Fish oil is your secret health weapon

When Maria was pregnant, her doctor put her on fish oil supplements to boost her baby’s developing brain and nervous system. But Maria didn’t realize how much she herself would benefit from the supplement. After her baby was born, she noticed a drastic difference in her postpartum mood, as opposed to her previous pregnancy when she didn’t take the supplement. She has stayed on fish oil ever since. “It’s fantastic for my memory, mood and stress levels. I feel more balanced when I take it”, she says.

Like Maria, thousands of women are discovering the myriad benefits of fish oil. In addition to boosting mood, supplements containing these healthy omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower the risk of various heart woes and improve symptoms of inflammatory conditions like arthritis. There’s even research suggesting fish oil can help maintain brain power as we age and maybe even reduce wrinkles. Because omega-3s are essential fats, they have wide-ranging effects throughout the body.

Of all the purported perks of fish oil, the data for cardiac conditions is most compelling. Research shows that fish oil cuts the risk of heart attack, heart failure, and sudden cardiac death. Kathy, 57, started taking fish oil on her doctor’s advice to bump up her lackluster HDL – the “good” cholesterol. Within a few months, it had doubled, slashing her risk for heart attack or stroke. “I used to be on a medication for high cholesterol”, echoes Nancy, 57, “Since taking fish oil, my cholesterol levels have never been better. My physician says I should frame my lipid results because they are so excellent”.

Donna, 48, doesn’t need a study to tell her fish oil helps her achy knees. “I had been suffering from intense knee joint pain for years”, she says. “A few weeks after beginning the supplements, my pain completely disappeared. For a while, I got lazy and stopped taking the fish oil. It wasn’t long before the pain came back with a vengeance. I got it back on my daily regimen and about two weeks later the pain was gone again.

Research also suggests fish oil could play a role in fending off depression and other mood disorders, including bipolar disorder. In a study from the University of Sheffield, in the U.K., depressed patients who had not been helped by the antidepressant Prozac were given fish oil. Almost 70 percent improved on the supplement, compared to 25 percent on a placebo pill.

Some of the most provocative new research on fish oil, involving data from the Nurses’ Health Study at Harvard School of Public Health suggests it may delay aging by slowing down the shortening of telomeres, a marker of aging in the body’s cells. Telomeres cap the end of chromosomes, allowing them to function more accurately. Cells with shorter telomeres are more prone to damage and disease.

A study in the Journal of Lipid Research found that omega-3s might suppress the type of aging damage in the skin that causes wrinkles. That’s no surprise to Barbara, 62, of California. Soon after she stared taking fish oil, she noticed that her hands were less dry and her skin smoother. “Recently, a cosmetic clerk thought I was in my forties”, says Barbara, “I told her she needed glasses. I can pass for 50, but 40 seems a stretch”.

Where to get it

Omega-3 fats are found in abundance in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. Experts recommend eating two to four fish meals a week to get optimal health benefits. But if you’re not a big fan of fish, a supplement is a great alternative. Just be sure to check the label for the amounts of the two key omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA. The two combined should be between 500 and 1,000 milligrams. If you are a vegetarian, you can take algal oil – oil made from the plants that are normally eaten by fish.

There’s a third type of omega-3 fat, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in flaxseed, canola oil, and walnuts. The body converts ALA into EPA, but not very efficiently. If you eat 1,000 milligrams of ALA, only 37 milligrams of EPA will get made. That means you still need fish – or fish or algal oil – to get the maximum effects. Caution: Never discontinue a prescription drug, whether for a heart condition, pain, or a mood disorder, without talking to your doctor first.

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