Out of the thousands of dietary supplements on the market, there are only a handful that deserve your consideration. Possibly the most well-researched, safe, and effective dietary supplement of all is fish oil.
So what is fish oil? Why is it important? How does it work? Should you bother taking it? I’m going to answer all these questions for you and more in this introductory article on fish oil supplements.
What is Fish Oil?
Fish oil is derived from the tissue of fatty fish. Fish oil contains Omega 3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA, which are “essential” to the human diet because our bodies can’t make them. As with a number of essential nutrients, some people don’t eat enough fish to have the levels of EPA and DHA necessary for optimal functioning and performance. This is where fish oil supplements can be very helpful.
Fish oil supplements are sold either in soft gels or in liquid form. Soft gels are usually the preferred form because of their convenience and lack of rancidity that comes from exposing the oil to air. The capsules block the oxygen and therefore delay the rancidity of the fats.
Benefits of Fish Oil Supplements: From Depression to Fat Loss
Fish oil’s implications for health benefits have been widely researched. The benefits of taking fish oil range from decreasing Depression and Alzheimer’s, to decreasing mortality from heart disease,1 to helping people improve their body composition.
Here’s a quick list of the benefits of fish oil supported by research:
- Decrease the incidence of depression and anxiety
- Decrease Blood Pressure
- Reduce the Stress response
- Assist in the treatment of psoriasis and dry skin
- Assist in decreasing your body’s insulin response to food
- Decrease whole body inflammation as marked by C-Reactive Protein
- Decrease Triglyceride levels
- Help with treating ADHD
- Assist in activating fat burning genes
- Assist in Muscle Protein Synthesis
Besides the overall health benefits, fish oil may also help improve lean body composition in a number of different ways. What this means is that if you’re a guy with more than 15% body fat or a woman with more than 25% body fat, fish oil may help you lose fat faster2 while also helping to stabilize any blood sugar issues you may have. In addition to helping you lose fat, fish oil may also help you put on muscle at a quicker rate. While in its infancy, recent research has shown that supplementing with 3 grams of EPA and DHA per day helped increase muscle protein synthesis within the muscle cells, which may help you add more muscle.3
What Does Fish Oil Do For Your Body? How Does It Work?
The proper functioning of the 10 trillion cells in your body influences your health in a wide array of ways. It’s on the outside membrane of your cells that Fish Oil, or more importantly the Omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, exert their influence.
Each cell membrane is made up of fat, which also holds a number of transport proteins. You can compare this cell membrane to a large party tent that has a number of entrances into and out of the tent. The doors into the tent are the transport proteins. In this tent example though, some doors only allow protein to come in and others only allow insulin to move through it.
You’ve no doubt heard the term, “You are what you eat.” In the case of cell membranes, the saying is quite literal. The fats you eat, whether they be saturated fats, Omega 6’s or Omega 3’s will then make up the composition of your cell membranes. The normal North American diet filled with many processed foods and oils, causes an over-abundance of Omega 6 fatty Acids to make up your cell membrane. For much of human evolution, the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acid profile was close to 1.5 to 1.4 The current ratio is between 15 or 17 to 1. This altered ratio of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids cause an increase in cellular inflammation markers. 5
What this means is that those doors in and out of the cell are not easily accessible to the things that the cell needs. Bodyguards (inflammation) now stand guard blocking admission both outside the doors and also inside the tent. So instead of a fun party where things are going in and out of the tent as needed, everything going into and out of the tent is checked. This includes caterers, the guest of honor and everyone else in between. Needless to say this causes a back up of things coming and going and causes a hassle.
This is what happens when you have inflammation markers. The things that are supposed to be going into the cell (protein and insulin) are having a harder time getting in while things that are supposed to be leaving, waste products, stay around longer.
What Is The Best Fish Oil Supplement?
When it comes to finding a fish oil supplement, it’s critical to look at the label.
Most store-brand fish oils will have .18 grams of EPA and .12 grams of DHA in each capsule. Remember with fish oil that the important component is the amount of EPA and DHA combined. Everything else is just filler.
To see a decrease in fat and increase in muscle requires 2-3 grams of total EPA and DHA per day. If you’re using your regular store-bought brands, then that would mean taking in 10 capsules per day. This is a ridiculous amount for most people to take.
A better alternative would be to start looking at the amount of EPA and DHA per capsule. My favorite fish oil supplement is the Now Foods Ultra Omega 3 that has .75 grams of EPA and DHA per capsule. Therefore, instead of needing to take 10 pills to get to 3 grams, you would need to take just 3-4 per day, which costs less than 50 cents/day. These pills can be taken all at once or spread out throughout the day. In most stores, you should be able to find a fish oil with a combined EPA/DHA of at least .5 grams per capsule. At this amount you would need to take 4-6 capsules per day, spread out as you like (Such as Solgar Omega 3).
Top fish oil supplement brands like Nature’s Made, Solgar, and NOW brands all have strict policies and procedures regarding the manufacturing of fish oil, which undergo molecular distillation to remove mercury and other harmful contaminants.
Please keep in mind that all dietary supplements are overseen by the FDA, but they are not approved by the FDA (See BuiltLean Article: Dietary Supplements 101). In addition, several fish oil supplements came under fire in 2010 from a lawsuit6 claiming the presence of excessive levels of PCB’s (toxic chemical substance). The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) quickly denounced the merits of the lawsuit with a press release titled “CRN Says There Are No Safety Issues With Fish Oil.”7
In summary, fish oil offers a wide array of health benefits. Recent research also suggests that fish oil may help you lose more fat and build more muscle. If you do not regularly eat fish (especially deep water fatty fish), or you eat too much processed foods and oils, adding a fish oil supplement to your daily regimen deserves serious consideration.
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below!
- Marik PE, Varon J. Omega-3 dietary supplements and the risk of cardiovascular events: a systematic review. Clin Cardiol. 2009 Jul;32(7):365-72. ↩
- Noreen E, Sass M, Crowe, Pabon V, Brandauer J, Averill L. Effects of supplemental fish oil on resting metabolic rate, body composition, and salivary cortisol in healthy adults . J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010; 7: 31. ↩
- Smith GI, Atherton P, Reeds DN, Mohammed BS, Rankin D, Rennie MJ, Mittendorfer B. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia-hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women .Clin Sci (Lond). 2011 Sep;121(6):267-78. ↩
- Simopoulos AP. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. 2002 Oct;56(8):365-79. ↩
- Ferrucci L, Cherubini A, Bandinelli S, Bartali B, Corsi A, Lauretani F, Martin A, Andres-Lacueva C, Senin U, Guralnik JM. Relationship of plasma polyunsaturated fatty acids to circulating inflammatory markers.J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Feb;91(2):439-46. ↩
- Allday, E. Lawsuit says fish oil supplements contain PCB . SF Gate. 2010. ↩
- Shao, A. CRN SAYS THERE ARE NO SAFETY ISSUES WITH FISH OIL . Press Room. CRN. 2010. ↩
@John Leyva – This is a killer article! It has excellent breadth and depth, thanks for putting in the time, effort, and research to make this type of article possible.
Thanks for the article. Many trainers I’ve spoken with suggest Controlled Labs Orange OxiMega as being the very best Fish oil caps on the market. Any thoughts or experience with this brand?
The article says that fish oil may be a good supplement for people who don’t “regularly” eat fish. I’m wondering exactly what that translates to in terms of how much fish we should be eating. Is there a point of consumption at which the benefits of fish oil supplements become negligible?
@Nicole – That’s a GREAT question and I look forward to hear what John has to say.
I have read many articles about the benefits of fish oil supplements. I heard that fish oil supplements also tend to make you have bad breath or fishy body odor. Is this true?
@Nicole – This is a very individualized question that depends on two main factors:
1 – The ratio of Omega 6’s to Omega 3’s you’re currently consuming. So is most of the fat you eat from conventional beef, regular eggs and “snacks” such as potato chips or is most of your fat coming from omega 3 eggs, organic beef and some fish?
The difference in the two will affect the ratio of Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio and hence whether or not the fish oil supplement will help you.
2 – How much inflammation you have. Most chronic conditions are either exacerbated or caused by high inflammation – this includes obesity, arthritis, heart disease, etc.
Therefore, if you have any condition with -itis in it, have high levels of body fat or almost any other chronic condition, you most likely have higher than normal levels of inflammation and as stated, fish oil MAY be beneficial. In addition to that, a diet high in trans-fats will increase inflammation dramatically (think anything fried) and therefore fish oil will help immensely.
Sorry if that’s a bit winded, but here’s a more succinct answer: Most health and aesthetic benefits come from around 3 grams of combined EPA/DHA. Here’s a link to a government guide to the amount of EPA/DHA per 100 grams of fish (about 3 ounces):
As noted above though, other foods will have EPA/DHA, most notably organic meats and omega-3 eggs. Hope that helps. If you have any other questions, please feel free to let me know.
@TP – I don’t have any personal experience with the brand you stated. Although I don’t have any experience with that brand it does look good on paper (with .6 grams EPA/DHA per capsule, purified, etc).
With any supplement you want to feel confident in the brand and one of the best ways to do that is to have a third party test and confirm that what’s on the label is in the bottle. ConsumerLab.com is a paid service that does just that – third party tests the supplements. It’s sort of like a Consumer Reports for supplements. Hope that helps.
@Dan – I’ve heard of fish oil “burps” but not that they cause bad breath or fishy body odor (and really fish oil shouldn’t).
Most fish oil “burps” are usually from either poor quality fish oil, low HCl levels or low levels of the digestive enzyme lipase, which helps your body assimilate the fats that it takes in.
One of the easiest solutions to this issue is to make sure that you take the fish oil during a meal, when your HCl and digestive enzyme levels should be highest.
Hi. Is Fish Oil the same as Cod Liver Oil? There is this brand out there – Seven Seas – that makes this product.
@gren – Cod Liver Oil will have beneficial EPA/DHA, but is also high in Vitamins A & D. Of all the vitamins that you could easily overdo it with Vitamin A is the one, as it’s a Fat Soluble vitamin that most people are not deficient in. High levels of vitamin A have been associated with everything from fatigue and depression to an increased risk of fractures due to it’s ability to block Vitamin D from doing its job. All in all, unless you know you’re vitamin A deficient, I would stick with regular fish oil.
Are there any vegetarian options?
@Alicia – I am by no means an expert when it comes to vegetarian options, but in researching for this article, there were instances of DHA being made from Algae oil. That’s the closest thing to fish oil that you will get from a vegetarian option. The problem with that option is there’s almost no EPA in the algae oils that I researched.
Other purpoted vegetarian “Omega 3’s” such as flax seed oil has such a low conversion rate in the body (5-18%) that your levels of Omega 6’s may actually end up increasing, thereby exacerbating an already out of balance Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio. If you are going to do flax though, have the whole flax seed (milled flax seeds can be found in most health food stores), although you might have to be creative with what to eat it with. Hope that helps. If you have any other questions, let me know.
How many ounces of Salmon are required each day for maximal benefit?
@Hank – About 4-6 ounces of Salmon per day should suffice although it depends on the type of salmon. The above link in my response to Nicole’s comment has a list of combined EPA/DHA in the different types of salmon. If you have any other questions, let me know.
have you ever heard about the Chia seeds?
i have been told its one of the best sources of omega 3 and omega 6, with a very good ratio.
@Santi – Chia seeds, like flax seeds do have a good Omega 3 to 6 ratio, but the problem with those sources is that in order for the Omega 3 in the seeds to be used it needs to undergo a conversion in the body, which most people are not very good at (only about 15% gets converted to body usable Omega 3’s). Overall though, there are other health benefits to the seeds.
Great article. You’ve inspired me to run out and buy some NOW fish oil right away. One question: on days when I eat salmon, do I need to decrease the number of fish oil pills I take? Or is it okay just to take 3-4/day everyday and not worry about what else I eat (at least in regards to omega-3’s)?
@Nate – On the days that you eat salmon, you probably won’t need as much fish oil pills. With that said, if you eat salmon only one or two times per week, it probably won’t make much of a difference if you kept the pills. If you eat salmon/fish pretty consistently throughout the week, then you might want to consider lowering the amount you take.
Having tried fish oil myself (optimum nutrition’s fish oil capsules), I noticed increased hair loss after a few weeks of taking the recommended dosage of about 2gr. The fish oil being the single thing that had changed in my daily routine and having never experienced hair loss until that time, I decided to search a bit if this was indeed a side effect of high doses of omega 3.
Being a physician myself, searching the medical bibliography didn’t bring up anything conclusive; however, a google search brought up many anecdotal cases of people experiencing exactly the same thing… Fortunately, stopping fish oil, stopped hair loss too.
So it seems like some people may have a predisposition for hair loss when high doses of fish oil are consumed; I think it wouldn’t hurt to keep this in mind until medical research addresses this possible side effect..
@Dmitris – Thanks for that anecdotal story. I had never heard of that side effect, but it’s definitely interesting to know about. I could think of three possible reasons for the hair loss, but is definitely something I will look for going forward.
Right now I’m taking Spring Valley Triple Strength Fish Oil. Which has 1400mg of fish oil concentrate and 647mg of EPA and 253mg of DHA. I’m wondering If this is a good brand supplement to take and how many I should take of this a day. Also, I’ve been doing research that Krill oil is 10 times better, and was wondering if you knew any information on a good brand and if you recomend it.
@Lara – I’m not sure about Spring Valley brand itself, but from the label, it seems that they have a high ratio of EPA/DHA to total mg, so it should be good. Overall, I’m not too well versed in the research regarding Krill, so I can’t really comment on that.
What is the best time to take the fish oil pills?
@Dilina – There is not necessarily a “best time” to take the fish oil, although if you get fish burps, during meals may help. In general, with supplements, like working out, the best time is something you can stick to. Hope that helps.
Hi am using the GNC TRIPLE STRENGTH FISH OIL 1500
Actually i wanna know if this omega 3 is good for healthy hair.. If it’s good for hard nails.. if it cause hair in body and face plus if it gain weight..
Thank u so much for ur time..
@Deedo – We haven’t officially made a fish oil recommendation as a company, but John listed his favorite brands and Omega 3’s have many benefits. Check with GNC.
Hola everyone I’ve been thinking of gaining weight for a very long time now, so I was wondering – is there any drug I can take for gaining weight? I’ll really be happy, thanks.
At BuiltLean, we don’t recommend or advocate any drugs or supplements. Reason being, drugs and supplements can be expensive, and are usually not necessary to help you achieve your fitness goals. I’m guessing that your goal is to build muscle (not just gain fat). In order to build muscle, you must eat more calories than you burn, while also creating enough of a muscle stimulus through strength training to elicit muscle building.
Make sure that you eat protein with every meal, and aim to get at least 1 gram of protein per pound of your bodyweight. So if you weight 175 lbs, you want to eat 175 grams of protein.
If you find it challenging to eat enough calories, then add more fats to your diet. Fats are higher in calories than protein and carbs, and don’t tend to overfill you. Include olive oil, nut butters, avocado, cheese, and nuts & seeds into your meals.
Finally, do a mix of high weight & low rep lifts and low weight & high rep lifts. This will help create micro-tears in your muscle tissue and induce a muscle pump, both of which are necessary for muscle building.
Please don’t take any supplements that have not been approved by your doctor. If you eat right, and train right, you can definitely build muscle and gain weight. Hope that helps!
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor