Growth in the dietary supplement category over the past few years has skyrocketed with over 60,000 products available to consumers worldwide. A dietary supplement is a product that contains an ingredient intended to add further nutritional value to (i.e., to supplement) the diet, and may be one or more of the following:
• a vitamin
• a mineral
• an herb or other botanical
• an amino acid
• a concentrate, tincture, or extract
In the U.S.A., the major regulatory driver within this product category has been the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. Under this Act, supplements are presumed to be safe and do not need FDA approval before they are marketed. Supplements are regulated by the FDA as food under the Center for Safe Food and Nutrition (CSFAN), and bear a nutrition label. However, supplements are used by many like medications to treat medical conditions, and as such may have side effects and interactions that need to be managed. With regard to prevention, supplements are not a replacement for good nutrition or a healthy lifestyle including restorative sleep, exercise, emotional, social, and spiritual wisdom (Proverbs 3:1-8).
According to a survey by Bailey, et al. (JAMA Intern Med 2013;173:355), polls showed people used supplements to improve their health, to improve bone density, to lower total cholesterol levels, boost immunity, or manage joint pain from osteoarthritis. Respondents reported they took multiple vitamins, calcium, and fish oil most often, without the recommendation of a health care professional. That practice may be unsafe!
Anti-Inflammatory Fish Oil Supplements
The USDA’s 2013 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults keep daily fat intake to a maximum of 20%-35% of total calories. Most of this fat should come from mono- and polyunsaturated fats (i.e., fish, nuts, vegetable oils).
Omega 6 and omega 3 are two essential (polyunsaturated) fatty acids (EFAs) that we must obtain from our diet. At this time, clinical studies supporting any omega 3 health benefits are inconclusive, with the exception of prescription strength Lovaza (omega 3) which is FDA approved for lowering very high triglyceride levels.
The typical American diet is rich in omega 6 essential fatty acids and lacking in omega 3 essential fatty acids. However, many foods contain both. There are three main omega 3 constituents in nature, namely eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is a precursor to EPA and DHA. Our body does not metabolize ALA into EPA and DHA very well.
Foods rich in omega 6 essential fatty acids in order of decreasing content include sunflower oil, corn oil, wheat germ oil, safflower margarine, sesame oil, walnuts, avocado oil, almond oil, peanuts, peanut butter, and palm oil.
Foods rich in various types of omega 3 essential fatty acids in order of decreasing content include salmon oil, sardine oil, cod liver oil, canola oil, herring, shrimp, krill oil, flaxseed oil, and walnuts (ALA).
When purchasing fish oil-based products, make sure you check with the manufacturer to ensure they have been tested for mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other unwanted contaminants. This kind of information rarely appears on the label.
Check to see how much EPA and DHA are in that 1,000 mg dose of fish oil to assess product value before purchase. You should look for EPA and DHA as your active ingredients! If the amount of EPA plus DHA combined is 30% or less of the total dose (i.e. 300 mg in a 1,000 mg capsule) you are not getting the quality you desire for your money. Most of the rest of that dose is typically composed of omega 6 fatty acids or omega 3’s we cannot metabolize (i.e. ALA).
There are no established dietary reference intake (DRI) standards for DHA or EPA daily consumption. The Institute of Medicine suggests an intake of 160 milligrams of DHA and EPA combined each day. The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish at least two times each week, which is equal to about 1,250 mg DHA and EPA each day.
The European Food Safety Agency recommends 250 mg/day EPA and DHA combined for adults or 1-2 servings/week of oily fish. The World Health Organization recommends 1-2 servings of oily fish/week providing 200 mg – 500 mg/serving of EPA and DHA for the general population to prevent ischemic stroke and coronary heart disease.
Pregnant women require 200 mg of DHA daily to support fetal development. The Environmental Protection Agency advises women of childbearing age, nursing moms, and young children to consume only 2 servings per week of sardines or salmon and avoid tuna due to the methyl mercury content.
There are three grades of fish oil on the market, namely cod liver oil, health food grade fish oil, and pharmaceutical grade fish oil. Look for pharmaceutical grade omega 3 fatty acids as the highest quality of these three.
In general, please know that the dose of omega 3 that’s right for you may not be appropriate for others and could differ for diabetics and people with heart disease due to potential side effects. Talk with your physician and pharmacist about what’s best for your health needs before you purchase any dietary supplements.
By Cathy Rosenbaum PharmD MBA RPh, Rx Integrative Solutions