This post is not intended to make anyone angry. However, that is bound to happen in more than a few cases. My intention with this post, as well as with all of my offerings, is to provoke some intelligent thought. So here goes…
Fish Oil and “essential” Omega-3’s
Everywhere you look today, people are popping fish oils like Skittles in an attempt to “taste the rainbow,” from a health perspective. Every health food store, supplement line, on-line supplement shop, and pharmacy in the western world has at least 17 different versions of fish oil to sell you. Omega-3 fatty acids have been given all of the health credit in the world – from improving cardiovascular health, to enhancing brain function and memory, decreasing arthritic pain and inflammation, and supposedly being “essential” to combating pretty much every health issue in the known Universe. To contribute to the problem, there are tons of medical doctors that continuously have diarrhea of the mouth where the benefits of Omega-3’s are concerned. With all of the medical community and advertisement dispensing such great advice, if you are not currently taking a fish oil/Omega-3 supplement of some kind, you are clearly not “with the program” right?
Well, as it turns out, there’s no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow and avoiding these supplements may be a better idea. Let’s have a look at a few things shall we….
I’m going to tell you a TRUE Story…
First, consider the simple fact that the majority of the pro-Omega-3 research has been conducted by the very companies that manufacture and sell Omega-3 supplements. Not all that different from a pharmaceutical company producing its own research to prove that a given drug is “safe.” If you happen to stumble upon an Omega-3 or fish oil study that is independently funded that actually backs all of the beneficial health claims given to the supplement, please e-mail me the link as I would love to read that! To date, I have not personally found one.
People tend to know about the inherent dangers and potential inflammatory properties of Omega-6 fatty acids. Every “health conscious” person is in search of the ever-elusive 1-4:1 (or perhaps even 1:1 depending on who you are reading) omega-6:omega-3 ratio, and as a result take enough fish oil to spontaneously sprout gills and develop the capacity for efficient gas exchange while breathing under water. Does any of this really have anything to do with being healthy…my feeling is NO…it does not.
Much of what is published in the way of Omega-3 benefits is pretty much a waste of the paper it was printed on. To quote Ray Peat, PhD, in his article The Great Fish Oil Experiment:
“One way to evaluate published studies is to see whether they tell you everything you would need to know to replicate the experiment, and whether the information they provide is adequate for drawing the conclusions they draw, for example whether they compared the experimental subjects to proper control subjects. With just a few minimal critical principles of this sort, most “scientific” publications on nutrition, endocrinology, cancer and other degenerative diseases are seen to be unscientific. In nutritional experiments with fish oil, controls must receive similar amounts of vitamins A, D, E, and K, and should include fat free or “EFA” deficient diets for comparison.”
In fact, even though one will almost never hear about it, the medical literature is chocked full of the evidence of the ill effects of Omega-3’s. Omega-3’s belong to a class of fatty acids known as poly-unsaturated fatty acids, or PUFA’s.
PUFA’s, when consumed in excess, have been shown to have the following adverse physiological effects:
- PUFAs damage the thymus gland and promote immune deficiency.
- Blocking glucose from entering cells to be used in energy production (Randle Cycle or Randle Effect)
- Creating hypoglycemia
- through lowering blood glucose via hyperstimulating the beta cells of the pancreas / hyperinsulinemia
- Increases the biological actions of estrogen via blocking estrogen from sex hormone binding globulins (SHBGs)
- Estrogen pulls oxygen from your tissues and organs and is a glucose and vitamin B6 “waster”
- Suppresses cellular respiration (energy production) and inhibits optimal thyroid function
- Decreases glucose oxidation and increases lipid peroxidation
- This slows your metabolism, decreases energy production, and creates a hypo-metabolic state
- Increases vascular tension
- This is accomplished through activating something called protein kinase-C
- Create digestive stress
- This occurs by inhibiting proteolytic enzymes (enzymes that break down protein) in the gut – remember how essential protein is to our health from Lesson 3. The result is maldigestion, malabsorption, overloading the liver, and creating a huge burden on metabolism. This has been known since the 1920’s!
- Inhibits the conversion of glucose to glycogen and favors the production of lactic acid
- This leads to increased inflammation and is a huge overall burden on physiology
- Exacerbates the stress/inflammatory cycle directly (through below) and indirectly (via the above)
- PUFA stimulate the stress hormones, ACTH, cortisol, adrenaline, glucagon, and prolactin, which increase lipolysis, producing more fatty acids in a vicious circle.
- In the relative absence of PUFA, the stress reaction is limited by the negative feedback of saturated fatty acids which inhibit adrenaline and other adrenal sterols, but under the influence of PUFA, the stress response becomes self-amplifying.
The above list is by no means comprehensive. The detrimental effects of PUFA on human physiology are well studied, well documented, and even more not-so-discretely covered up.
A known fact about PUFA is that they are extremely heat and oxygen sensitive. When inside the body, they tend to rapidly oxidize, resulting in rapid lipid peroxidation which will generate very large amounts of free radicals as well as lactic acid. Excesses of free radicals (molecule or atoms with one or more unpaired electron) and lactic acid are very harmful to the body. These things seem to be largely ignored by mainstream nutrition and popular medical culture.
Not-So-Heart-Healthy After All
For all of those who have been snagged hook-line-and-sinker on the supposed cardiovascular benefits of Omega-3’s, consider the following quote from Guy Schenker, D.C., founder of the NutriSpec system:
“Many studies have shown that after the ingestion of Omega-3 fatty acids the end products of oxidative lipid damage increase substantially. Oxidative end products after Omega-3 ingestion are shown to be associated with an acceleration of atherosclerosis development and also increased oxidative damage in bone marrow DNA in rats.”
Again, to quote Ray Peat, PhD from his article The Great Fish Oil Experiment:
“The most popular way of arguing that fish oil will prevent heart disease is to show that it lowers blood lipids, continuing the old approach of the American Heart Association’s “heart protective diet.” Unfortunately for that argument, it’s now known that the triglycerides in the blood are decreased because of the fish oil’s toxic effects on the liver (Hagve and Christophersen, 1988; Ritskes-Hoitinga, et al., 1998). In experiments with rats, EPA and DHA lowered blood lipids only when given to rats that had been fed, in which case the fats were incorporated into tissues, and suppressed mitochondrial respiration (Osmundsen, et al., 1998).”
Not-So-Anti-Inflammatory After All
As PUFA’s decrease glucose oxidation in favor of lipid peroxidation at the cell level, they actually increase energy demand and encourage the overproduction of lactic acid. Lactic acid is inflammatory and has to be converted back into glucose using stored glyocogen from the liver (assuming there is a sufficient supply).
This process in incredibly energy consumptive and does not yield as much energy production as glucose oxidation. So, in a nutshell, lipid peroxidation is energy inefficient. Lipid peroxidation also requires more oxygen (as much as 3x more) and can eventually create an oxygen debt at the cell level. None of this is beneficial for the mitochondria of your cells or their ability to efficiently produce energy. When energy supply does not match energy demand, the stress/inflammatory response is initiated.
Long story short…PUFA’s contribute greatly to and exacerbate the stress/inflammatory cycle when over consumed.
Not-so-Brain-Healthy After All
It has been known for quite some time that women are 2-3 times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s than are men. Men who do have Alzheimer’s actually have higher estrogen levels than “normal” men. Why is this important to know? Recall from earlier that PUFA’s actually increase the biological actions of estrogen (through inhibiting SHBG binding) and the biological function of estrogen is actually to mimic the shock phase of the stress reaction and beyond.
Again, from one of Ray’s articles Fats: Functions and Malfunctions,
“Another interesting association of the highly unsaturated fats and estrogen in relation to brain function is that DHA increases the entry of estrogen into the pregnant uterus, but inhibits the entry of progesterone (Benassayag, et al., 1999), which is crucial for brain cell growth. When Dirix, et al., (2009) supplemented pregnant women with PUFA, they found that fetal memory was impaired.”
Not-so-“Essential” After All
As it turns out, Omega-3’s may not be as “essential” as you have been told. Many of us have heard that the fatty acids linolenic acid and linoleic acid are “essential” and must be obtained from the diet. The oil industry has been successful in using public relations to effectively sell the medical community and the public at large on the “essentiality” of these fatty acids since about the 1950’s.
An interesting point to be made is that by the 1940’s it was known that PUFA’s caused deterioration of the brain, muscles, and gonads of a variety of animals, yet the push was still for human consumption. Not long after this, the animals that were fed copious amounts of fish oil ended up with a disease called steatitis (or yellow fat disease).
Even more noteworthy in my opinion is the fact that animals that were fed a diet that completely lacked these “essential fatty acids” in fact had an increase in lifespan.
Again, to quote Ray Peat, PhD, in his article Unsaturated Vegetable Oils: Toxic. (yes, I quote Ray quite a bit because I feel he is at the forefront of research in this and other areas):
“Essential fatty acids are, according to the textbooks, linoleic and linolenic acid and they are supposed to have the status of ‘vitamins’ which must be taken in the diet to make life possible. However, we are able to synthesize our own unsaturated fats when we don’t eat the EFA, so they are not essential. This term thus appears a misnomer.
The human body has the capacity to synthesize its own protective Omega-9 fatty acid, which is not considered to be essential, from unsaturated fats and glucose when in an efficient metabolic state. PUFA’s actually inhibit the enzyme systems that are necessary to form the Omega-9 fatty acids.
Chris Masterjohn, PhD, also has a really good piece of educational literature on the “essentiality” of these oils which can be found here for a mere $15.00:
On another related note, animals that are “essential fatty acid deficient” actually show strong resistance to the shock phase of the stress reaction; which is another mark against these acids as being “essential” and potentially toxic.
From Ray’s article Suitable Fats, Unsuitable Fats:
“The food-derived polyunsaturated fatty acids play important roles in the development of all of the problems associated with aging–reduced immunity, insomnia, decreased learning ability, substitution of fat for muscle, susceptibility to tissue peroxidation and inflammation, growth of tumors, etc., and are probably involved in most other health problems, even in children. If research hadn’t been guided by the economic interests of the seed oil industry, many of those problems would have been solved by now.”
Am I saying that if you take fish oil you are going to undergo spontaneous human combustion? No…though I am sure some readers will take it as such. Hell, as recently as 6 or 7 years ago, before I really began investigating this particular subject, I took fish oil myself, though not nearly as much as the “experts” suggested. I fell for the hype just like many others in the health, wellness, and fitness industries. Thankfully, I have evolved beyond that now. At the time when I started presenting some of these ideas to colleagues and clients I can remember a running joke on the motivational and quote board that we use that would repeatedly say something along the lines of, “Brandon loves fish oil.” It annoyed me for about a week…and then not so much.
Will anyone actually benefit from Omega-3 and/or fish oil supplements? In some cases…possibly, but my opinion is…I doubt it. The average person is far more likely to have a diet that has a high PUFA : saturated fatty acid ratio. As such, more fish oil is not the health savior it is reported to be.
Save the money you would spend on fish oil and use it on real, digestible FOOD instead. Opt for the healthier, more stable saturated fats (butter, coconut oil, lard, etc.) in place of your estrogen and inflammatory enhancing PUFA’s and fish oil.
If you love fish oil, are convinced of their health-enhancing properties, regularly use fish oil enemas, or hold stock in the world’s leading fish oil manufacturers, please feel free to leave your need for validation below.
Thank you for reading!
References and Recommended Reading:
The Metabolic Blueprint by Josh and Jeanne Rubin (creators) owners of East West Healing & Performance.
Articles by Ray Peat, PhD related to PUFA’s, Fish Oil and the like:
- Fats, functions and malfunctions
- The Great Fish Oil Experiment
- Suitable Fats, Unsuitable Fats: Issues in Nutrition
- Unsaturated fatty acids: Nutritionally essential, or toxic?
- The Daily Lipid with Chris Masterjohn, PhD
- The Randle Cycle…more accurately the Randle Effect
- Omega-3’s and Lipid Peroxidation
- A new perspective on atherogenesis