The Healing Power of Fish and
the Benefits of Fish Oil

So much has been said about the benefits of fish oil that it might be confusing to wade through the pile of information that it's out there. Well, I've done it for you.  So sit back and enjoy reading all about it.

On this page you'll find these subjects discussed:

Why is fat essential in our diet

Fatty fish like salmon is essential for health

You might miss out on the health benefits  of fish oil because you've heard that fat is not good for you and is something to avoid. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our bodies absolutely need fat to live. But the type of fat we eat is what makes the difference.

Our body uses the fat we eat as a concentrated source of energy as well as building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones. Good quality fats are also necessary in the diet because they carry the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K to the body's tissues.

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

omega-3 fatty acids

Fats and oils, including fish oil, are all made from fatty acids. Our bodies are also very good at manufacturing fats (for example, cholesterol). But some fats, known as essential fatty acids (EFAs), cannot be made by the body, they have to be supplied by the diet and we cannot live without them.

The main two types of essential fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6:

Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly concentrated in fish and fish oils, as well as in some land plants - flaxseed, hempseed, and walnuts.

Omega-6 fatty acids are concentrated in land based vegetable oils such as corn, safflower and sunflower oil, as well on animal foods raised on land-based feeds.

By weight, more EFAs are required by the body than any other type of fat or other nutrient that is considered essential. Every single cell, organ and tissue requires a daily supply of EFAs.

But how can fatty acids keep us healthy or make us sick?

Eicosanoids and Their Effect on Inflammation

It is now well known that numerous bodily processes, such as blood clotting and inflammation, are largely controlled by very potent hormone-like substances - prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes- collectively called eicosanoids and the raw material from which these substances are made is the fatty acids from food.

Some of them encourage inflammation and others turn it down.

Not surprisingly, the type and quantities of specific fatty acids that go in determine the amount and type of eicosanoids that come out. They can be biologically friendly or dangerous.

So through the type of fats we eat, we can turn inflammation up or down.

You Are The Fat You Eat

different types of oils

Very quickly after you eat fat, it shows up in the membranes of your cells ready to be used by your body. It's really like building a house, if you use good bricks and materials you'll build a strong and reliable structure that will stand the elements and the test of time; if you use inadequate materials, you'll have to continually do repairs and replace damaged parts.

So when you eat land-based omega-6 fatty acids from a piece of meat or corn oil, they tend to be changed into a substance called arachidonic acid, which encourages formation of eicosanoids that are highly inflammatory, stimulate immune responses, promote blood stickiness and blood vessel constriction, headaches and even growth of malignant tumours.

Fat from fish and fish oil, on the other hand, is radically different and more benign. Its omega-3 fatty acids tend to be converted into substances that break up undesirable blood clots, dilate blood vessels, fight off joint pain by reducing inflammation and cell damage. The benefits of fish oil are really many.

Since food is made of a mixture of omega-3's and omega-6's, obviously these two fatty acids are continually giving contradictory instructions to cells. Which prevails - those for health or those for disease - depends on the ratio of the two fatty acids in your diet and hence in your cells.

If your cells are flooded with omega-6 fatty acids, the resulting oversupply of overactive prostaglandins will create chaos, generating disease. If you have sufficient omega-3 fatty acids, they can check or cool down the arachidonic engine that is spewing out disease-producing eicosanoids.

Our intake of fatty acids should look more like this diagram:

diagram of different proportions of fatty acids in our diet

Benefits of Fish Oil and Its Advantages over Omega-6 Fatty Acids

So far we've learned that our cells are a battleground where omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete for supremacy. And which one wins day after day determines the state of our health. Looking at the general state of health in Western countries, which one do you think is winning?

It seems evident that we get far too much omega-6 and far too little omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. Americans, for example, eat at least 10 to 15 times more omega-6's than omega-3's.

By contrast, Eskimos, who are known for their very low rates of chronic disease, eat three time more omega-3's than omega-6's, primarily due to their high fish consumption.

In recent studies researchers have found that omega-6's comprised 80% of the unsaturated fatty acids circulating in Americans' cell membranes. In comparison, omega-6 levels were closer to 65% in the French, 50% in the Japanese and only 22% in Greenland Eskimos.

Today's fish-deficient diets leave our cells starved of marine oil and overburdened by modern processed oils and meat fats, that are causing a lot of damage to our cells. This, according to many researchers, can throw cells into major malfunction, precipitating our current epidemic of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis.

Obviously, human bodies require a minimum dose of omega-3 fatty acids and not getting them can bring a lot of health problems. The more we enjoy the benefits of fish oil the fewer health problems we have.

Disorders That Fish Oil Can Alleviate or Prevent

omega-3's are found in many foods
  • Rheumatoid arthritis - Reduces joint pain, soreness, stiffness, fatigue.
  • Heart attack - Cuts the odds of subsequent heart attacks by one-third.
  • Clogged arteries - Keeps arteries open and clear - eaters of fatty fish have less atherosclerosis. Reduces risk of re-closure of arteries after angioplasty surgery by 40 to 50%.
  • High blood pressure - Eliminates or reduces the need for pharmaceutical pressure-lowering drugs.
  • Ulcerative colitis (inflammatory bowel disease) - In one test, eating 4.5 grams of fish oil a day - equal to that in 7 oz. (or 200g) of mackerel - for eight months depressed disease activity by 56%. Another test reduced need for prednisone, a steroid, by one-third.
  • Psoriasis - Reduces itching, redness, pain in some patients and cuts the amount of medication needed.
  • Multiple sclerosis - Helps reduce symptoms in some patients.
  • Asthma - Curtails the attacks in some individuals.
  • Migraine headaches - Lessens severity and frequency in some sufferers.

How Much Omega-3's Do We Need?

If you typically eat 2,000 calories a day and you don't have any serious health condition, you need at least 650 milligrams daily of omega-3 fatty acids, say experts, to keep healthy.

You can get that much by eating one of the following each day:

  • 1.0 oz. (28 g) fresh mackerel
  • 1.4 oz. (40 g) canned sardines
  • 1.6 oz. (45 g) pickled herring
  • 1.7 oz. (48 g) fresh salmon
  • 1.9 oz (53 g) canned salmon
  • 2.0 oz. (56 g) fresh tuna
  • 3.4 oz. (96 g) canned albacore white tuna
  • 3.5 oz. (100 g) swordfish
  • 7.0 oz. (198 g) grouper
  • 12 oz. (340 g) haddock

If we have any health conditions, we are told, we need to increase the amount of fish oil that we consume, even twice or three times that amount.

What About Mercury in Fish?

Are you not fully enjoying the benefits of fish oil because you've heard about the presence of heavy metals in fish?

It's true that mercury is a problem in many large predator fish, such as shark, swordfish, and some larger species of tuna. There's no doubt that these fish accumulate mercury from their prey and the larger the fish the highest the concentration of mercury.

Mercury can accumulate in the human body, and too much can cause neurological problems, especially in fetuses and young children.

So the question is...

... How can we get the most health benefits from fish with the least hazards?

To be able to enjoy the benefits of fish oil I've found useful to follow these tips:

  • Choose saltwater ocean fish over freshwater fish from streams, rivers and lakes, which are more likely to be polluted.
  • Choose smaller fish over large fish. Small fish, like sardines, have had fewer years of exposure to pollution, so they contain much less heavy metals.
  • Eat a variety of fish instead of just one type. This reduces the risk of overdoing on one contaminated source.
  • Don't eat fish skin, which is a prime depository of toxic chemicals.
  • There's no need to overdo it. Most studies suggest that regularly eating fish two or three times a week can have a tremendous impact on preventing heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.
  • A special caution for pregnant women: forgo fish from inland waters and restrict swordfish, shark and fresh tuna to once a month. Eat smaller fish two or three times a week.
  • If you are seriously concerned about fish safety try taking fish oil supplements from reputable companies, making sure they are free from contaminants.

How To Get the Benefits of Fish Oil In Your Diet

      Serving Suggestions:

grilled salmon with salad
  • Combine leftover cold salmon with greens and vegetables for a delicious salad.
  • Or place between two pieces of wholemeal bread, garnish with mustard and enjoy an easy-to-make yet exceptionally delicious sandwich.
  • For a twist on scrambled eggs, combine eggs with smoked salmon or sardines and spring onions.
  • Combine 1/2 pound/250 grams silken tofu and 1/2 pound/250 grams baked or smoked salmon in a blender with 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1/2 cup chopped spring onions, and 1/3 cup parsley or dill to create a delicious dip. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Serve baked salmon or trout over wholemeal pasta. Top with a sauce made of 4 tablespoons olive oil, 1/4 cup fresh chopped herbs, 1/4 cup lemon peel, 1/2 cup sliced spring onions and black pepper to taste.

Supplements Suggestions

If you prefer to enjoy the benefits of fish oil in supplement form, here are some supplements that I've found particularly good.

These premium oils, sourced from ecologically clean seas, undergo selective absorption of pollutants like heavy metals, dioxides and PCBs to ensure purity.

And Krill are carefully sourced and harvested from pristine Antarctic seas, low in pollutants like heavy metals and dioxins. Antarctic Krill also carries Marine Stewardship Council certification, which ensures sustainability.

Read more about Antarctic Krill Oil
Read more about EPA Marine Fish Oil

Related Articles in The Fish Oil Series:

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