standpoint, it is definitely beneficial to take fish oil. There's also emerging research about fish oil’s positive effect on bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD, and brain development.

How do EPA and DHA affect the body?
When scientists divide them up and start testing one versus the other, there's a lot of crossover. DHA seems to have brain effects while EPA tends to have strong effects on triglycerides. There is some overlap too.

How much of these omega-3 fatty acids should I take daily?
I recommend 1-2 grams of combined EPA and DHA. If you have high triglycerides, then you need about four grams of EPA and DHA combined. A lot of these epidemiological studies show that people who eat actual fish, such as salmon, tend to have lower [heart disease] risk, too.

If I don't take fish oil supplements, will I consume enough EPA and DHA from diet alone?
Some people can do alright with just 2-3 meals of fish per week. It won’t necessarily mean that you get the recommended 1-2 grams of EPA and DHA combined (the amoutn shown in studies to have effects), but if you ended up checking your blood levels you might not be at risk for a deficiency. Most people don’t eat enough fish, though, and that's why I give the general recommendation of 1-2 grams of fish oil (EPA and DHA combined) daily.

Are there any negative effects of supplementing with fish oil?
No. There is no risk that we know of from taking fish oil. One of the concerns has been that fish oil is easily oxidized, so when it gets into your system it can theoretically cause some inflammatory responses. But that hasn't really been shown under experimental data. I'd say that at lower doses there seems to be no risk, just like with eating fish.

Should I refrigerate fish oil?
Fish oil capsules stay relatively fresh at room temperature. Some people freeze them because it reduces "fish burps." If you have fish oil in liquid form, refrigeration is recommended because it's more exposed to the air than the capsules.

What should I look for in a fish oil supplement?
"Generally, fish oil has a DHA/EPA ratio around 1:5:1, 180 EPA : 120 DHA per one fish oil cap. But, DHA/EPA levels can be higher than that. Although they have separate effects, on the body you tend to take them together."

Remember, fish oil is not a panacea for poor health. Take your whole diet into consideration.

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