DO THEY REALLY WORK?
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
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