Fish oil is a supplement full of healthy fats known as omega-3 fatty acids. Omega fatty acids are an important part of a healthy diet and are helpful in the treatment and prevention of several diseases, but many people consume too little of them. If you're not eating the recommended serving of 7 ounces of fish per week, you may benefit from taking fish oil supplements. These supplements can be taken at any time of day and are available in a variety of liquid or capsule-based forms.
Why Take Fish Oil?
The American Heart Association recommends that people consume at least two 3.5 ounce servings of fish each week. This is to help supplement your levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that is most commonly found in fish and shellfish and can even be found in certain marine plants, like algae. Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy because they're unsaturated fats; the most beneficial types are known as polyunsaturated fatty acids.
There are three well-known omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids that have health benefits: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), DPA (docosapentaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Out of these three, EPA and DHA are the most well-studied. These omega-3 fatty acids have been able to promote weight loss, reduce the risk of premature births and help treat a variety of health issues, including:
Fish oil supplements can even benefit healthy people, as they've been shown to reduce the loss of muscle mass that occurs as you age.
Omega Fats in Your Diet
Of course, omega-3 fatty acids are not the only type of omega fats; there are also omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. In contrast to omega-3, however, these other omega fatty acids tend to come from different sources. Omega-6 is an essential, polyunsaturated fatty acid that comes from foods like nuts, seeds and refined vegetable oils, while omega-9 is a nonessential, monounsaturated fatty acid found in similar foods to omega-6.
Many people who eat a traditional Western diet may consume the recommended amount of fish each week, but ingest too many omega-6 fatty acids. It's important to maintain a low ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which is another reason to supplement your diet with fish oil. Although you may often see supplements sold as omega-3, -6 and -9, fish oil supplements are specifically rich in omega-3s. These supplements often list the specific amounts of EPA and DHA in each capsule.
Taking EPA and DHA Supplements
Fish oil can often be considered the same as omega-3 or EPA and DHA supplements. Choosing the right amount of EPA and DHA to take will be guided by the reason you're taking supplements — people who take fish oil to supplement their diet often take a very different amount of omega-3s than those who need this supplement for medical reasons.
The amount of fish oil you take can make a difference in whether you'll experience any side effects — but fortunately, most of these can be mediated by taking your supplements at certain times of day and choosing a product that is best suited to you.
Some organizations, like the European Food Safety Authority, recommend as much as 5 grams per day, while people participating in clinical trials may take very high daily doses, as much as 15 grams. The FDA recommends that most people limit their daily consumption of EPA and DHA to 3 grams per day. However, out of these 3 grams, people should consume no more than 2 grams from fish oil supplements; the rest should come from diet.
Fish oil differs substantially, depending on the type of supplement and the manufacturer. A typical fish oil supplement provides about 1,000 milligrams of fish oil that contain 180 milligrams of EPA and 120 milligrams of DHA. In contrast, extra-strength fish oil supplements can have as much as 504 milligrams of EPA and 378 milligrams DHA per 1,400 milligram fish oil capsule.
Talk to your doctor before you start taking these; the amount you take can influence the type best suited to you and even impact the best time to take the supplements.
When to Take Fish Oil
There's no set time to take fish oil supplements — it really depends on how much you're taking and the product you've chosen. When fish oil supplements are recommended for medical reasons, people are often asked to take these supplements in high doses. Large amounts of fish oil, especially for people unused to these supplements, are more likely to cause side effects.
Fish oil has been known to cause a range of side effects. The most frequent side effects related to taking fish oil supplements are unpleasant but minor, like "fishy breath" and indigestion. You may also experience other gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhea, stomachaches, stomach cramps, heartburn and nausea.
If you aren't taking fish oil supplements for medical reasons, chances are you won't need to take a large amount. If you're still experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, you can often reduce or even eliminate your side effects. Taking your supplements at different times of the day or changing the type of supplement you're taking can eliminate symptoms and allow you to continue supplementing your diet with omega-3s.
Reducing Fish Oil Side Effects
You may have heard that you shouldn't take supplements or vitamins on an empty stomach. While that isn't the case for every type of supplement, taking fish oil supplements on an empty stomach can exacerbate the gastrointestinal side effects fish oil can cause. If you do experience side effects, consider taking these supplements with food or before bed, as this may make the side effects less noticeable.
The product you've selected can also influence whether you'll experience side effects. If you've chosen to take fish oil as a liquid, that can cause you to experience residual fishy breath much more than the same product in pill form. Manufacturers make omega-3 supplements in different ways, so the ingredients in capsules can also affect whether you experience side effects.
There are quite a few different types of fish oil pills available, like gelatin capsules or timed-release pills. Gelatin capsules have been associated with upper gastrointestinal tract symptoms, like indigestion, while timed-release capsules may result in side effects that affect the lower digestive tract, causing symptoms like diarrhea. If you're experiencing specific side effects, you can switch the type of fish oil supplement you're taking to see if this eliminates the issue.
If you're experiencing side effects, you'll be glad to know these are short term. Once you stop taking fish oil supplements, the side effects should pass with no long-term issues. Since there are so many types of omega-3 supplements, it's always best to ask your doctor for a recommendation before you start supplementing your diet with fish oil.
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- Annals of Clinical Psychiatry: Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Psychiatry: A Review
- BMJ Postgraduate Medical Journal: Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A Comprehensive Review of Their Role in Health and Disease
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- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Health and Disease and in Growth and Development
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- American Heart Association: Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Mayo Clinic: Fish Oil
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- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: Omega-9 Oleic Acid, the Main Compound of Olive Oil, Mitigates Inflammation During Experimental Sepsis