Omega 3 Fish Oil Supplements: What to Buy and What to Avoid

Omega 3 Fish Oil Supplements: What to Buy and What to Avoid
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The Benefits of Fish Oil Supplements

While anecdotal evidence praises fish oil for helping with everything from gingivitis to migraines, some benefits are backed with more substantial research than others. Fish oil has been shown to be so effective at lowering triglyceride levels that the FDA has approved a prescription medication made from fish oil’s omega 3 fatty acids for this purpose. Studies point to fish oil’s “likely effectiveness” at preventing heart disease. Other benefits include lowering high blood pressure, strengthening bones, reduction in severity of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, menstrual pain, and depression (although in some individuals, fish oil may make depression worse.) There is compelling but inconclusive evidence that fish oil may prevent cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and improve cognitive function, among many other conditions.

Side Effects

Fish oil supplements may cause stomach or intestinal upsets like belching, heartburn, nausea, or loose bowel movements. You may also experience rashes or nosebleeds. Take these supplements with food to reduce digestive maladies. Some people freeze their fish oil, because this slows the breakdown of the capsule until it’s clear from your stomach. Purchasing an enteric-coated product (most are) will also reduce this risk.

The Risks

Fish oil tends to thin blood, so if you have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood-thinning medications, talk to your doctor before taking this or any supplement. Taking high doses -over three grams a day- is thought to be unsafe and could compromise your immune system and your blood’s ability to clot. Some studies have shown that birth control pills can lessen the positive effects of fish oil on triglyceride levels. Furthermore, do not take these supplements if you are allergic to fish or seafood.

Choosing The Best Supplement

Because mercury and other heavy metal contamination are a concern in a lot of inexpensive supplements, look for a brand that uses small fish like anchovies, herring, and sardines. These fish are high on the food chain and therefore, do not have the concentration of heavy metals that larger fish, like tuna, get from eating lots of little fish. Some brands extract omega 3s from krill, which is a crustacean even lower on the food chain than the small fish.

Look For This On The Label

1. Species-specific ingredients. The label should identify the fish used, instead of just calling the product “marine lipids” or “fish oil.” Some manufacturers hide tuna, whale blubber and seal blubber under this classification.

2. Verification by an independent, third-party laboratory. Call the manufacturer if this is not evident on the label.

3. Vitamin E. Since fish oil spoils rather quickly (and consuming rancid oils could introduce toxic free-radicals to your body), look for a brand that contains a small amount of vitamin E, a natural preservative. (It might also be called “tocopherols” or “mixed tocopherols.”)

4. Enteric coating and flavorings. These will help you avoid the dreaded “fish burps.”

5. Overblown or misleading claims. Calling the product “pharmaceutical grade” is meaningless.

Other Important Fish Oil Facts

The omega 3 fish oil supplements sold in drug stores and pharmacies may be cheaper than those in health food stores, but you do get what you pay for. Health food store brands are more likely to have higher concentrations of EPA and DHA, the omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil.

Whichever brand you choose, keep your supplements in a cool, dry place to help retard spoilage.


Photo courtesy of


MedlinePlus, “Fish Oil”, “Fish Oil Supplements: Finding the One That’s Right for You”