Gone Fishing: The Benefits of Fish Oils

My Italian grandmother (“La Nonna”) remembers a time when, during World War II in rural Italy, she and her sister were given a daily supplement of cod liver oil, as part of a public health campaign under Mussolini’s government.

While remembering the taste of her daily supplement she makes a face, also recalling that her sister loved it so much she would lick the spoon after her dose.  Unfortunately for Nonna, fish oil is back in a big way (but from fatty fish, not from cod liver).  Most naturopathic doctors would agree that, of all the dietary supplements available, supplementing the diet with fish oil is something that absolutely everyone can benefit from.  The bright side for Nonna, however, is that the once-fishy fish oil supplements now taste like lemons, so maybe Nonna will start licking her spoon too!

Our very animated nutrition professor, Dr. Phil Rouchotas, gave us a lecture on the benefits of fish oils.  He told us that fish oils contain the Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.  Both of these acids work to block inflammation pathways in the body and EPA specifically also works to, not only block inflammation, but produce anti-inflammatory chemicals.  Many researchers believe that inflammation is at the core of every disease, so the actions of these two chemicals are very important for preserving health.  Here are some of the scientifically-proven benefits of fish oils:

Cardiovascular health:

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Canada.  A variety of studies show that supplementing with a fish oil containing EPA and DHA reduces the risk of coronary artery disease and improves cardiovascular health.  It lowers the rate of sudden coronary death and, in addition, 2-4 g of combined EPA and DHA a day decreases triglyceride and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.  The American Heart Association recommends eating one fatty fish meal per day or taking a fish oil supplement to prevent heart disease.


In a study by the Lancet, it was found that women who consumed more fish oil gave birth to children that scored higher in terms of IQ, pro-social behavior, fine motor skills, communication, and social level. It is recommended that pregnant women consume 300mg of DHA daily.

Autoimmune disease (Irritiable Bowel Disease, arthritis, asthma):

A meta-analysis by Golderberg and Katz found that consuming fish oils decreased pain from arthritis, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS) and menstrual cramping.  This is due to the profound anti-inflammatory effects of fish oils, which decrease pain and inflammation of these diseases.

Psychiatry (depression, bipolar disorder, childhood ADHD):

Researchers have found a positive effect of high EPA fish oils on psychiatric illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder.  Scientists are not sure of the exact mechanism by which fish oil aids the brain but some speculate that the anti-inflammatory effects of fish oils reduce brain inflammation.  Inflammation in the brain may contribute to symptoms of depression and other psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, anxiety, aggression and anorexia.

A number of studies have shown that, when supplemented with a high EPA fish oil for 6 months, 40-50% of children with ADHD no longer meet the criteria for the disorder.

A high EPA fish oil has also shown great benefit in treating children with bipolar disorder and depression.  This is extremely beneficial considering a rise in the diagnosis of children with major psychiatric disorders and the worrying increase in prescriptions of side-effect-laden anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications for children.


Fish oil supplements come from five types of fatty fish, which one can remember by using the acronym SMASH (sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring).  For the above conditions, a high EPA fish oil (with an EPA:DHA ratio of 2:1 or greater) made from sardines and anchovies is recommended.  Fish oil must be stored in the fridge and consumed quickly, because the fat from these fish can go bad in a fairly short amount of time after opening.

***This article is not meant to be used as medical advice.  For treatment for any of the above conditions please consult your naturopathic doctor.


6 thoughts on “Gone Fishing: The Benefits of Fish Oils

  1. Hello! Speaking of fish oils, should we be concerned about mercury levels in fish? How often would you recommend eating fish-white and dark?

    1. I would recommend fish oil from prey fish such as sardines and anchovies. The mercury levels in these fish, especially oil extracts is extremely low. Limit predator fish, like tuna, to no more than 3 servings per week. Avoid large fish such as sharks to limit exposure to mercury!
      Thanks for commenting, Kendra!

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