Omega-3 fatty acids are a class of “essential” polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) often heralded for their ability to produce a “healthier” omega-3:6 ratio. In my last post, we found that fish oil supplements may actually do more harm than good and that the important thing is to reduce the overall PUFA content in the diet. In this post, we will dig a little deeper to explore the specific risks and benefits of omega-3.
Omega-3 opposes omega-6 and relieves its highly detrimental effects; however, this does not mean that omega-3 is beneficial on its own.1
The Claimed Benefits of Omega-3
So does the omega-3 have some benefit? There is a tremendous amount of information out there on the potential benefits of adding omega-3 to the diet. To minimize your confusion, here is a short list of the best-supported claims available:
- It contributes to heart health by lowering cholesterol in the blood.
- It is a necessary building block for the cell’s lipid bilayer membrane.
- It increases brain health by contributing to the myelination of nerve axons.
- It reduces immune system activity and is thought to be anti-inflammatory.
The Real Risks and “Benefits” of Omega-3
But are these claims actually true? As for heart health, the “good news” is that omega-3 does seem to lower cholesterol. However, the bad news is that it does not reduce the underlying tissue damage that caused the high cholesterol; all the omega-3 does is inhibit the body’s healthy production of cholesterol. So the body is in fact more open to the damage.2 If you read my previous post on cholesterol, you know that this response plays an important role in healing and protecting the body. So removing the cholesterol alone does not reduce the risk for heart disease and may actually be quite harmful.3,4
Omega-3 causes negative effects in other areas of health as well. In addition to potentially contributing to heart disease, the evidence shows that adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet may also:
- Reduce liver function5
- Contribute to nerve dysfunction and degenerative diseases6,7
- Compromise the nerves’ ability to resist stress8
- Suppress the immune system9
As it turns out, all of the proposed benefits of omega-3 are in fact just short-sighted interpretations of the damage it is causing. By harming the liver, cholesterol production is reduced. By accumulating in the cell boundary, the tissue is more unstable and easily damaged. By accumulating around the nerve, the nerve function is compromised and resistance to damage is decreased. And the anti-inflammatory effect is brought on by suppressing the immune system in a way that compromises the body’s ability to heal and resist infection.
So think twice before you swallow that omega-3 supplement, especially if you are at risk for any of the above health issues. Interested in peeling back the curtain on more health and nutrition fads? Sign up for my newsletter.
- Schmitz G, Ecker J. The opposing effects of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids. Proq Lipid Res 47, no. 2 (Mar 2008): 147-155. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18198131.
- Saraswathi V, Gao L, Morrow JD, et al. Fish oil increases cholesterol storage in white adipose tissue with concomitant decreases in inflammation, hepatic steatosis, and atherosclerosis in mice. J Nutr 137, no. 7 (Jul 2007): 1776-1782. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17585030.
- Smit MJ, Temmerman AM, Wolters H, et al. Dietary fish oil-induced changes in intrahepatic cholesterol transport and bile acid synthesis in rats. J Clin Invest 88, no. 3 (Sep 1991): 943-951. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC295492/.
- Grundt H, Nilsen DW, Mansoor MA, et al. Increased lipid peroxidation during long-term intervention with high doses of n-3 fatty acids (PUFAs) following an acute myocardial infarction. Eur J Clin Nutr 57, no. 6 (Jun 2003): 793-800. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12792664.
- Borkman M, Chisholm DJ, Furler SM, et al. Effects of fish oil supplementation on glucose and lipid metabolism in NIDDM. Diabetes 38, no. 10 (Oct 1989): 1314-1319. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2676659.
- Kisos H, Pukaß K, Ben-Hur T, et al. Increased neuronal α-synuclein pathology associates with its accumulation in oligodendrocytes in mice modeling α-synucleinopathies. PLoS One 7, no. 10 (Oct 2012): e46817. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3471961/#!po=7.14286
- Lansbury PT. PUFAs and neurodegeneration (17 references). Lansbury Research Site. http://lansbury.bwh.harvard.edu/pufa_and_neurodegeneration.htm
- Filaire E, Massart A, Portier H, et al. Effect of 6 Weeks of n-3 fatty-acid supplementation on oxidative stress in Judo athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 20, no. 6 (Dec 2010): 496-506. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21116022.
- Shaikh SR, Edidin M. Immunosuppressive effects of polyunsaturated fatty acids on antigen presentation by human leukocyte antigen class I molecules. J Lipid Res 48, no. 1 (Jan 2007): 127-38. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/17074926.