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Asthma, depression may be helped by fish oil

June 06, 2005|Elena Conis

Fish oil supplements started gaining popularity a couple of decades ago when evidence began to emerge that diets rich in cold-water fish, like that of the Greenland Inuit, dramatically reduced the risk of heart disease. Fish oil, particularly when collected from fatty, cold-water fish (such as salmon), is an excellent, concentrated source of omega-3 fatty acids. Among the polyunsaturated omega-3s the oil contains are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These particular components -- and the oil in general -- are being studied for their ability to help manage conditions such as asthma and schizophrenia.

Uses: Fish oil supplements are often taken to prevent heart attacks and to treat rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, autoimmune diseases and depression.

Dose: Usually about three grams of EPA and DHA per day. Experts recommend splitting those three grams into separate doses, taken at mealtimes. Note that most fish oil supplements contain 30% to 50% EPA and DHA per capsule.

Precautions: Fish oil supplements can cause gas. Large doses can cause nausea, diarrhea and a fishy odor on the skin or taste in the mouth. They may also amplify the effects of blood-thinning drugs and should be avoided before surgery, because they hamper the blood's ability to clot.

Research: Evidence from human studies has provided good reason to believe that fish oil -- and fish in general -- can help maintain good cardiovascular health. Several human studies have shown that the oil can lower triglycerides, or fats in the blood that can lead to heart disease. Studies have also consistently shown that fish oil can lower blood pressure and help manage Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis. A large study conducted in Finland found lower rates of depression among frequent fish eaters; several other studies have shown omega-3 levels to be low in people suffering depression. So far, the evidence on asthma and diabetes is inconclusive (some studies have shown that in the absence of exercise, large doses of fish oil supplements can actually elevate blood sugar levels). Preliminary studies show that fish oil can help prevent some types of cancer and possibly Alzheimer's, but clinical evidence is still accumulating.

Dietary supplement makers are not required by the U.S. government to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Ask your healthcare provider for advice on selecting a brand.


-- Elena Conis

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