What Are the Benefits of Fish Oil?

Story at-a-glance

  • Animal-based omega-3 fat, such as krill oil, is essential for optimal health, and particularly critical for brain health. It even offers hope for healing and restoring brain function after a traumatic brain injury
  • Low concentrations of EPA and DHA have been shown to result in an increased risk of death from all causes and accelerate cognitive decline
  • Recent research suggests that fish oil can help slow down age-related brain atrophy
  • Older women with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids had better preservation of their brain as they aged than those with the lowest levels, which might mean they would maintain better brain function for an extra year or two
  • Previous research has also confirmed the beneficial effect of omega-3 fat on brain function in youngsters, concluding that DHA intake is a robust modulator of functional cortical activity


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Omega-3 rich fish oil is one of the most well-researched nutrients on the market. Its wide ranging health benefits have been repeatedly proven, and animal-based omega-3 fats are one of the few supplements I recommend for virtually everyone to improve overall health.

It's particularly critical for your brain health, and as the featured article and my interview with JJ Virgin shows, it may even help heal and restore brain function after a traumatic brain injury. Recent research also suggests that fish oil can help slow down age-related brain atrophy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some 1.7 million traumatic brain injuries occur in the US each year, making the prospect of utilizing fish oil very exciting. It's inexpensive, and although it does act as a blood thinner, which could be contraindicated in some instances, its side effects are virtually all beneficial.

According to leading omega-3 expert Dr. Barry Sears, there are currently seven cases in the medical literature describing the use of fish oil for traumatic brain injury—each one of them successfully so.

16-Year-Old Defies Death Following Fish Oil Treatment

The featured CNN article describes the tragedy and triumph of 16-year-old Grant Virgin, who suffered a wide range of injuries in a hit-and-run car accident. His injuries included skull fractures, spinal fractures, and bleeding throughout his brain. Doctors didn't give his parents any hope for recovery. Instead of shrugging their shoulders in acceptance, his parents were indignant.

"It's like, how dare you not fight for my son's life?' said JJ Virgin.

'It really took us... getting very aggressive and assertive to save our son's life, because they weren't going to do it... They told us to let him go,'" his mother told CNN.1

From that moment forward -- time and time again -- they would go against doctor's orders. That included trying unconventional, untested therapies -- anything that might help Grant. One in particular involved giving him high doses of omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil). Fish oil is what the Virgin family believes ultimately -- dramatically -- altered his life course, and healed his brain.

The Virgin family learned about fish oil from friends who had caught a previous CNN report about fish oil being used in cases of severe brain trauma. Grant's mother, JJ Virgin, tracked down Dr. Barry Sears who, in 2006, consulted on the case of Randal McCloy—a miner who had suffered brain injuries from carbon monoxide.

In that case, which was the first time fish oil entered the medical literature as a treatment for brain trauma, it was McCloy's neurosurgeon who called on Dr. Sears' expertise in a last-ditch effort to rescue his patient. As reported in the featured article:

"'There is no known solution, there's no known drug, there's nothing that we have really to offer these sorts of patients,' said Bailes, co-director of NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Illinois, during a previous interview...

The theory behind fish oil as a therapeutic intervention for traumatic brain injury is at once simple and complex. Simply stated, the brain's cell wall is, in part, composed of omega-3 fatty acids.

'If you have a brick wall and it gets damaged, wouldn't you want to use bricks to repair it?' said Dr. Michael Lewis, founder of the Brain Health Education and Research Institute. 'By supplementing using (omega-3 fatty acids) in substantial doses, you provide the foundation for the brain to repair itself.'"

Fish Oil—A Potent Anti-Inflammatory

Omega-3 fats, which help fight inflammation throughout your body, also helps quell inflammation in your brain. After a traumatic injury, the brain inflammation that occurs can continue for long periods of time unless, as Dr. Sears states, "there's a second response that turns it off."

Fish oil, it appears, can help do just that, when given in sufficiently high doses. After spending nine weeks in acute care, Grant was transferred into a rehabilitation hospital where he began receiving 20 grams of fish oil a day. (His parents had reportedly been sneaking fish oil to him while he was still in emergency care, but not at that high a dosage). Two days later, his mother received a late-night phone call from her son.

"Forty-eight hours after receiving high-dose fish oil, Grant Virgin asked a nurse for a cell phone to call his mother, and proceeded to have a conversation with her. 'Unbelievable,' she said. 'Unbelievable.' Unbelievable, especially considering that was only two months after Grant Virgin's parents had been told to 'let him go,'" CNN writes.

Today, 16 months after the accident, Grant continues to make progress. According to the Virgin family, none of this would be possible had they blindly accepted what conventional medicine had to offer—which was basically nothing... except waiting for their son to die. Grant's recovery has prompted Drs. Sears and Bailes to study omega-3's benefits for brain trauma more intently. According to CNN, Dr. Bailes receives research funding from fish oil manufacturers. As reported by CNN:

"They are on the cusp of beginning a broader study to find out if omega-3 can be a useful intervention for some people after traumatic brain injury. The Virgin family, based on their own dramatic experience, is sure that omega-3 will do for others what it did for their son. 'OK, what if it didn't do anything?' said John Virgin. 'It certainly couldn't hurt, but what if you have this kind of result?'"

A 2011 study published in the journal Military Medicine2 also showed the neuroprotective effects of fish oil, concluding that: "Given the safety profile, availability, and affordability of n-3 FA [omega-3 fatty acids], Generally Recognized As Safe amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (up to 3,000 mg daily) should be considered for the athlete and soldier, not only for its general health benefits, but particularly also for those at risk or high exposure to brain impacts."

Grant was given two to five grams of fish oil per day, averaging about 3 grams (3,000 mg), making this research particularly applicable.

Omega-3 Helps Protect the Elderly Brain

In related news,3 a recently published study in the journal Neurology4 reports that "older women with the highest levels of omega-3 fats, found in fish oil, had better preservation of their brain as they aged than those with the lowest levels, which might mean they would maintain better brain function for an extra year or two."

The researchers assessed the omega-3 fat levels in the red blood cells of more than 1,100 participants in the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study. The average age of the participants was 70. Eight years later, their brain volumes were measured using an MRI scan.

The women whose omega-3 levels were the highest—7.5 percent—at the outset of the study, had 0.7 percent larger brain volume eight years later. Their hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory formation, was also 2.7 percent larger.

The researchers summarized their findings stating that "we did not find an association between RBC DHA + EPA levels and age-associated cognitive decline in a cohort of older, dementia-free women." However, their findings do suggest that omega-3 can be helpful in slowing down age-related brain atrophy.

Brain shrinkage tends to be accelerated in those with Alzheimer's, making preserving your brain a key facet of Alzheimer's prevention. According to Bloomberg:5

"...more studies are needed to look at what that means for memory, said James Pottala, the lead study author. 'Omega-3s are building blocks for brain cell membranes' said Pottala... If achieving certain omega-3 levels 'can prevent or delay dementia, that would have huge mental health benefits, especially since levels can be safely and inexpensively raised through diet and supplementation.'"

Professor Pottala also indicated that previous studies have shown that eating non-fried oily fish twice a week and taking fish oil supplements, can raise your mean red blood cell level of EPA and DHA to 7.5 percent—the same level as the women with the highest omega-3 levels had in this study.

How Omega-3 Affects Brain Function

Previous research6 has also confirmed the beneficial effect of omega-3 fat on brain function in youngsters, concluding that DHA intake is a "robust modulator of functional cortical activity." Another shorter chain omega-3 fat, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), has also been affirmed as important for the normal brain development of children up to the age of 18.

The study included 33 healthy boys between the ages of eight and 10, who were randomly assigned to receive a daily dose of either 400 mg of DHA, 1,200 mg of DHA, or a placebo, for two months. They then measured the boys' brain activation patterns using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), while the boys were playing video games.

In the group receiving the highest daily dose, the DHA levels in the membrane of red blood cells (erythrocytes) increased by a whopping 70 percent. The lower dose group saw an increase of 47 percent, while the placebo group had an 11 percent reduction in DHA levels while performing this type of sustained attention task.

The fMRI data indicate that there were significant increases in the activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex part of the brain in the groups receiving supplemental DHA. This is an area of your brain that is associated with working memory.

They also noticed changes in other parts of the brain, including the occipital cortex (the visual processing centre) and the cerebellar cortex (which plays a role in motor control). The researchers noted:

"These findings suggest that this imaging paradigm could be useful for elucidating neurobiological mechanisms underlying deficits in cortical activity in psychiatric disorders associated with DHA deficiencies, including ADHD and major depression."

Krill Oil vs. Fish Oil: What's the Better Source?

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From my perspective, based on medical experience and overwhelming scientific evidence, making sure you're getting enough omega-3 in your diet, either from wild salmon or a high quality omega-3 supplement like krill oil, is absolutely crucial for your optimal health.

While a helpful form of omega-3 can be found in flaxseed, chia, hemp, and a few other foods, the most beneficial form of omega-3 -- containing two fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which are essential to fighting and preventing both physical and mental disease -- can only be found in fish and krill.7

Unfortunately, nearly all fish, from most all sources, are now severely contaminated with toxic mercury, which is why I have amended my previous recommendations to consume fish on a routine basis. It's simply not advisable for most people any longer. About the only exception to this rule is wild-caught Alaskan salmon.

This is really the ONLY fish I'll eat on a regular basis, and the only one I feel comfortable recommending as a good source of healthful fats. It is regularly tested and found to have no significant level of Fukushima radiation.

I strongly recommend avoiding farmed salmon, as they contain only about half of the omega-3 levels of wild salmon. Farmed salmon may also contain a range of harmful contaminants, including environmental toxins, synthetic astaxanthin, and genetically engineered organisms from the grain feed they're given.

My favorite recommendation though for a source of high-quality omega-3 fats is krill oil. The omega-3 in krill is attached to phospholipids that increase its absorption, which means you need less of it, and it won't cause belching or burping like many other fish oil products. Additionally, it contains almost 50 times more astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant, than fish oil.

This prevents the highly perishable omega-3 fats from oxidizing before you are able to integrate them into your cellular tissue. In laboratory tests, krill oil remained undamaged after being exposed to a steady flow of oxygen for 190 hours. Compare that to fish oil, which went rancid after just one hour That makes krill oil nearly 200 times more resistant to oxidative damage compared to fish oil!

When purchasing krill oil, you'll want to read the label and check the amount of astaxanthin it contains. The more the better, but anything above 0.2 mg per gram of krill oil will protect it from rancidity. To learn more about the benefits of krill oil versus fish oil, please see my interview with Dr. Rudi Moerck, a drug industry insider and an expert on omega-3 fats.

Omega-3: One of the Most Important Supplements You Can Take

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of taking many supplements. Not because there's question about their safety—dietary supplements are among THE safest products on the market; a whopping 62,000 times safer than prescription drugs—and provided you're using a high-quality product, they can be very effective in helping ameliorate a vast range of ailments rooted in nutritional deficiencies.

That said, I firmly believe optimal health comes from optimal nutrition—which requires whole foods. You can't fool your body by taking handfuls of supplements while still eating a junk food diet.

Krill oil, however, is one of my exceptions because most Americans are seriously deficient in omega-3 fats. In fact, omega-3 deficiency is likely the sixth biggest killer of Americans. Low concentrations of EPA and DHA have been shown to result in an increased risk of death from all causes and accelerate cognitive decline.

Those suffering from depression have also been found to have lower levels of omega-3 in their blood than non-depressed individuals.

Complicating matters further, most people consume far too many damaged omega-6 fats from processed foods. And, unfortunately, the ideal food source, fish, has been sorely compromised by pollution, which makes supplementation with a high-quality animal-based omega-3 fat like krill all the more important.

Pregnant women need to pay particular heed to this advice, as most women have major deficiencies of this fat, and that can spell trouble for your child. It's important to realize that your body cannot form omega-3 fats, so a fetus must obtain all of its omega-3 fats from his mother's diet. Hence, a mother's dietary intake and plasma concentrations of DHA directly influence the DHA status of the developing fetus, which can impact your child's brain development.


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