Essential Fatty Acids (Fish Oil)

Scientists noticed a curiously low incidence of heart disease among Greenland Eskimos, despite their high-fat diet. The reason? They were eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Later studies confirmed their cardioprotective effect of fish oils while uncovering other benefits as well.

What they are

The fat in fish includes a form of polyunsaturated fatty acids called omega-3s. These differ from the polyunsaturated fatty acids found in vegetable oils (called omega-6s) and they have different effects on the body. (fish don’t manufacture such fats but get them from the plankton they eat – the colder the water, the more omega-3s the plankton contains.)

The two most potentforms of omega-3s, eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), are found in abundance in cold-water fish such as salmon, trout, mackeral and tuna (including, to a limited extent, the canned variety). The sources of a third type of omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), are certain vegetable oils (such as flaxseed oil) and leafy, fleshy greens (such as purslane). However, ALA doesn’t affect the body in the same way as EPA and DHA.

What they do

Omega-3 fatty acids play a key role in a range of vital body processes, from regulating blood pressure and blood clotting to reducing inflammation and boosting the immune system. They may be useful for preventing or treating many conditions.


Fish oils appear to reduce the risk of heart disease in several ways. Most importantly, the presence of omega-3s makes platelets in the blood less likely to clump together and form the clots that lead to heart attacks. Next, omega-3s can reduce triglycerides (blood fats related to cholesterol) and may lower blood pressure.

In addition, recent research has shown that omega-3s strengthen the heart’s electrical system, preventing heart-rhythm abnormalities. However, the strongest evidence for the cardiovascular benefits of fish oils comes from studies in which the participants ate fish rather than taking fish oil supplements.

Within the artery walls, omega-3s inhibit inflammation, which is a factor in plaque build-up. As a result, therapeutic doses of fish oils are one of the few successful ways to prevent the reblockage of arteries that commonly occrs after angioplasty, in which a small balloon is guided through an artery to a blockage and them inflated to compress plaque, widen the vessel and improve blood flow to the heart. This effect on blood vessels makes fish oils helpful for Raynaud’s disease as well.

Additional benefits

Oemga-3s are also effective general anti-inflammatories, useful for joint problems, lupus and psoriasis. Studies indicate that people with rheumatoid arthritis experience less joint swellings and stiffness when they take fish oil supplements, and may even be able to manage on lower doses of anti-inflammatory drugs.

In a year-long study of people suffering from Crohn’s disease (a painful type of inflammatory bowel disease), 69% of those taking enteric-coated fish oil supplements (about 3 g of fish oils a day) satyed symptom-free, compared with just 28% of those receiving a placebo. Fish oil may also help to ease menstrual cramps.

In addition, omega-3s may play a role in mental health. Some experts believe there’s a correlation between the increasing incidence of depression in many western countries an the declining consumpton of fish. And a preliminary US study suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the severity of schizophrenia by about 25%.

Omega-3 fatty acids have also been used to alleviate symptoms of asthma and eczema.

Common uses

  • Help to prevent cardiovascular disease; useful for other circulatory conditions as well.
  • Block disease-related inflammatory responses in the body.
  • May lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol.


  • Capsule.
  • Softgel.


How to take them


For heart disease, Raynaud’s disease, lupus and psoriasis: take 3000 mg of fish oils a day.  

For rheumatoid arthritis: Take 6000 mg a day. For inflammatory bowel disease: Take 5000 mg a day.


Guidelines for use

Fish oil supplements are recommended for heart disease prevention even if you eat fish a few times per week.

Natural medicine supplementation is also recommended for rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

Try to take capsules with meals. Supplements may be easier to tolerate if you take them in divided doses; for example, 1000 mg three times a day instead of 3000 mg in one sitting.


Possible side effects

Fish oil capsules may cause belching, flatulence, bloating, nausea and diarrhoea. Very high doses may result in a slightly fishy body odour. But this can be avoided by using a better quality product such as those listed in the right column of this page.