Fish Oil: VERY Important. Sometimes Harmful. Why?

fish oilA not-so-insightful observation is that fish oil is good for your health.

What’s less appreciated is that a variety of fish oil products really miss the mark with regards to what moves the needle for people’s well being.   In fact, once you understand how the different types work it’s hard to shake the feeling that some pointy-haired guy in a suit financed his 401(k) off those $14 bottles at your local drug store that you thought were a good deal.

Thank you.  Come again!

Fish oils come in different flavors and they do different things in your body.  You need certain types much more than others.  Some of them even counteract what the others do, making it a head-scratching decision to include both in the same bottle.   Why buy something that has the cure and the poison in the same pill?


 Fishy Arithmetic

The omega’s come in 5 varieties: 3,5,6,7 and 9.

Omega-5 is obscure and pomegranate is the only food that regularly supplies it. It’s up in the air whether or not it has any long-term benefit.

Omega-7 is fairly new, found in most omega-3 containing fish, and has shown promising health benefits.  Omega-7 is removed during the fish oil purification process, and this might be one reason omega fatty acids from fish are more beneficial than those you get from supplements.

Omega-9 is found everywhere in the standard american diet (olive oil, animal fat), and your body readily makes it when it needs more.  (Probably doesn’t happen very often for most people these days).    Supplementing with it is  silly for these reasons.

Omega 3 and 6 are the ones that are “essential”, which means your body can’t make them, and it’ll start to do screwy things if you become deficient in either.  Massive zits, panic attacks, puffy eyes, lazy swimmers and a feeble ticker are all collateral damage that comes from not getting enough omega-3 and 6.

However, that doesn’t mean you ought to supplement with both.  Not getting enough doesn’t do you any good, but having WAY TOO MUCH won’t help you out either.

That sense of irritability and UNCONTROLLABLE OLD TESTAMENT RAGE! when that asshole cuts you off on the freeway goes up a tick when you’ve got too much omega-6 gushing through the pipes.

More is not always better.

Most People Are Roided’ Up On Omega-6

Omega-6 is essential, but oh-so-present in the foods we eat.

Soybean, canola, corn, sunflower, and saffron oil are all ripe with omega-6.

It flows through the Standard American Diet like water through a drain pipe.

Omega-6 comes in three different flavors: alpha-linoleic, arachidonic, and adrenic acid.

Alpha-linoleic comes at you in massive quantities because it’s the primary fatty acid listed in the 5 oils above.  Your body uses it to form the outer layer on your skin that collects moisture and it’s very important for this reason.

It’s also used to make something called arachidonic acid, which is where things get interesting.

Arachidonic acid is used to make a funny sounding molecule called an eicosanoid.  These are signaling molecules that use an alphabet soup of pathways (The COX, LOX, and Two Smoking (Cyto) P’s) to let your body know if your immune system needs to charge in and take care of business.

This is really important, but not something you want in excess.  You don’t want your body constantly nuking hand grenades at itself.  You know that awful feeling of stomach pain you get after you eat something you’re allergic to?  It’s the eicosanoids that are sounding the alarm for the cavalry to come.

When this process runs amok you get things like arterial sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.  Not fun!

So here’s the wacky part.

Wanna know how much alpha-linoleic acid your body needs to get that “just-right” amount of eicosanoid-y paracrine-signalling goodness?

About 2-3 g/day.

Want to know what you’re getting when you unwrap that Sara Lee toaster pastry for breakfast?  About 5-6 g.

And that’s just for breakfast!

If you’re not paying attention it’s very easy to run up a tab of 20+ g/day of omega-6 by the time you go to bed.   This will take your body’s inflammatory tendencies and turbocharge them right into Ludicrous Speed:

So what does your body do with all that extra omega-6?  Most of it goes right on your tummy.

Hello man-boobs!

 You Need Omega-3

This takes us to omega-3.  It’s the only fatty acid you ought to be supplementing with.  It comes in three types:  alpha-linolenic, EPA, and DHA.

Alpha-linolenic is primarily used to make EPA and DHA.  EPA and DHA are what do the heavy-lifting inside your body.

Way back when, before soybean-oil was invented and the majority of our seafood wasn’t farmed people consumed omega-3’s and omega’6’s in about equal quantities.  That’s good because they balance each other inside the body.

Specifically, it’s EPA that blocks arachidonic acid from its inflammatory pathways.

DHA is used to build your organs.  That’s why it’s so important for infants.  However, it’s EPA that flows through your body and plays musical chairs with arachidonic acid at all the important physiological breakpoints.   If you have way more arachidonic acid than EPA there won’t be enough players in the game to make it work.

Well guess what?  Most people have circulating levels of EPA that are so low it can’t even be detected!

Meanwhile they’re drinking arachidonic acid through a fire-hose.  If you live like this long enough you’re spraying WD-40 on your body’s inflammatory and auto-immune tendencies.  Not good folks!

To sum up:

  • EPA and Arachidonic Acid balance each other in the body.
  • We consume way  too much Arachidonic Acid.
  • We consume way too little EPA.


The Omega 3-6-9: Ahem……..

So this brings me to a burr I’ve had up my craw for a while:  The omega 3-6-9 supplement.

Omega-9 is non-essential, omnipresent in the diet, and easily made by the body.  Not something you ought to supplement with.  Omega-6 is important, but consumed excessively due to food processing techniques.

It also undoes the benefits of supplementing with omega-3, which is the nutrient people really need.

For these reasons putting both in the same bottle makes no sense.

That’s like kicking someone in the nuts and then offering to massage their scrotum with an ice pack at the same time!

I’m guessing people like Omega 3-6-9’s because it makes them feel like they’re getting a lot for their money.  And the numbers somehow make it seem science-y……..or something.

But it’s literally the equivalent of taking the olive and soybean oil that you can buy by the gallon at Wal-Mart and then putting it into a pill and marking it up 100x.

The list of companies that sell these things is embarrassing.  Mass retailers can be forgiven because their customers only buy on price and probably don’t care much either way.  But there’s a large number of brands that advertise themselves as a premium option and are running around doing the same thing.

I say poppycock!

How to Get Fish Oil Like an Underpants Gnome

The best antidote to stupid products are customers that know better.

So here’s the Underpants Gnome version of how to right the situation:

1).  Avoid omega-3-6-9 products or something similar.  And penalize the company that sells them a few karma points for knowingly doing something so stupid.

2).  Try and get a fish oil product that’s at least 60-70% EPA/DHA.  The higher the better.  Most people need EPA more because it’s not stored in the body.  DHA sticks to your organs like glue.

3).  Profit!

It’s simple.  Follow these three rules and you’ll quickly become a fish oil savant.

There are a lot of different brands you can go with but my personal favorite is OmegaVia.  They offer a good pure EPA pill and don’t overdoit with DHA in their other formulas, which is a trap many other companies fall into.   They also have an insanely good company blog that’s the best source for all things Omega-3 related.  Highly recommended.


Bernstein, Adam, MD.  “Purified palmitoleic acid for the reduction of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein and serum lipids: A double-blinded, randomized, placebo controlled study”

Stipanuk, Martha, et. al. “Biochemical, Physiological & Molecular Aspects of Human Nutrition.”

2 thoughts on “Fish Oil: VERY Important. Sometimes Harmful. Why?”

  1. Jonathan,

    I have a question. I recently got diagnosed with high LDL cholesterol and was prescribed a statin and decided to take a fish oil supplement to help with my condition. I currently use Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega, which has 650 mg EPA and 450 mg DHA.

    What do you think of this product and do you think it’s appropriate for my situation? Thank you.


    1. Hi Rob,

      I think the Ultimate Omega is a good way to go. My only nit-to-pick is that you might want to go with something that has a higher concentration of EPA. EPA counteracts arachidonic acid, which is responsible for inflammation. High inflammation can be a possible cause for high cholesterol since cholesterol oxidizes fairly easily in the circulation, and oxidized cholesterol might not be recognized by your cells cholesterol receptors, thus causing an uptick in the numbers.

      Of course you should run this by your doctor as well. This is just my $0.02.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s