Fish oil is a ma­jor source of omega- 3 fats, which are es­sen­tial for good health, just like ba­sic vi­ta­mins and min­er­als. So, why do some stud­ies ques­tion the benefi ts of fi sh oil? Here are the facts BY VERA TWEED

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Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health ( NIH), “Omega- 3s are im­por­tant com­po­nents of the mem­branes that sur­round each cell in your body.” This is a crit­i­cal func­tion. Much like the skin on our bod­ies, cell mem­branes act as a pro­tec­tive bar­rier and en­able each cell to func­tion prop­erly and sus­tain life; dam­age to that pro­tec­tive “skin” will in­evitably have un­healthy conse- quences. The NIH notes that omega- 3s are es­sen­tial for healthy func­tion of the heart, blood ves­sels, brain, eyes, lungs, im­mune sys­tem, sperm cells, and glands that pro­duce hor­mones.

Un­for­tu­nately, says Suzanne Stein­baum, DO, an in­te­gra­tive car­di­ol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of the Women and Heart Dis­ease Cen­ter at Lenox Hill Hospi­tal in New York, “the body does not make omega- 3s. It’s some­thing that you can only get from diet.” And that’s where sup­ple­ments— es­pe­cially fi sh oil— come in.

The Vi­tal In­gre­di­ents in Fish Oil

Fish oil con­tains two es­sen­tial omega- 3 fats: EPA and DHA ( short for eicos­apen­taenoic acid and do­cosa­hex­aenoic acid). Sup­ple­ments made from al­gae are a ve­gan source of EPA and DHA, but fi sh oil is the most widely used and stud­ied source.

Plant- based omega- 3s come in a diff er­ent form, al­pha- linolenic acid, or ALA, which the hu­man body con­verts into EPA and DHA. Top sources in­clude fl ax seed oil and chia oil. Be­cause the effi ciency of the con­ver­sion process varies, it may be diffi cult to get suffi cient amounts from ALA alone.

Con­flict­ing Fish Oil Stud­ies Ex­plained

When stud­ies ques­tion omega- 3 benefi ts, says Stein­baum, “The head­lines re­ally mis­lead the pop­u­la­tion.” Here’s what typ­i­cally hap­pens: Re­searchers look at large groups of peo­ple and com­pare mark­ers of heart health among those who take fi sh oil sup­ple­ments and those who don’t, but they omit crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. “Sup­ple­men­ta­tion alone is not enough to en­sure that you’re get­ting what you need,” says Stein­baum, be­cause the dose may be too low. In­di­vid­ual needs vary, de­pend­ing upon over­all diet, phys­i­cal con­di­tion, life­style, genes, and abil­ity to ab­sorb and uti­lize omega- 3s. Be­cause these stud­ies don’t typ­i­cally eval­u­ate whether par­tic­i­pants are get­ting suffi cient omega- 3s for their per­sonal needs, they likely don’t draw ac­cu­rate con­clu­sions.

How to Ben­e­fit from Fish Oil

For op­ti­mum health, the trick is to get enough omega- 3s to meet your needs, and most peo­ple don’t. In a study of 200 Amer­i­can and Ger­man adults, ages 18– 80, re­searchers mea­sured each per­son’s level of omega- 3s and found that 99 per­cent fell be­low op­ti­mum

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