Calming Inflammation: Is Fish Oil Enough?

Updated: Oct 28

Fish oil supplements are very popular these days. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), approximately 19 million adults in the U.S take fish oil supplements daily. In fact, when placed on a list comparing the use of fish oil to other natural supplements, it easily comes in first place with glucosamine and chondroitin coming in a very far second.

You can see the list of the most popular natural supplements taken by U.S. adults and kids according to the NCCIH here.

It's easy to see that fish oil is popular and for very good reasons. Fish oil has been suggested for all sorts of ailments from cardiovascular disorders like high blood pressure and high LDL cholesterol to helping with mood disorders like depression.

Research seems to back up many of these claims as well.

For example, fish oil has been shown to decrease high triglycerides[1], proven beneficial for mild to moderate depression and bipolar disorder[2], and even shown to reduce abdominal fat[3].

Perhaps the biggest benefit of fish oil is its anti-inflammatory properties. It's almost common knowledge (at least among naturopathic physicians and natural health practitioners) that if you have inflammation, you need to take fish oil. I'll admit that I'm the first person to suggest getting more fatty fish and/or a fish oil supplement into a client's diet who is suffering from inflammation.

But is fish oil as effective against inflammation as it seems to be?

Inflammation in the body

Inflammation is such a bad word in natural medicine these days. While you're not likely to hear "you have inflammation" as a diagnosis from a conventional medicine practitioner, you can be sure that it is a part of the picture if you're suffering from a chronic disease.

But inflammation wasn't intended to be something horrible to be avoided at all costs. In fact, inflammation can be beneficial, when it occurs as a response to a foreign invader in the body.

In a normal situation, inflammation occurs when your body is attacked by a foreign invader like bacteria. Certain white blood cells leave the blood stream and enter into your body tissues. Once this occurs, the while blood cells can phagocytize (or engulf and eat), the foreign bacteria. This stops the bacteria from multiplying and wrecking havoc on the body. Once the bacteria has been ingested and broken down, the white blood cells send out signals (cytokines) to the blood stream for other cells called macrophages to clean up the debris and take it to the lymph system where it helps get rid of the toxins.

Now in normal physiology, this process is fairly straightforward. The white blood cells that send out the cytokines, stop doing so once they are engulfed by the macrophages and taken to the lymph system.

The problem occurs when the white blood cells keep sending out inflammatory cytokines without macrophages engulfing them. This creates chaos in the body because when white blood cells have engulfed and digested a foreign invader, they have set time limit before they themselves die due to programmed cell death.

Essentially, these white blood cells get rid of the foreign invader and then mark themselves for destruction to get rid of all of the foreign invaders DNA, RNA, and/or protein residues left from digestion.

If macrophages don't engulf these white blood cells which are marked for digestion and removal, then then degrade and leak all of their contents into the surrounding tissues. The contents of these white blood cells contains some nasty stuff like the bacterial debris referenced above and the white blood cells own digestive chemicals.

This further damages the body tissues which causes more white blood cells to leave the blood stream, enter the damaged tissues, and send out more inflammatory cell signals.

Think of out of control inflammation like a really crowded rowdy party where the food has run out and guests still keep on coming. You just know that something bad is going to happen.