By Sean Michael Hall, L.Ac.
I do not recommend that people overdo supplements.
In fact, in my own practice, I often help patients reduce their supplement regimens, rather than add to them. That said, there are two supplements that I recommend across the board to just about everyone. One is a basic, whole-food based multi-vitamin. The second is a high-quality fish oil. Why? Because a multitude of reliable studies suggest that unless you are supplementing your diet with fish oil, it is very likely that you are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.
At East Bay Acupuncture and Natural Medicine I recommend that everyone take 1 of 6 different varieties of fish oil. I’ve spent years finding the highest quality fish oils on the market, and I’m very proud of the brands and types that I carry. This article will serve as an overview of the benefits of fish oil, address safety concerns, and provide some information about the different varieties I routinely recommend in my practice.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Regular consumption of high-quality fish oil can lower triglycerides and increase good cholesterol, or HDL. High levels of triglycerides have been linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke. These effects, combined with fish oil╒s ability to slightly thin the blood, reduce risk of heart attack. Fish oil can also help prevent strokes and certain incidences of sudden cardiac death in those who already have heart disease. Finally, it has been shown to aid in slowing hardening of the arteries and decreasing blood pressure.
- Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil reduce inflammation by preventing the body’s production of pro-inflammatory molecules. Because inflammation is associated with many serious health problems, including cancer, autoimmune diseases, psoriasis, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease this is one of the most significant benefits of fish oil.
Additional Alzheimer’s Protection:
- In addition to preventing Alzheimer’s by reducing the body’s inflammatory capacity, omega-3 fatty acids also protect against Alzheimer’s another way: by increasing the body’s production of a protein called LR11, which helps prevent the accumulation of toxic plaques.
Mental Health Benefits:
- Omega-3 fatty acids also help to regulate the brain╒s dopamine and serotonin signaling systems, offering potential aid to those affected by depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health concerns.
- Fish oil taken before and during pregnancy can be of great help to both mother and child. For the mother, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce risk of post-natal depression and premature birth. For the child, fish oil has been shown to aid fetal development, and healthy levels of omega-3 fatty acids in utero are associated with benefits including higher cognitive function and improved eyesight.
Benefits to Hair, Skin and Nails:
- Maintaining healthy levels of omega-3 fatty acids provides readily visible benefits: those who consume enough of these essential fatty acids enjoy faster-growing hair and nails, and may notice that their hair looks more lustrous and their nails are harder and less likely to break.
The Problem with Eating Lots of Fish
Before I delve into the safety and potency concerns of fish oils, I’ll begin by explaining the problems associated with another source of omega-3 fatty acids: fish. Though our first instinct might lead us to believe it would be best to seek this helpful substance directly from the source, this is not the case. In fact, eating lots of fish in pursuit of omega-3s can be quite harmful due to the heavy metal contamination that is becoming more and more common.
Dangerously high levels of heavy metals such as mercury accumulate primarily in the tissue of the fish (including flesh and skin). It’s been shown that there are far fewer heavy metals in the oil of the fish. Studies have shown that the amount of heavy metals in fish oils are consistently within a minimal, safe range, that is generally lower than actually eating the fish. And, unlike the fish on your plate, which may have come from a variety of sources, some more reliably safe than others, the high-quality fish oils I recommend are always rigorously tested for purity.
I still recommend eating fish 2 to 3 times a week, but please be mindful when choosing the fish you eat.
I specifically recommend finding fish that is:
- Not farm-raised
- Lower on the food chain
- From cold-water
Keeping these qualities in mind will help you choose a safer fish to eat. Good varieties of fish include:
- Wild Alaskan Salmon
- Mackerel (not King Mackerel)
Fish Oil Quality and Safety Concerns
It’s clear that fish oil has a lot to offer, but I would warn against purchasing just any fish oil. Although most high-quality fish oils will not have contaminants, there may be other potency or quality issues. Heavy metal and other contaminants are not a big issue with most fish oils. Even lower quality fish oil is effectively tested for heavy metals, and since these contaminants tend to not be stored in the fat of the fish there is even less to worry about. A bigger concern, and one that is found in many supposedly high-quality fish oils, is the issue of rancidity.
Rancidity is a serious problem. 2009 tests yielded some disturbing information: many fish oil capsules on the market contained oxidative by-products an indicator that the fish oil was going rancid. Not only does rancid fish oil not offer the benefits of undamaged fish oil, it is actually quite harmful. Rancid fish oil does the opposite of fish oil: it promotes heart disease and other chronic illnesses through its inflammatory effects. Fish oil rancidity commonly begins at the source, with a less than ideal manufacturing process.
The problem with some brands extraction and bottling process is that fish oil begins to oxidize the moment it is extracted from the fish, and can then go rancid within days. If anti-oxidants are added immediately, the oxidation process that leads to rancidity will be avoided. Unfortunately, many manufacturers receive the oil in large tubs weeks after the oil has been extracted, and they wait until then to add the anti-oxidants, directly before encapsulating. At that point, the oxidation process has often already begun. Additionally, many fish oil capsules are labeled with expiration dates up to 4 years from the date of manufacture this is not best practice.
The brands that I recommend guard against fish oil rancidity by fortifying the fish oil with anti-oxidants, directly at the source, immediately after extraction from the fish. Additionally, they use the most effective form of vitamin E as the anti-oxidant (gamma and delta vitamin E), rather than the less effective, and less expensive (alpha-tocopherol) variety that many other companies use.
Once you’ve purchased a fish oil it is essential that it be stored in a cool, dark place before opening. Although not mentioned on most fish oil bottles, I recommend refrigerating after opening, and using within 3 months. If you purchase fish oil from a company that is aware of these issues, store the capsules properly, and use within a decent amount of time, you’ll have nothing to worry about.
Can’t I Just Eat Lots of Flax and Walnuts?
It is true that a number of other foods contain this important omega-3 fatty acids, including flax seeds, walnuts and grass-fed beef. However, the form of omega-3 in flax and walnut is alpha linoleic acid (ALA). While this is also a very healthy omega-3, the most important benefits of omega-3s come from eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) forms specifically.
The body is capable of breaking down the ALA in flax seeds or walnuts to EPA and DHA, but it requires an enzyme that many people stop producing as they age, and there are many others that lack the enzyme altogether. Additionally, the final amount of EPA and DHA is usually minimal. Fish oils contain all three forms: ALA, EPA, and DHA. When choosing a fish oil, I recommend finding one that contains a combined amount EPA/DHA that is equal to at least half the total volume of each capsule. If you look on the shelves, you’ll find that even most high-quality fish oils have less than this amount.
The Fish Oils I Recommend
I routinely recommend one of six different types of fish oils to my patients. After years of practice and research I’ve found that Designs for Health (DFH) and Green Pasture’s make the best quality fish oils on the market. The varieties I recommend are:
DFH OmegAvail Ultra
- A high EPA/DHA potency fish oil.
DFH OmegAvail Ultra plus Vitamins D, K1, K2
- The same high EPA/DHA potency fish oil, with the addition of some of the fat-soluble vitamins many people are deficient in.
DFH OmegAvail Hi-Po
- A good choice for anyone that has a hard time digesting standard fish oils. Again, a high EPA/DHA potency fish oil, but with the addition of digestive enzymes and an enteric coating.
DFH OmegAvail Synergy
- High EPA/DHA potency fish oil, with the addition of GLA. GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid that has a strong anti-inflammatory effect, making it especially useful for dermatologic and arthritic conditions.
Green Pasture’s Blue Ice Fermented Cod Liver Oil
- This cod liver oil is the only one on the market that I recommend. Every other brand I’ve come across is extracted with a method that degrades the natural, fat-soluble vitamins in the oil, and contains synthetic vitamin additives instead. Cod Liver Oil is not as high in EPA/DHA, but it is one of the best dietary sources of Vitamins A and D, along with all of the natural metabolites of those vitamins.
DFH XanthOmega Krill Oil
- A good choice for those who experience PMS and uterine cramps. Its efficacy in treating these conditions has been well documented, and I often recommend it for use in these cases. It’s also naturally high in an anti-oxidant called astaxanthin, making it the most stable fish oil.
I recommend each of these varieties for various conditions and constitutional differences. My personal regimen includes 4 capsules of OmegAvail Ultra w/ D, K1 and K2, plus 4 capsules of Cod Liver Oil daily. Please contact me if you would like my help in choosing the most appropriate fish oil for you and your family.