Fish Oil & Digestion Problems

Fish oil capsules
A group of fish oil capsules sit on a wooden table. (Image: Morana Franov/iStock/Getty Images)

Fish oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that may reduce inflammation as well as your risk for chronic diseases like arthritis, heart disease and cancer. It’s also sometimes recommended for digestive issues including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel diseases. Side effects for this supplement, however, sometimes resemble problems associated with IBS or bowel diseases. If you want to try a fish oil supplement, discuss the possible pros and cons with your health care provider first.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

If you have IBS, you may need more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet such as those that come from fish oil. Ideally, you should have a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids of between three to one and one to one, says Laura Knoff, author of “The Whole Food Guide to Overcoming Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” The average American diet has a ratio of 20 to 1, however. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in foods like nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. An imbalance in these fatty acids can contribute to inflammation in your gut and IBS problems. Fish oil supplements may help you restore this balance.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Studies on whether fish oil and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids help alleviate inflammatory bowel disease symptoms produce mixed results, notes University of Maryland Medical Center. Inflammatory bowel diseases include ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Some studies conclude that omega-3 fatty acids produce no effect, while others suggest omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce symptoms when added to medications like sulfasalazine. More research is needed before a firm conclusion can be drawn either way, note the experts at UMMC.

Digestive Side Effects

Supplementing with fish oil, in general, can cause side effects in your digestive system. These include bloating, flatulence, belching, indigestion, heartburn, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Such side effects are relatively common. They also may be dose-dependent. You can minimize these side effects by taking fish oil along with meals and by starting at a low dose and gradually increasing it.

Colon Cancer

You may reduce your risk for colon cancer when you utilize fish oil thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids. UMMC reports that both laboratory and animal studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids help keep colon cancer from worsening. Preliminary studies on people also suggest a daily dose of fish oil may help slow colon cancer’s progression if taken during the early stages of the disease, according to UMMC. If you are interested in using fish oil for this purpose, consult your doctor first.

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