Heart healthy baked salmon packed with omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA

What Does Fish Oil Do for the Heart?

Published: January 2022

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish – while Dr. Seuss’s classic counting book wasn’t an ode to the many benefits that fish oil has to offer, indeed, you should count on intake of the oils from these undersea creatures to keep your heart healthy.

Packed with omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, fatty fish should not only be a staple in your diet, but a fish oil supplement has a place in your daily wellness routine as well.

So, how is fish oil good for your heart? Let’s talk about this nutrient’s many heart healthy benefits.

What is fish oil?

Fish oil comes from fatty fish and from fish livers and cod liver oil. There may be plenty of fish in the sea—but did you know that only certain species offer those legendary heart health benefits? Anchovies, herring, salmon or sardines are all great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. 

Is omega-3 the same as fish oil?

Although we often call “omega-3s” and “fish oil” the same thing, technically they are different. Fish oil is a general term that refers to two primary omega-3 fatty acids: DHA and EPA.

However, omega-3s come in other forms, too. For example, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) is an omega-3 fatty acid found mainly in plant based foods such as walnuts. ALA is a precursor to DHA and EPA, but your body is not able to effectively convert ALA into these nutrients. That is why doctors may recommend supplementing with fish oil specifically: because they contain all the omega-3s your body needs, both EPA and DHA.

Do cardiologists recommend fish oil supplementation?

If you find yourself in a cardiologist’s office, they will most likely recommend fish oil to support heart health – with good reason. That’s because omega-3 fatty acids can help you maintain healthy levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol, keep those triglyceride levels low, and support already-healthy blood pressure. Fish oil even can support normal levels of arterial plaque—something you definitely don’t want to see increase!

The American Heart Association recommends eating at least 2 servings (or 3 oz. cooked) of fatty fish each week to support cardiovascular health. If you aren’t a fan of eating fish, or just want to make sure your bases are covered, a high-quality fish oil supplement can fill in any gaps.

Fish oil vs krill oil: What’s best for my heart?

Woman holding krill oil supplements after deciding between those and fish oil supplements

In recent years, krill oil has been making headlines as an alternative to traditional fish oil supplements because these oils are packed with EPA and DHA. Although both oils provide an excellent source of EPA and DHA, the main difference in the two is the form in which they provide the fatty acids.

Traditional fish oil supplementation provides them as triglycerides, whereas krill oil provides them as phospholipids. The absorption rate may be better with krill oil. In fact, in a small randomized trial of 15 people, researchers found that EPA and DHA in krill oil had a higher 72 hour bioavailability than fish oil.

Ultimately, both krill oil and fish oil are equally as important when it comes to consuming enough omega-3s—so you can choose whichever you prefer!

Who should take fish oil?

If you aren’t fond of fish or you adhere to a plant-based diet, you may not be consuming enough fish oil to get the recommended amount of omega-3s your body needs.

A great way to see if you have suboptimal levels is to take a lab test. This will determine if you are a good candidate for supplementation.  A vegan-friendly DHA supplement, sourced from plants like algae is a good option for those who want to avoid animal sources of omega-3s.

Fish oil: Foods vs. supplements

Healthy fats and lean proteins are staples of the Mediterranean diet – and luckily, fish checks those boxes…and then some! You should try to consume at least two servings a week of omega-3-rich salmon, tuna or sardines, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

Supplement with fish oil or an omega-3 alternative to fill in nutritional gaps—especially if you aren’t a fan of fish or adhere to a plant-based diet.

How much fish oil should I take for heart health?

Life Extension’s Super Omega-3 product provides 2000 mg fish oil (yielding 700 mg EPA and 500 mg DHA) in our suggested dosing of four softgels daily; this satisfies the National Institute of Health's recommendations for adequate intake and DGA's recommendation for daily intake, offering you maximum benefits.

Does fish oil have benefits aside from heart health?

Close up of woman who takes fish oil for brain and eye benefits

While fish oil’s reputation is as a heart health nutrient, it benefits your body in other ways, too:

Brain health:

Omega-3s and fish oil are a smart choice for brain health—benefitting your mood as well as supporting cognitive function and memory. Perhaps not surprisingly, omega-3s play a crucial role in brain development in babies; supplementation during pregnancy has been shown in studies to be linked to better language development.

Eye health:

DHA in particular is important in maintaining the structural and functional properties of the retina; studies have associated omega-3 intake with healthier macular function as people age.

Are there any side effects to fish oil supplements?

Overall, omega-3s and fish oils are considered safe. Reported side effects are usually mild and consist of unpleasant taste or bad breath—aka those infamous “fishy burps.” Some less common complaints include gastrointestinal discomforts and odiferous sweating.

Other ways to keep your heart healthy

Man jogging on foot bridge for cardio and heart health

Food:

One of the biggest myths about heart health is that supplements are a quick fix. You should be mindful about what you are eating throughout the day, since what you eat is critical. Make sure you are adhering to a heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet and incorporating heart-healthy foods into your meals like, leafy greens, pomegranate, whole grains, berries, dark chocolate, green tea and more! Additionally, make sure you are avoiding foods that could throw your goals off track. Steer clear of excess sugar and salt, processed foods, fried foods and fast food.

Supplements:

Fish oil is a great starting point to supporting heart health, but you can take your cardiovascular care to the next level by incorporating magnesium and coQ10. Magnesium has been shown to help support heart health by relaxing the smooth muscle within the blood vessels and keeping your heart beat nice and steady. CoQ10 promotes cellular energy production in the heart and other large organs, and also provides antioxidant support.

Exercise:

Your heart is a muscle – and a very important one at that! It is important to stay active and exercise regularly; aim for at least 30-60 minutes of cardio 5 days a week, and strength train as well. Suggestions for heart pumping aerobic activity include: brisk walking, jogging or running, swimming, cycling—or try group exercise classes such as kickboxing, and dancing. If you’re in great shape, challenge yourself to try high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

References

By: Andrew Davis, Health & Wellness Writer

Andrew Davis is a graduate of Pace University NYC with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. He has more than a decade's worth of experience in content and social media in the health and wellness space. An avid traveler, Andrew also has volunteered as an English teacher and humanitarian in countries throughout Asia.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD