Fish oil has an almost endless list of benefits it can offer to your health. The first recorded instances of this superfood go back as far as the Viking era, where fermented cod liver oil was used to treat sore joints by rubbing it into the affected joint, just like modern day people would use Mentholatum. It was used mostly as an external remedy up until the late 1700’s, when it became a cure-all for everything that ailed people at the time including gout, rickets, digestive tract disorders, lung infections and other diseases.
At the time, nobody knew anything about why it worked so well to cure what ailed people, it just worked. Nowadays, we know plenty about what makes cod liver and other fatty fish oils so effective at curing and preventing a whole host of health problems.
Continue reading to learn more about how fish oil benefits your health, why it works so well, and to check out our list of the best supplements available based on your budget and expectations.
What is Fish Oil?
Fish oil is extracted from a variety of cold water fish which spend most of their life in deep water. Most fish have some level of omega-3, fish oils most important ingredient, but preferred sources are cod liver oil, atlantic salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel. Most premium fish oil you’ll find on the market is made from either cod liver oil or salmon.
The oil is extracted from the fish after it’s been steam cooked, then the oils are pressed out of the meat before being purified (often called “polishing”). If the manufacturer takes pride in the finished product, the oil will then be sent to a third-party lab and tested for impurities and toxicity levels.
The main advantage to consuming fish oil straight from the bottle or in concentrated gel cap form, instead of eating the fish itself, is that the dangerous chemicals have been removed, allowing you to reap the benefits of the Omega-3s fish contain without having to worry about mercury poisoning or taking in carcinogenic dioxins or PCB’s. This is again, only true if the company selling these products have good manufacturing, purification, and batch testing processes in place.(source)
Omega-3s are healthy polyunsaturated fats. The two most important, and abundant Omega-3s found in fish oil are: Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). Each have special jobs they perform in the body, which you’ll learn about as you continue reading. These two all important fatty acids are only found in fish and some mildly-fortified egg, dairy and grain products.
For all intents and purposes, the main benefit offered by increased EPA’s and DHA’s is less inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation causes pain, infection, and irreversible degeneration of bones, arteries, organs, eyes, and joints. Omega-3s are also crucial for skin and eye maintenance.
Fish oil also contains smaller amounts of the essential short-chain omega-3, A-Linoleic Acid (ALA) but amounts are rarely documented on supplement packages. ALA can be converted to long-chain omegas, but not very well, making EPA and DHA most important when considering food and supplement sources.
Vitamin’s A and D
Cod liver oil has loads of vitamin A and a near-perfect dose of vitamin D in it. It’s rare to find anything beyond trace levels in gel cap form, as the fish oil inside has been concentrated to provide maximum Omega-3s and very little of either vitamin is left, unless added back in after processing.
Bottled cod liver oil that you measure out with a spoon is a different story. In some cases, particularly with cheaper brands who don’t use fermented cod liver oil, you’ll find over 4 times the RDA for vitamin A (typically over 4000 ug) and twice the RDA for vitamin D (around 34 ug) per serving.
While vitamin D can be tolerated in very large doses above and beyond the RDA, vitamin A can cause a condition called hypervitaminosis A which can cause side effects like poor night vision, bone loss, confusion and excessive tiredness, among others. The cod liver oil manufacturers we recommend further down the page optimize the vitamin A and D ratios in their products, so that there’s less vitamin A, in order to prevent excessive consumption of this otherwise essential nutrient.
Can’t I just Eat Lots of Fish?
A hundred or so years ago, eating oily fish species was the perfect way to get more omega-3 rich fish oil into the diet. Sadly, man has all but destroyed the healthfulness of regular fish consumption by contaminating our oceans, lakes and rivers with high levels of toxic mercury. Check out the levels of mercury found in the various fish species around the world on Wikipedia.
Mercury affects all parts of the body and even low doses can have a big impact on cognitive function, which is one of the main benefits that most healthy people are looking for when increasing their consumption of fish and fish oil.
In general, the larger the fish the more mercury it contains. Larger predatory fish also eat larger fish, leading to even higher mercury levels. Some fish farms that use artificial ponds to cultivate their stock are able to control mercury levels in their fish breeds, but the levels of Omega-3s are much lower in these fish too, since they don’t get the algae and plankton that wild cold water species do.
Salmon, krill, pollock, shrimp, sardines and catfish appear to have the lowest mercury levels and are at the top of the FDA’s recommended list for people who want to eat fish for good health, without being exposed to high levels of mercury.
Now to answer the question “should you eat lots of fish?”
The smart answer is no:
• The FDA recommends that people eat no more than 12 ounces (two average meals) of fish per week.
• Growing children and women who are considering pregnancy in the next 2 years shouldn’t eat any more than 6 ounces per week (see FDA.gov).
A quality fish oil supplement will be purified, removing the mercury so you can get all the Omega-3s you want without the health risks.
Top 10 Fish Oil Supplements
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Benefits of Taking a Fish Oil Supplement
The American Heart Association (AHA) has completed several studies in the area of Omega-3s, which are found in large abundance in fish oil, and their positive effects on the heart. The potential benefits are far-reaching: decreased LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, decreased risk of arrythmia and thrombosis, lower triglyceride levels, improved endothelial function, and less inflammation in the arterial walls (source). All of these potential benefits to the heart and arteries makes it almost insane to not make sure you’re getting adequate fish oil/Omega-3s in your daily diet.
Fish oil has shown to be effective at reducing inflammation throughout the body and adequate intake is essential for anyone suffering from a chronic inflammatory condition. Studies have shown significant lowering of the blood markers (C-reactive protein, interleukin 6, TNF alpha) that science uses to identify inflammation when subjects get plenty Omega-3s in their diets.
It’s also shown promise in treating the inflammation of the joints which causes rheumatoid arthritis. The American College of Rheumatoid Arthritis claims a modest improvement to symptoms when supplements are taken for several months. This study showed over half the people studied showed up to a 20% improvement in their symptoms. Cod liver oil can also be rubbed directly on sore joints to relieve pain, though the smell and greasy residue it leaves behind make this an uncommon practise in most modern cultures.
There is compelling scientific evidence that fish oil can help to boost the immune system by increasing the levels of eicosanoids and cytokines in our blood. Both are proteins that signal an immune response when a foreign invader enters the body. Strangely, though people worldwide claim to get fewer colds and flus when they consume and omega-3 supplement daily, most documented studies related to the immune system benefits of this supplement have been performed only on pigs and mice.
Omega-3 consumption may help prevent cancer, but there isn’t any documented studies to refer to in this area. Regular consumption of Omega-3s by cancer patients has shown to help improve appetite and reduce weight loss. Cancer causes hyperlipidemia in those afflicted. Consuming Omega-3s from fish oil has shown to help lower lipids levels in the blood (source).
6.Reduces Diabetes Symptoms
Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, fish oil can help prevent the auto-immune related destruction of the insulin producing cells inside our pancreas. This can be beneficial to type 1 diabetics who still have the ability to produce small amounts of insulin to be able to maintain that function, reducing the amount of insulin they have to inject. It may also help type II’s who’ve developed auto-immunity of the pancreas from needing to take insulin injections. Fish oil also helps with the cardiovascular effects that diabetics deal with including hyperlipidemia, cholesterol imbalance and high blood pressure. No evidence exists that Omega-3s lower blood sugar.
7.Depression & Anxiety
Regular consumption of fish oil may help to prevent and/or reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. There aren’t a great deal of studies to prove this but researchers note that incidence of mental disorders are lower in countries where oily fish is consumed regularly (source). Another study on prisoners showed that when fed omega-3 rich seafoods, the prisoners were less violent (source). It’s believed that fish oils positive effects on brain inflammation might be responsible for this benefit, but more studies need to be performed to confirm the exact reason why its so helpful.
8.Alzheimer’s & Dementia
Fatty acids have long been known for their effects at reducing Alzheimer’s and dementia, both caused by age-related cognitive decline of the brain. Supplementation or adequate intake from dietary sources will definitely help prevent these conditions and may help to prolong mental health in those who’re showing early signs of either disease. However, it hasn’t shown much promise in the more advanced stages (source).
Studies conducted on boars have shown that an omega-3 rich diet increases sperm motility and increased resistance to death in the female genital tract of women before they reach the ovaries (source). It’s important to note that the studies only showed improvements in the health and vitality of the sperm, no evidence has shown that omega-3 supplementation can boost sperm count.
This study showed that women who consume less seafood had more incidents of preterm delivery and low birth weights in their babies. Omega-3s are also needed to help the in the development of a healthy brain and eyes in developing fetuses. It’s recommended that pregnant women get at least 2 grams (2000 mg) a day during pregnancy.
Omega-3s are needed in the development and maintenance of eyes. The DHA content of the Omega-3s consumed is very important for this benefit as this particular fatty acid is needed to preserve vision. In fact, DHA concentration is highest in our eyes. Few studies have been completed to support several claims that Omega-3s prevent age-related macular degeneration, but considering how important it is to vision health, it certainly must. Omega-3 supplementation has also shown significant improvements to people suffering from dry eyes (source).
12.Brain Health and Function
The essential fatty acids in fish oil help to improve the function of the brain. This study showed that children given a combination of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA and primrose oil, showed staggering improvements in attention span and vocabulary skills, along with reduced incidents of hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.
13.Skin and Hair Benefits
The Omega-3s in fish oil contribute to the natural oils our skin produces to keep it soft and elastic. When oil levels get low due to lack of fatty acids like Omega-3s, skin dries out and looks dull. Supplementing with plenty of fish oil helps to prevent and treat dry skin, eczema, redness, lesions and rashes. The EPA levels in fish oil also play an important role in treating psoriasis, producing an anti-inflammatory called arachidonic acid which contributes to the over-drying effects this condition has on the skin cells. Adequate intake also helps to nourish our scalp, helping to prevent conditions like dandruff and helps hair to retain its natural moisture, preventing breakage.
Omega-3s, particularly DHA, are needed in the formation and maintenance of healthy bones. Astronauts are very at risk for bone loss when they travel to space. A Nasa study showed that increased omega-3 intake, in combination with a healthy nutrient-rich diet led to less bone and muscle loss:
“In a series of cell-based studies, scientists documented that adding a specific omega-3 fatty acid to cells would inhibit the activation of factors that lead to bone breakdown. This was true in both typical cell cultures and those designed to mimic weightlessness. The inhibited factor is known as ‘nuclear factor kappa B’ or NFκB. NFκB is involved in immune system behavior and the inflammation process. The activation of NFκB in different tissues can lead to bone and muscle loss.” (source)
The omega-3, EPA found in fish oil is an androgen-inhibitor. Androgen causes acne. Supplementation can be helpful for people who get acne occasionally and may even help hinder/reduce outbreaks in frequent sufferers. Results are mixed with this fish oil benefit, but the science behind it doesn’t lie.
How Much Should You Take?
This is one area that’s so often confusing for consumers. The real trouble is that there are no standardized RDA recommendations.
The real consideration one should make when choosing a supplement or food source is the EPA and DHA content.
• The American Heart Association offers recommendations for people with heart troubles or early warning signs, but none for healthy individuals. They recommend taking 1000 mg of combined EPA/DHA for people with coronary heart disease; 2000 mg of EPA/DHA for those with high blood lipids.
• The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 250 mg of EPA/DHA daily for all persons.
• The European Food Safety Authority recommends a combination of 250 mg of EPA/DHA daily, and 250 mg of EPA + 100 – 200 mg of DHA for pregnant and lactating women.
In general, most sources recommend higher doses of 500 – 1000 mg daily of combined EPA/DHA. The upper tolerable limit for daily consumption is loosely set at 3 grams or 3000 mg (source).
How To Select the Best Fish Oil Supplement
Like any supplement, you’re relying on the manufacturer to use Best Manufacturing Processes and to be honest about the claims they make on the label. Purity and potency can vary considerably from one source to another, and factors like the fish used and where they were caught are critical to a quality end result. Scrutinize reviews carefully and never rely on one source for recommendations – most have a hidden agenda and may even work for the manufacturers they recommend.
2.Purified vs. Non-Purified
If the label doesn’t say purified, don’t buy it. Plain and simple. One of the prime benefits of consuming a fish oil supplement is the fact that it isn’t toxic. Don’t skimp on price to buy an inferior product that will most apt to be bad for your health and likely won’t have much EPA and DHA.
3.Farmed vs. Wild Fish Sources
Farmed fish of any kind won’t have nearly the same EPA and DHA content as wild fish because of their markedly different diets. Some companies will try selling you fish oil from farmed sources and claim that farmed is better because they can control all the variables and keep toxins in the water the fish live to a near-minimum. This is irrelevant because the purification process removes all the mercury and other toxins from fish oil anyhow.
4.Gel Cap vs. Liquid
You might prefer to swallow a handy soft gel full of health-giving fish oil, over having to gulp a teaspoon of the liquid stuff down. This is a matter of preference, but do keep in mind that capsules usually have no vitamin’s A or D in them. Some do, some don’t. Carlson, a quality cod liver manufacturer out of Norway, optimizes the levels of A and D in their oils so you’re getting the full recommended dose of vitamin D every day, without exceeding daily vitamin A dosing recommendations.
Fish Oil Supplement Reviews
#1 Optimum Nutrition Fish Oil
This omega-3 fish oil supplement is perfect for bargain hunters who don’t like to spend a lot of money and aren’t concerned with getting a large dose of DHA or EPA in each serving. This 200 count bottle offers a 7 cent-per-serving cost. Each soft gel contains 1000 mg of fish oil per serving, but there is one drawback: Optimum does not provide a breakdown of how much of the 300 mg of Omega-3s it contains are in the form of active DHA and EPA. Optimum makes the list because they’re known for providing quality supplements, but the missing DHA/EPA breakdown is a common complaint.
#2 Kirkland Signature Omega-3 Fish Oil Concentrate
Kirkland is a brand well known to Costco consumers. They’re a budget brand that offers great pricing without compromising on the quality of their ingredients. Each bottle contains 400 omega-3 soft gels, and each soft gel contains 1000 mg of fish oil extracted from anchovies and sardines. The ratio of DHA to EPA is perfect with 125 mg of DHA and 220 mg of EPA. Kirkland has also managed to keep the cholesterol level low with only 10 mg per gel cap. The quality of the omega-3 in these gel caps is no different from more expensive brands. This product was listed on the Consumer Reports list of recommended fish oil supplements in 2012.
#3 Nature Made Fish Oil Omega-3
Nature Made are known for making great products with few preservatives and no lab-made ingredients. This is another budget-priced product, offering up 300 soft gels that each contain 1200 mg of fish. The DHA and EPA levels are just fine too: DHA 120 mg and EPA 180 mg per capsule. Nature’s Made costs a little more, for 100 fewer capsules but the added expense may be worthwhile if you’re looking for an affordable purified product. Nature’s Made double purifies all their fish oil to reduce fishy aftertaste and to remove any excess mercury that may have been in the fish before manufacturing. This fish oil is certified to contain no artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, starches, yeast or gluten.
#4 Carlson Lightly Lemon Cod Liver Gels
Carlson is a company out of Norway, known for using the utmost in quality cod sources for their capsules and liquid varieties of cod liver oil. They meticulously check every batch for mercury and all Carlson products are purified to prevent a fishy aftertaste. One of the best benefits to using this product is that it’s optimized to deliver mostly Omega-3s: DHA 100 mg and EPA 85 mg. Each capsule only contains 3% daily value for vitamin A while the vitamin D represents 20% of your daily needs. This is uncommon among cod liver oil supplements in this price range, as most manufacturers destroy most of the naturally-occurring “D” during processing, leaving too much vitamin A for healthy daily consumption. This is a super deal for 300 purified cod liver gels, delivering 1000 mg of fish oil each.
#5 Now Foods Ultra Omega 3, Fish Oil
At first glance, it might seem like this Now Foods Ultra Omega-3 is over priced, at over $20 for just 180 gel caps. Once you read the label, you’ll see that this product is “Ultra” concentrated, delivering over twice the amount of DHA and EPA per capsule over the other brands. Each capsule contains 1000 mg of concentrated fish oil, with 250 mg of DHA and 500 mg of EPA. The omega-3 content is 750 mg per capsule. If you’re watching your cholesterol intake, this supplement is perfect, it doesn’t contain any. Now Foods certifies that their fish oil doesn’t have any mercury, heavy metals, PCB’s or other harmful toxins that are often found in fish products. Each gel is enteric coated to make it easier on digestion and there have been no complaints about any fishy aftertaste or reflux symptoms from people who’ve used this product.
Best Fish Oil for Kids
#6 Carlson Fish Oil for Kids
This yummy fish oil from Carlson is made specifically for kids, offered in a yummy bubble gum flavor. The flavor isn’t sweet or overwhelming, rather it’s mild to mask any residual fish flavor that remains after processing. The fish used are from deep in the clear, fresh ocean waters of Norway. Best, kids only have to take a half-teaspoon serving to get a perfect dose of Omega-3s. Each serving has 800 mg of Omega-3s with 250 mg in the form of DHA and 400 mg of EPA. It also adds 5 iu (17% D.V.) of vitamin E, which is added to preserve freshness. As with all Carlson products, there are no contaminants left in this oil after it’s processed, nor should you expect any aftertaste.
#7 Barlean’s Organic Oils Fresh Catch Fish Oil
Barlean’s always delivers on freshness and purity in all their supplements. This product is no different. Each serving offers 750 mg of Omega-3s with 230 mg of DHA and 370 mg of EPA. The one drawback for some might be that a serving is actually two capsules and there are only 250 gel caps per bottle, at just over $20 a bottle. This means you’re paying perhaps a little more than the other products suggested above. However, the tradeoff is in assured quality (it’s Pharmaceutical Grade) and the added antioxidants it offers. Barlean’s antioxidant blend includes Rosemary Extract, Tocopherols, and Ascorbyl Palmitate. As with the other premium fish oils we recommend, there is very little if any aftertaste noted from people who’ve used this fish oil supplement.
#8 PacificCoast NutriLabs 2000mg Fish Oil
PacificCoast NutriLabs is a real favorite when it comes to high quality fish oil supplements. This 60 day supply gives you 2000 mg of fish oil per serving which includes 1,400 mg of omega-3, 600 mg DHA, and 800 mg of EPA. This super omega-3 rich formula is designed for maximum absorption and purified to make digestion as comfortable and burpless as possible. These soft gels are manufactured using Molecular Distillation which gets rid of near 100% of all the impurities including mercury, pesticides and heavy metals, then tested by a third party lab to further ensure quality. Every bottle you purchase also means a child in a developing country will receive the gift of a vitamin A supplement every day for a year through the companies “Bottle for Life Initiative.”
#9 PowerLife Best Omega 3 Fish Oil
This is another increased potency fish oil supplement. Made by Powerlife, this 180 capsule bottle has 1,500 mg of Omega-3s per serving, with 600 mg of DHA and 800 mg of EPA. Like other high end fish oils, Powerlife uses molecular distillation to remove all the impurities that are found in fish, and only use deep water Atlantic Salmon as a source. Their coating has a mild lemon taste which is apparently included to help prevent the burping that so often comes when consuming fish oil supplements. Though Powerlife is a relative newcomer to the supplement industry, they’re on the top of the notorious doctor/health guru, Dr. Oz’s list of preferred supplements.
#10 NatureWise Omega Wise Krill Oil
This krill oil supplement from NatureWise offers a lot of advantages over common anchovy and salmon varieties. Krill is considered a fully sustainable species of wild fish, which helps to preserve salmon populations worldwide, all of which are sadly dwindling due to over fishing. It’s low in Omega-3s however, but krill oil is unique in that it contains phospholipids which have proved to significantly increase absorption of omega’s in the body. The omega content is 220 mg, consisting of 56 mg DHA and 120 mg’s of EPA. If you’re looking for a product with the utmost purity and like to know exactly where the krill in the bottle came from, go with NatureWise: They print the actual GPS coordinates of where the fish were caught right on the bottle!
Best Liquid Fish Oil
#11 Carlson The Very Finest Fish Oil Liquid Omega-3 Lemon
The most healthful way to get your fish oil is drinking it straight from the bottle like they did back before gel caps were ever made! Gels are concentrated to maximize omega-3 content, but the naturally-occurring vitamins A and D are mostly eliminated during the manufacturing process. This is one of a very small list of cod liver liquids we’d recommend to you, because Carlson ensures the quality and healthfulness of their product by making sure the ratio of vitamin A and D3 is optimal. Other manufacturer’s will overload their products with “A” while giving the customer very little “D3” which our body needs more of. Each bottle of Carlson comes with 50 servings and the following nutrient profile per teaspoon serving: 100% D.V. of vitamin D; 17% D.V. of vitamin A; 33% D.V. of vitamin E; 1,100 mg of Omega-3s (with 500 mg DHA and 400 mg EPA). The oil is lightly flavored with lemon to help with swallowing and digestion.
#12 New Chapter Wholemega Whole Fish Oil
If you’re not a fan of swallowing your fish oil by the teaspoonful, but still want the natural vitamin D3 that’s so often absent from fish oil capsules, these soft gels from New Chapter Wholemega are a great choice. Each serving offers 2,000 mg of wild alaskan salmon fish oil, 520 mg of omega 3 (with 220 mg DHA and 180 mg EPA), along with 25% of your daily vitamin D3 needs. Strangely absent is any mention of vitamin A or E on the label, but it’s safe to say this premium product includes both. This fish oil supplement is created specifically for people looking to improve heart and circulatory health, with hibiscus, tumeric, artichoke, and the antioxidant astaxanthin added to each capsule to help reduce inflammation in the arteries.
#13 Green Pasture’s Blue Ice Royal Butter Oil
Last but not least is one of the very best fish oil supplements you’ll ever try. Blue Ice Royal Butter Oil isn’t cheap and the quality is beyond anything else you’ll find out there. They use vitamin rich butter oil from grass fed cows and mix it with carefully fermented cod liver oil. The fermentation of cod liver oil has gone out of favor with more of a focus on quick manufacturing and product turnover. When fermented correctly, the nutrient profile is increased as is the bioavailability of the omega fatty acids and naturally occurring vitamins A and D, and the oil can be stored for years without going rancid or experiencing nutrient degradation. This is an all-natural product and doesn’t contain gelatin, gluten, yeast, or other allergens. Blue Ice is one of the most highly recommended fish oil products in the world. Unfortunately, the founder doesn’t believe in marketing this product as an omega-3 supplement, so no breakdown is available if that’s an important pre-purchase consideration for you. Due to the quality ingredients, it’s safe to say that you’re getting superior DHA and EPA levels along with loads of vitamin’s A and D to boot.
Fish oil supplements are the easiest and most healthy way to get the Omega-3s you need every day, without risking mercury toxicity and taking in certain cancer causing chemicals present in fish.
People have been using one fish oil supplement or another for well over a 1000 years and when you consider all the noise this superfood has been making over the last century, it’s safe to say that even more health benefits are going to be found in the next few years as more testing is done.
If you haven’t started taking fish oil yet, we highly recommend you start today. Don’t wait until it’s too late!