Fish Oil Benefits and Side Effects

Fish oil has become extremely popular in the last decade or so, as evidence mounts of its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease. It may have other benefits as well, involving depression and premature birth. Side effects are few, consisting mainly of stinky breath.

The primary benefit of fish oil is in providing a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack and stroke. Fish oil contains a type of nutrient called omega 3 fatty acid. Omega 3s provide an anti-inflammatory effect as well as the ability to lower triglycerides, a type of (bad) fat circulating through the blood stream. Most typical diets are high in omega 6 fatty acids instead (found mainly in bread, eggs, and vegetable oil), and this imbalance is what leads to inflammation and ultimately cardiovascular problems.

There might be a few other benefits from fish oil as well, although these are less well studied. There is some suggestion that it might help lower depression, and even aggressive tendencies. One study performed on prisoners found that assault rates went down when the prisoners were fed omega 3 in their diets.

Pregnant women may receive some benefit as well, as some studies have shown that premature birth rates and underdeveloped cognitive abilities in the infants can be decreased by taking fish oil.

However, these additional benefits are not as well established as fish oil’s cardiovascular effects, and so should not be depended on for those purposes.

Fish oil has few side effects, and overall is probably one of the healthiest supplements you can take. The main problem it manifests is breath that smells like fish, which is easily rectified by buying only enteric-coated fish oil pills, which don’t dissolve until they hit the intestines.

There has been some concern lately about the presence of industrial pollutants (PCBs) in fish oil capsules, since they are not regulated by the government. In fact, a report released in California found higher than normal levels of contaminants in many popular and major brand supplements.

The good news is that this problem primarily afflicts fish liver oils, because the liver is what cleans up the pollutants. And fish liver oils also contain high levels of vitamin A, which is toxic and can build up in the body over time. In further addition, at least one study has shown that levels of PCBs in fish oil did not increase cancer risk, possibly partially due to the offsetting health benefits from the fish oil itself. So it is probably best to steer clear of liver oil anyway, and not worry too much about contaminants.