Is taking fish oil absolutely safe? Know the side effects and benefits of omega 3 and fish oil

Author: Elly Prior | First published: 04-06-2011 | Modified: 20-10-2017

Are there any fish oil side effects? What about Omega-3 side effects? Are those two the same? Or how about the benefits of omega 3?

No doubt you've been bombarded with messages about how bad fat is for you... yet some fats are good for you. So which are which? I'm hoping to help you get to grips with it all, and explain the benefits of Omega-3 and fish oil.

Why would I want to talk about the benefits of Omega-3 on my relationship advice site?

Well, if your body is starved of essential nutrients then it's under stress. A stressed body equals a stressed mind - even if you're not always aware of it. Stress has huge consequences for your physical, mental, emotional and social well-being. And, of course, the health of your relationship is linked to all of these. Everything that you do to nurture yourself will directly - and indirectly - benefit your relationship too.

Let's look at what omega 3 is first, but if you're only interested in the omega 3 side effects, click here now.

Omega 3 softgels

What is omega 3?

Omega-3 is an essential unsaturated fatty acid. 'Essential' here means that your body cannot produce (synthesise) it by itself - so it has to come from your food.

Fats make up 60% of your brain, in the same way that water makes up 80% of your body. Without water, we die. Without the right fats, your brain at the very least fails to function at its optimum level.

You may be asking yourself: "If that's so, then why are the fats in my potato chips, biscuits, cakes etc. so bad? Why doesn't my body/brain benefit from those?"

The simple answer is that there are no beneficial fats in those foods. (Actually, I'm afraid to say that their only 'benefit' is a very temporary feeling of satisfaction!)

The dangers of trans-fats

Your cakes, biscuits, pastries and takeaways (or "take-outs") are very likely to contain trans-fats (Google it!). The chemical structure of these fats is at odds with what your body expects and desperately needs.

In the absence of healthy fats, your body will use trans-fats 'building blocks' in your brain. However, your brain has to work much harder to process these. The chemical structure of these fats is incompatible with your body's requirements.

So, your brain's energy expenditure increases to overcome the disadvantage of working of with poor quality, wrongly-shaped materials. This means your brain's ability to function and communicate effectively is compromised.

Nerve cells in your brain communicate by way of neurotransmitters. These are the chemical 'messengers' that convey 'messages' from one nerve cell to another.  Have a look at this video to see them at work...

Nutrients provide the fuel for the fire in the nerve cells. But they have difficulty passing the membrane (the mesh covering the nerve cell) if it's constructed from poor quality (trans) fats.  

Trans-fats therefore make it difficult for your neurons to branch out and lay the road necessary for the transport of messages.

In addition, trans-fats decrease the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain. Is it any wonder that when you're deficient in Omega-3, you're missing out on all of its benefits? And this puts you at risk not only of depression, but a plethora of other problems too.

The benefits of Omega-3
- 5 generally accepted results

Omega-3 is the subject of numerous studies. Since our understanding of how the body works is improving all the time, it helps to keep an eye on developments.

Here are some of the generally recognised Omega-3 benefits:

  1. It can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease - fish oil is very beneficial for the health of your heart.
  2. It can lower the risk of cancer
  3. It can lower the risk of arthritis
  4. It can improve brain function: cognitive (memory and performance) and behavioural processes. This is of course of huge importance with regards to your mental and emotional well-being
  5. It can reduce inflammation (interestingly, inflammation has now also been linked with depression)

Before you start taking fish oils...

... read on for some important information.

If you decide to take fish oil then be aware of the effects - depending on:

  • whether you’re suffering from diabetes, heart disease, bleeding disorder and/or have concerns over your cholesterol levels
  • certain medication you may be taking
  • the 'source' of your omega-3s - a good fish oil is essential (no, I’m afraid there isn’t a 'pharmaceutical grade' fish oil!)
  • the fish oil product you choose
  • the dosage (if you are taking blood thinning medication)

If you do decide to go ahead and take omega-3, be sure you have at least read all the information on this page...

Diabetes, heart disease and fish oil side effects

Are you taking any medication? If so, please inform yourself thoroughly and speak to your healthcare provider before taking any supplements. The Institute of Optimum Nutrition provides relevant information on diabetes, heart disease and cholesterol.

Your doctor is likely to tell you that there are no Omega-3 side-effects as such. However, you may need to adjust your medication. Your doctor may want you to have some extra blood tests done to make sure that values remain stable (although actually, they’re likely to improve!). The  Institute of Optimum Nutrition reports, for example, that fish oil can help make your statins more effective.

If you happen to take beta-blockers, you may already have found out that these can have a detrimental effect on your sex life. Your libido may already have plummeted!

As a couple counsellor I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point you to my page on How to Increase Libido for further help and information.

Blood-thinning medication (anticoagulants)

Any medication - blood-thinner or otherwise - has a benefit / risk ratio.

Do you have a bleeding disorder? Are you taking anticoagulants? Then you absolutely should consult a doctor before trying fish oil, especially if you want to take a higher dosage.

Fish oil stops platelets clumping together, hence its 'blood-thinning' effect. If your doctor has no qualms about fish oil he or she would be happy for you to get all the supposed health benefits of that rather than risk the side effects of the available drugs. You will need advice on the right dose of fish oil for you to prevent any side effects.

The side effects of fish oil

The source of your Omega-3 is really important.  For example, if you start taking pure fish oil there is chance you'll notice the following side effects:

  • minor belching - hardly a terrible side effect of fish oil!
  • nausea
  • lose stools - you may feel that is a benefit
  • bloating
  • See also: drug interaction - further down

So, at least be sure that you choose a quality product.

A badly fishy back burp is not a good sign: fish oil is a fat. Like butter, if it’s treated badly or it’s old it becomes rancid - not healthy (or nice) at all!

Remember too that many companies mask bad taste and smell from bad products by adding chemical additives and perfumes. The manner in which the oil is extracted, purified and packaged is extremely important too.

Fish oil side effects: the problem with vitamin A

Make sure that you don't mistake the dosage of fish liver oil (e.g cod liver oil) for that of omega 3, because it's very possible for you to overdose on vitamin A or D if you take the quantities advised for fish oil. Both of these vitamins are naturally part of the product or are routinely added to fish liver oils (if previously removed by processing).

The dosage of fish oil you're recommended to take is too high if you were to use a liver oil, such as cod liver oil.

New studies show that modern processed cod liver oil may even raise death rates. In developed countries people normally don't have a Vitamin A deficiency, rather more likely a 5% a Vitamin A toxicity according to Dr Mercola.

Safe products

Fish was traditionally fermented to preserve it and thereby maintain it's health-giving benefits.

The Weston A Price Foundation (a non-profit nutrition education foundation) recommends:

Best
Blue Ice High-Vitamin Fermented Cod Liver Oil
Green Pasture Cod Live Oil

Good
Garden of Life Olde World Icelandic Cod Liver Oil (also available from Live Superfoods)

Salmon with lemon and chives - omega 3 or fish oil benefitsA scrumptious piece of salmon. Be sure you know where it comes from.

Fish oil and pollution

It’s important to state that certain side effects from fish oil depend on the quality and source of the fish (oil). Many people start out trying to add Omega-3s by eating more fish.

Unfortunately, fish is now heavily polluted with methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (pcb) and dioxins. These toxins for sure are detrimental to your health.

Drug interactions?

Fish oil can apparently help prevent or reduce the severity of side effects of Cyclosporin (a drug used to suppress the immune system) and help statins (a class of drugs used to reduce high levels of 'bad' cholesterol) to be more effective, due to their anti-inflammatory effect.

How much Omega-3 do I need to get the benefits?

The average American adult gets less than 1g of Omega 3 fatty acids per day. However, the recommended daily amount, especially for people who are suffering from depression, is reported to be somewhere between 2-4g.  

Some doctors even recommend higher doses. (I'm getting a mental image of you turning up your nose at the thought of spoonfuls of oil and huge capsules!)

Foods high in omega 3 are always the best sources!

Omega 3 fatty acids and fish

Omega-3 consists of two primary - and very important - fatty acids. Take a deep breath before you read this: one is eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and the other is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA is especially beneficial for depression.

I know... I can't pronounce the full names either - let alone remember them!

  • EPA - found almost exclusively in cold-water seafood
  • DHA  - found almost exclusively in cold-water fish, although not farmed fish, unless they were fed Omega-3 rich food (DHA is particularly beneficial for the membranes of your nerve cells)

Here is a list of fish with omega 3 to help you shop:

  • mackerel
  • salmon
  • albacore tuna
  • anchovies
  • lake trout
  • sardines
  • white fish
  • cod liver oil

ALA (also an important fat) is found in plant sources. (Note: The conversion from ALA to DHA varies between individuals, therefore eating fish or fish oils is essential!)

Here are some more omega 3 sources...

It doesn't always need to be fish

Other foods high in omega 3 (and suitable for vegetarians and vegans)

  • walnuts
  • flax seeds
  • chia seeds beans
  • olive oil
  • winter squash
  • tofu (there can be problems with eating tofu though; see www.mercola.com)

If you want to beat depression, for example, choose the right foods that contain Omega 3. It beats taking antidepressants with their multiple side-effects and potential damage to your brain - if they work at all.

Remember: your personal wellbeing contributes to the health of your relationship!

Are you vegetarian?

It is said that the supposed benefits of Omega-3 lie in its conversion to DHA and EPA.  Many people don’t have the chemical needed to convert fish oil into those substances. Flax seed oil may therefore not have the reported benefits gained from fish oil.  However, I noted the following in an article on Dr Mercola's website:

"It is thought that the conversion of the plant-based ALA into the fish-oil based eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is not that efficient," he says, "But we find that our vegetarian patients actually do it very well and don't use the fish oil or animal-based omega-3 fatty acids as effectively."  

-Dr Nicholas Gonzales

In addition Dr Mercola reports on flax-seed oil that it increases prostate cancer, whilst fish oil apparently decreases it.

Does Omega-3 help depression?

In Greenland, Eskimos consume 7-10g per day of long-chain Omega-3s (DHA and EPA) and know virtually no depression. (Or at least, those who have been able to hold on to their traditional life-style of course).

Yet Eskimos spend much of their waking time in the dark with little exposure to sunlight.

Why is that significant?

Well, you yourself may well be aware of how much better you feel in the summer than in the winter. For more on this, have a look at my page about Fish Oil and Depression. The right food can really help you if you're suffering from depression.

Would you benefit from Omega-3 supplements?

Many people simply don't like the taste of fish. Others have, understandably, avoided both fish and fish oil because of an allergy. Some are worried about toxins in fish such as mercury, lead and PCBs.

Perhaps you're taking omega-3 supplements, like many other health conscious individuals, or perhaps you're thinking about doing so.

At the very least, try to avoid the cheapest stuff on the market. Some fish oils have been extracted by chemical or mechanical means. It may have been heated or otherwise spoiled.

Finally...

Do your research carefully - there are plenty of good quality omega-3 supplements available. But always remember: the key is a healthy, balanced diet - so never rely on supplements to the exclusion of a variety of foods that naturally contain the nutrients you need.

New! Rate this article (anonymously)...

I really hope this article is of help to you. :-)

I frequently update my articles based on feedback, therefore I really value your vote. If you think I've missed something, please do let me know in the comment section below.

Thank you so much in anticipation. :-)

Related Articles

Natural Depression Treatments
The Best Natural Sleep Remedies
Are Your Symptoms due to Adrenal Fatigue?

Other helpful links

Marine Conservation Society
University of Maryland Medical Center - omega 3
Weston A Price Foundation
Jen Reviews - 15 Health Benefits of Omega 3

References

*) "Get in Your Best Shape Ever in 2014!" Harvard Health Blog RSS. N.p., 17 June 2013. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.

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