Person holding out fish oil pills

In the past 30 years, dietary fat has received a bad reputation. Ingesting high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease, liver failure, diabetes, and cancer. However, some fats are essential to good health. Omega-3 and omega-6 - the fatty acids found in fish oil - are unsaturated fats that the body requires for maintenance and disease prevention. Your body needs a balance of both omega-3's and -6's; deficiencies in either can lead to potential health complications. According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, the average American diet is heavily deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.

What is fish oil?
Fish oil is derived from the extraction of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from the skin of oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. Fish oil supplements can be purchased at most drug or health food stores in the form of oil or pills. The general recommendation of dietary omega-3 fatty acids for infants is 0.5 grams a day, while adults recommended daily value is 1.6 grams a day.

What are the benefits of fish oil?
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of your diet. Some benefits of having high levels of DHA and EPA include:

  • Decreased cholesterol and triglyceride blood levels
  • Decreased risk of heart disease and increased survival of patients with heart disease
  • Decreased stroke incidence
  • Decreased risk/progression of Alzheimer's disease and dementia
  • Might be beneficial for patients with diabetes
  • Beneficial for rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma
  • Decreased progression of depression and other mental illness

An omega-3 fatty acids deficiency can cause numerous neurological and visual developmental health problems in children. Breast milk is a great natural source of omega-3 fatty acids for babies. However, research on the effectiveness and safety of omega-3 supplements is still limited.

What are the side effects of fish oil?
According to the National Institute of Health, dietary supplements can cause negative side effects in some. Common side effects of fish oil include:

  • Bad breath
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea

More serious side effects of fish oil include:

  • Increased risk of bleeding
  • Hypotension; causing dizziness in patients
  • Irregular heartbeat in patients with a pacemaker
  • Decreased immune system
  • Allergic reaction

Interactions with certain medication may occur, such as:

  • Birth control may decrease the effectiveness of fish oil by lowering triglyceride blood levels
  • Fish oil may increase the effectiveness of hypertension medication, leading to a dangerous drop in blood pressure
  • Fish oil may increase the activity of certain anti-coagulant medications, which may increase the risk of hemorrhaging

Fish oil is a supplement and, for the most part, is not regulated by the FDA. Look for fish oil from a reputable company with a label that indicates it's been purified to eliminate toxins such as mercury, PCBs, and dioxins. Fish oil extracted from cod liver can be toxic and should be avoided.

Should you take fish oil supplements?
No supplement is absolutely necessary if you obtain enough of the nutrient in your normal diet. Talk to your health care provider about whether or not fish oil supplements are appropriate for you and your family members. Follow these tips for taking fish oil supplements safely:

  • Take with plenty of water and food
  • Split daily doses so that they are taken with every meal to reduce stomach problems
  • Use mints or mouthwash to mask possible bad breath caused by fish oil