What are the benefits of fish oil pills?

Millions of people take fish oil supplements every day. Many believe they provide an ocean of benefits, especially for your heart, brain, and mood.

If you’ve been wondering — should I take fish oil supplements, keep reading to learn about the research on these popular supplements.

What Are Fish Oil Pills?

Fish oil pills contain two healthy omega-3 fats, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). These fats come from the tissues of fatty fish like:

  • Anchovies
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Trout

DHA and EPA are essential for good health. You need omega-3 fats to:

  • Build healthy cell membranes in all of your cells.
  • Maintain healthy blood vessels.
  • Regulate aspects of your heart, lungs, hormones, and immune function.
  • Regulate your response to inflammation.
  • Support brain development and health.
  • Support eye health.

According to the National Institutes of Health, fish oil supplements are the most commonly used nonvitamin/nonmineral health supplement. Both adults and children take fish oil for its potential health benefits.

Never Miss a Beat!

Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!

Message and data rates may apply. Text the word STOP to opt out and HELP for help. Click here to view the privacy and terms.

What Do Fish Oil Supplements Do?

Scientists have noticed that regularly eating fish can:

  • Help pregnant moms-to-be have healthier babies.
  • Lower your risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Reduce your risk of depression.
  • Reduce your risk of dying from heart disease.

Eating more fish can boost omega-3 levels in your blood, and a daily fish oil supplement can do the same. But it’s unclear whether higher omega-3 levels from a supplement provide the same benefits as eating fish. Or whether fish oil supplements offer extra advantages if you’re already a fish eater.

Most research on fish oil supplements and health conditions has had mixed results. Here’s what scientists currently know about what fish oil supplements may or may not do:

  • Cancer. Some cancer studies show higher omega-3 levels might reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer. But other studies don’t support this.
  • Cognitive health. Fish oil supplements may improve attention, processing speed, and memory in people with mild cognitive impairment. But they do not appear to benefit brain function in healthy people or those with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Depression. Some studies show slight improvements in depressive symptoms, but there’s not enough evidence to recommend them as a treatment for major depression.
  • Dry eye disease. Some (but not all) people who take fish oil supplements for dry eye disease have less severe symptoms.
  • Heart disease. Fish oil supplements might reduce the risk of dying from a heart attack. But they don’t appear to effectively reduce the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or irregular heartbeat.
  • Prenatal care. Pregnant people who take a fish oil supplement tend to have heavier babies. And babies are less likely to be born “very preterm” (before 34 weeks).
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Some studies show that fish oil supplements may reduce pain, stiffness, and inflammation in people with RA. Taking the supplements may also help reduce the amount of NSAIDs and other pain medicine needed to manage RA symptoms.
  • Triglycerides. High doses of fish oil can reduce triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood. High triglycerides can contribute to heart disease.

Should You Take Fish Oil Pills?

Fish oil supplements are safe for most people to take. But whether you’ll see any benefit from them depends on your overall health and risk factors like your diet and lifestyle. There is not enough evidence to recommend that everyone take them.

Fish oil supplements appear to have the most benefits for:

  • Anyone with existing heart disease or who has had a heart attack. The American Heart Association recommends 1,000 mg daily of EPA and DHA combined for these people.
  • People with high triglycerides.
  • People with mild cognitive impairment.
  • Pregnant women.
  • Those with rheumatoid arthritis.

The best advice is to ask your doctor about the potential benefits or whether there are any risks. They can also advise you on the best dose to take.

Generally, 1,000 mg of omega-3 (DHA and EPA combined) is a safe dose for most people. But you may need more or less depending on your health and reason for use.

Fish oil can interact with blood thinners and increase your risk of bleeding. So if you take blood thinners or anticoagulant medicines, it’s vital to talk to your doctor first. You should also avoid fish oil if you have a fish allergy.

Eating Fish vs. Taking Fish Oil Pills

Whether or not you’ll get any benefit from fish oil pills is up for debate. But one thing is sure — eating fish is good for your health. It comes packaged with ample omega-3 fats, plus protein, vitamins, and minerals to support good health.

Health experts agree that regularly eating fish is the best way to get more omega-3 fats. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating eight to 12 ounces of low-mercury fish each week, with an emphasis on fatty fish. Those highest in omega-3 fats (and low in mercury) include:

  • Salmon.
  • Herring.
  • Anchovies.
  • Sardines.
  • Wild mackerel (not king mackerel, which is high in mercury).
  • Sea bass.
  • Trout.

Non-Fish Sources of Omega-3 Fats

Wondering how to get your omegas if you can’t eat fish or take fish oil pills? Fortunately, your body can make some EPA and DHA from a type of fat called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). ALA comes from certain vegetables and seeds.

Your body can only convert about 15% of the ALA from your diet into EPA and DHA. So you won’t get nearly as much EPA and DHA as you would from eating fish. But you can still meet your omega-3 needs with a healthy diet and careful planning.

These foods are the best sources of ALA:

  • Flaxseed oil and flaxseeds.
  • Chia seeds.
  • Walnuts.
  • Canola oil.
  • Edamame.

If you need an extra boost, consider taking algae oil supplements. Algae is a plant-based source of EPA and DHA and probably the original source. Interestingly, fish aren’t naturally high in omega-3 fats; they get their omegas by eating algae.

Talk to a dietitian if you want help adding more omega-3 fats to your diet. They can help you boost your ALA, EPA, and DHA with foods first and recommend a supplement if needed.

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. LINK

National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth. LINK

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.