Fish Oil for Vibrant Health

There are two supplements that I recommend everyone take on a daily basis. One is fish oil, the second is Vitamin D. Today I will focus on the merits of fish oil. Fish oil is composed of the polyunsaturated omega 3 fats called EPA and DHA. Omega 3’s are called essential fatty acids. They are essential because the body is unable to produce them on their own. Omega 3’s are well studied and have been shown to be extremely important for cardiovascular, immune and brain function. Their importance stems from the fact that they are anti inflammatory, play a critical role in the makeup of cell membranes, and more significantly they support brain function.

The brain is about 60 percent fat and 8 percent of its weight is actually made up of the omega 3’s EPA and DHA. Omega-3’s make the cell membrane more malleable and permeable which affects neurotransmitter levels, the ability of cells to talk to each other and the development of connections between cells. The Omega-3’s have some close cousins called Omega-6’s which are also present in the brain. Major sources of Omega-6 are grains such as wheat, corn and soy. Omega-6 is not very malleable and is also pro-inflammatory which means it makes a compound called arachidonic acid that can make our joints ache and inflames the blood vessels. Obviously this should be avoided where possible.

Stone Age people did not cultivate grain, and the ratio of Omega-3’s to Omega-6’s was 1:1. About 10,000 years ago agriculture developed and man was able to cultivate grains. However cattle and dairy were still grazing on grass and the ratio of the fatty acids stayed low. A shift has occurred and over the last 100 years the availability of grains in our food supply, and oils such as such as soybean oil, has dramatically increased. As a result the ratios of Omega-3 to Omega-6 have soared to about 20 to 1. Coincidently there has been a dramatic increase in diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, bipolar and depressive illness and ADHD.

The implication of that is that the fundamental building blocks of our brains, EPA and DHA, are in short supply while major diseases of the brain such as dementia, depression, suicide, bipolar disorder and ADHD have escalated. If you thought that maybe restoring the balance back to a lower ratio would help these illness you would be right. There is overwhelming evidence that supplementing EPA and DHA makes a dramatic difference in many psychiatric and brain conditions.

It is critical for a baby’s developing brain and a number of studies have demonstrated a high correlation between DHA levels and cognitive performance and intelligence in infants. DHA is present in much higher concentration in breast milk than in grain feed cow’s milk and research has shown that bottle fed only babies have slower neurological development. At the other end of the spectrum omega 3’s have also been shown to improve cognitive function in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and may slow the onset.

A number of studies have found exactly what you might expect from the dramatic increase in omega-6’s over the last 100 years. Depressed people do have significantly lower levels of EPA or DHA in the red blood cell membranes. Low DHA is actually a predictor of people who go on to attempt suicide. 1000mg of EPA has been shown to be as effective as Prozac in alleviating depression in 50 percent of the people who took either. Combining the treatments boosted the response rate to 80 percent. Numerous studies have replicated these effects in different treatment groups such as pregnant women and menopausal women.

An extremely interesting study done recently actually showed that in healthy adults those with the highest intake of omega-3 fatty acids had the greatest grey matter brain volume in the corticolimbic area, a region of the brain associated with happiness . The same researchers found a correlation between high omega-3 levels and a positive outlook on life. Stressed but not clinically depressed individuals given 1500mg of DHA report a significantly improved reduction in stress.

In prison populations omega-3 supplementation produces significant reductions in hostility and aggressiveness. Countries with lower consumption of seafood have higher homicide rates. In substance abusers supplementation with 2225 EPA and 500mg DHA produced significant reductions in anger and anxiety. The reduction in anxiety was associated with EPA and in anger with DHA.

Similar to depression patients with bipolar disorder have cell membrane deficiencies. Many studies show the efficacy of fish oil in bipolar disorder particularly in the depressive phase. Effective dosages have been 1500 mg DHA and 3000mg EPA which is approximately 4.5 grams of fish oil, a fairly high dose.

The evidence for the efficacy of fish oil in ADHD is also strong. Like the other psychiatric illnesses we have discussed children with ADHD have lower levels of omega-3 in their blood compared to children without ADHD. In most studies when children with ADHD are treated with fish oil there is significant improvement in attention, hyperactivity and learning. In fact omega-3’s promote better learning in all children. Studies with rats show that DHA promotes the growth of neuronal plasticity improving the synaptic flexibility of developing brain cells. Most likely this is associated with improved learning and cognitive function. Another study showed almost a grade improvement in reading with ADHD youngsters given fish oil.

In short, omega-3 fatty acids are highly beneficial from in utero to senescence in all forms of brain function. Given the extreme imbalance in the ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s in our typical American diet it is necessary for most people to supplement. Omega 3 fatty acids are most highly concentrated in fish but can be found in flaxseed, avocado and nut oils. Animals that graze on grass also can provide omega-3 through their meat and eggs. Chia seeds and flax also provide a source of omega 3 as alpha linolenic acid (ALA). ALA must be broken down by the body into EPA and DHA, but many, and perhaps the majority, of us are unable to do so efficiently, and the actual amount of EPA/DHA that is produced is unknown. While flax oil is a great source of fiber and nutrients I do not recommend it for anyone who is trying to use omega-3 for brain function and disease. This presents a dilemma for vegetarians and vegans. Vegan DHA from algae is available but most studies have shown EPA is also necessary. In fact in a metanalysis of studies done for depression EPA was actually found to clearly be more beneficial than DHA.

Fish oil is available as a liquid and as capsules. Some common problems with fish oil are – it tastes fishy! Lemon and orange flavor can effectively cover the taste. With children hiding it in a smoothie, or spreading it on peanut butter, often works. Many people also have problems with burping or a fishy aftertaste. This tends to be related to rancidity or to gallbladder inefficiency. I covered gallbladder remedies in the JUNE issue. Rancidity is often found in the cheaper brands of fish oil bought at discount prices. Fish oil should always be refrigerated to prevent rancidity. Freezing it is also said to help burping. Many people, while knowing the importance of a daily intake of essential omega oils for mood and brain enhancement, give up on it because of these various problems. Fish oil is so important to take that it is worth experimenting with different brands until you find one you can tolerate. The earlier you start children on fish oil the easier it is to get them taking it consistently.

Remember 8 percent of your brain by weight is composed of omega-3’s. The change in our food supply over the last 100 years has grossly diminished the amount of omega-3 fatty acids available in the normal diet. This lack of omega-3’s in RBC membranes is highly associated with depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD. Supplementing with EPA and DHA significantly improves cognition as well as mood from cradle to old age. We haven’t even discussed the major importance of fish oil for cardiovascular and immune function. There really isn’t one reason why everyone should not be taking it. In fact, if I were writing the health plan my first requirement would be that everyone be required to take fish oil. What a great form of health insurance!

Mary Ackerley, MDMary Ackerley MD, MD(H), ABIHM is a classically trained psychiatrist and homeopathic physician who specializes in the holistic treatment of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, digestive disturbances and hormone replacement therapy.

She can be reached through her clinic MyPassion4Health at 520-299-5694 or online at