Fish oil - or snake oil?
October 8, 2013 5:50 AM   Subscribe

Recently I was talking to someone about health related issues and she mentioned that she took fish oil ending with the broad statement that it helps with about everything. I have read over the years about how fish oil helps with menopause (which I'm beginning) and ADHD (which I have) and just about every kind of condition known. I saw a previous mefi about the inefficacy for fish oil on depression but wondered how it relates to other conditions. Googling shows all sorts of results, both positive and negative and as I am not medically inclined I'm wondering if there is any benefit to it or is better to steer clear? Anecdotal evidence too please.
posted by lasamana to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One of the problems of a question like this is that anecdotal evidence will be strongly flavored by the placebo effect, which again is so strong we need to have very demanding controls in place for it, it really be that just thinking something works will kinda sorta make it work.

That being said, when I'm taking fish oil regularly, my hair is glossier and stronger and less prone to split ends and my nails are stronger and less brittle.
posted by The Whelk at 6:00 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For vitamins and supplements, I tend to use this chart which plots the efficacy of certain supplements for certain conditions, and links to the studies from which the information is derived.

If you filter by "compound," Fish Oil appears at least three times on there, in different locations for different symptoms.
posted by griphus at 6:01 AM on October 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

Best answer: An article on the Nature site, but written by someone at Scientific American.
Fish Oil Supplement Research Remains Murky : Polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids are important parts of a healthy diet, but supplement studies have numerous sampling problems.

TL;DR. The more recent meta-studies (take all the studies you can find and lump them together) show no significant effects but its complicated.
posted by shothotbot at 6:44 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Anecdotal stuff: fish oil has kept me crapping regularly while pregnant.

It also makes my burps taste like salmon cakes. Your burpage may vary.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:18 AM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Balancing the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 oils seems to be quite frequently cites as important. One explanation - your diet, according to the theory, probably contains too way too much 6 and not enough 3. Diets of nations such as Japan, where lots of sea food is eaten - are better. The suggestion is therefore that you should seek to both increase your 3 intake and reduce your 6. Taking combined supplements which have both oils is therefore a bad idea.
posted by rongorongo at 7:25 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Related to the above: since the perceived risk of a 6/3 fat imbalance in the diet is cited as causing inflammatory problems - such as heart disease - you should be aware that there are competing theories to this cause. For example the proliferation of dwarf wheat in our diet (link is to a lecture about this by William Davis). There is, of course, no reason why both explanations should not be correct.
posted by rongorongo at 7:40 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I did some quick research on this awhile ago, since my adhd doc was very insistent that I start taking omega 3/6/9. It seemed like results range from no effect to small benefits in all sorts of diseases, depending on the study. Supplement studies tend to be pretty bad, in general.

But - they aren't outrageously expensive, may help, and they aren't likely to hurt anything, so I take them when I remember (I went for fish oil containing omega 3, in case the omega 6 thing is true, although I couldn't find any actual scientific evidence for the imbalance theory in an admittedly brief search). I don't eat much fish anyway (I do try) so it makes sense to use them to balance out my diet a bit.

Several family members have mentioned that omega 3 seems to help with joint pain and adhd symptoms (both run in the family), fwiw. It may easily be coincidence but I've had both joint issues and worse than usual adhd symptoms for a few months after I ran out of the fish oil and forgot to get more. It's also been an usually stressful summer though so that's probably the bigger factor. I'm very conscious of the placebo effect (like any scientist) but I'm also pragmatic about it - if it improves anything due to the placebo effect, that still sounds like a win to me, when there are so few drawbacks.
posted by randomnity at 9:20 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I started taking fish oil on the advice of my doctor to increase my HDL ("good" cholesterol). By objective measure of my routine bloodwork, it has done so, by 47% over a 1-year period. I have also noticed that my joints ache less, but that could be due to the fact that I've lost 70 pounds over the same period. You could probably just eat a few more servings of fish instead of red meat and get similar effects.
posted by bedhead at 9:39 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anecdotal evidence: When I added fish oil to my diet (I take enough fish oil to constitute 2 grams of EPA+DHA, twice a day, preferably with food), my doctor and I were able to reduce my Wellbutrin SR dosage from 300 mg a day (the maximum dose) to 150 mg a day. That was five or six years ago, and it continues to be effective.

(In addition to the fish oil, I also find Vitamin B, Vitamin D, and an iron supplement helpful for the depression; they help improve my baseline energy level, and it seems my brain interprets fatigue/low energy as meaning "depression getting out of control, time to pull the covers over my head.")
posted by Lexica at 7:51 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From the department of anecdotal evidence: about 10 years ago when I had problems with tendonitis in the elbow and forearm, I started taking a cocktail of glucosamine, flaxseed oil, lyprinol, anti-inflammatories and quite possibly something else I'm forgetting. Hard to separate out the effects of one of the things, also from behavioural actions (eg using arm less, especially for mouse-work on computer) but it did seem to help.

If you get the fishy burps from fish oil, flaxseed oil has the same stuff (omega 3/6/9) (9 is less common in many fish oils) and doesn't tend to result in as many burps. Available as liquid or in capsules. Also vegetarian, if that matters.

And the chart griphus linked to is great. I have been using that for years and hooking other people on it too.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:43 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Forgot to put in link to flaxseed vs fish oil comparison. Oops.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:49 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The page on fish oil is probably the best resource for what you're seeking. Scroll down to the human effect matrix and you can see what effects fish oil has been investigated for, the quality of evidence for each effect, and a brief summary of the effect, and then you can click through to the studies.

For e.g. depression, you'll find:
Fish oil supplementation has been noted to be comparable to pharmaceutical drugs (fluoxetine) in majorly depressed persons, but this may be the only cohort that experiences
a reduction of depression. There is insufficient evidence to support a reduction of depressive symptoms in persons with minor depression (ie. not diagnosed major depressive disorder)
With 22 studies linked, including this 2011 meta-analysis:
CONCLUSIONS: Supplements containing EPA ≥ 60% of total EPA + DHA, in a dose range of 200 to 2,200 mg/d of EPA in excess of DHA, were effective against primary depression. Translational studies are needed to determine the mechanisms of EPA's therapeutic benefit.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:47 AM on October 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ben Goldacre, who has written a few books about things like supplements and the drug industry's take on them, is pretty negative on fish oil. He keeps a blog, and it's got a category about fish oil stories in the (UK) news which you might find useful reading.
posted by spielzebub at 8:59 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My PsyDoc recommended a very specific O3 fish oil (Nordic Naturals brand) when I couldn't tolerate the first five SSRIs I tried. He was a bit woo, and recommended a whole host of supplements (5HPT, NAC, SamE, B and D vitamins, etc.). The O3 was the only one I've stuck with three years later (and D, particularly when I don't get enough sun). I've made it through three winters without disabling Seasonal Affective Disorder, so I actually sort of don't care if it's just the placebo effect.

But to be honest, the real reason I am religious about taking that particular brand of O3 is that I've repeatedly tried either switching to a less expensive brand (even those made using molecular distillation) or skipping a day or two of taking the O3. Within 24 hours, my skin starts breaking out, including a few painful deep cysts. When I take the O3, my skin immediately starts to clear. This has happened enough times that I'm sure it's not a placebo effect. (And I'm a little bitter about it, because dammit, the Costco O3 is SO much cheaper. It *should* work just as well.)
posted by instamatic at 4:23 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

A friend started taking halibut oil, and fish oil. The former because of vitamin d deficiency.
They used to have creaky wrist joints etc, they could shake them their wrist up and down, and it'd make an audible creaking noise.

A month or two after taking the oils each morning, I saw them, and they said - check this out.
No more creaking.

Not sure if that was the vitamin D, or literally the oil on the joints, but I heard from someone else something that suggested it was the latter.

So yeah, fish oil fixes squeaky humans?
posted by Elysum at 3:29 PM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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