Updated: Nov 10, 2019
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.
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.
What about fish oil?
Now that you have an idea what inflammation is and why it's such a bad thing when it's out of control, what about fish oil?
Doesn't fish oil have the necessary properties to quench the fire, so to speak, of excess inflammation.
Well yes... and no.
Fish oil, specifically EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) have anti-inflammatory properties and they are essential for decreasing inflammation but that's only part of the picture.
If the body is under a state of high oxidative stress, or free radical production, then fish oil, especially DHA can be converted into a group of molecules called neuro isoprostanes. Neuro isoprostanes have been linked to neurodegenerative disease like Azheimer's and Parkinson's diseases as well as multiple sclerosis.
So you may be taking your fish oil diligently but if your body is in a state of high oxidative stress, you could be contributing to future neurodegenerative disease without calming your inflammation. Addressing oxidative stress and inflammation through a diet high in anti-oxidants is the best way to make sure that you're beating inflammation with your fish oil instead of contributing to disease.
Anti-oxidants like vitamin C, E, selenium, and the carotenoids are essential for reducing oxidative stress. Foods high in these crucial nutrients include: fresh vegetables and fruits like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, turnip greens, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, and bananas. Including nuts and seeds like almonds, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, and hazel nuts is also beneficial. Great food sources of selenium include chicken, turkey, eggs, tuna, oats, and brown rice.
In addition to diet exercise is key to increasing the efficacy of fish oil and reducing inflammation. Do you remember how macrophages take white blood cells that are "destined to die" to the lymph for removal? That process won't function optimally if the lymph system isn't engaged.
The lymph system isn't like the circulatory system in that it doesn't have the heart pumping lymph fluid throughout the body. Lymphatic fluid is squeezed through the body when you move your muscles. So the best way to engage the lymph system is through exercise. As the lymph system is engaged, more dying white blood cells will be removed from your body and you will have less inflammation.
You can also stimulate the lymph system through dry brushing and lymphatic massage.
Is fish oil a great option when it comes to reducing inflammation? You bet! Is it the only thing needed to get rid of inflammation? Not a chance! Modern society has made the "pill for an ill" mindset hard to break for the majority of people suffering from chronic disease.
The truth is that with chronic disease, lifestyle: diet, stress management, sleep, emotions, physical activity, etc is just as important and supplements and medication. Sometimes even more so.
If you're suffering from chronic disease, don't put all your fish, I mean eggs, in one basket with fish oil. A more permanent solution would be working with your naturopathic physician to help you become the healthiest you possible!
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4.Miller E, Morel A, Saso L, Saluk J. Isoprostanes and neuroprostanes as biomarkers of oxidative stress in neurodegenerative diseases. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2014;2014:572491.