Fish oil has a wide range of health benefits. These oils, derived from fish tissues, are particularly helpful in keeping the heart healthy. Fish oil contains omega-3, a powerful polyunsaturated fat that can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke (1).
Since our body cannot produce omega-3 on its own, we need to consume these essential fatty acids through food or supplements.
How fish oil supports heart health
While plants like walnuts, linseed, and chia seeds contain omega-3, fish remains the best dietary source for this unsaturated fat (1). Here’s how fish oil supports heart health.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a type of omega-3 fat. Studies show that ALA-rich diets can keep the heart healthy and reduce the risk of heart disease. Eating fish at least once a week is linked to a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke mortality in both the general population and patients with post-myocardial infarction (2).
This is because fish oil activates a series of chemical changes in the body that reduces inflammation. Inflammation is how your immune system responds to disease or injury. Cholesterol buildup and other substances that block your arteries can also trigger an inflammatory response (3). Excessive inflammation can damage blood vessels and promote the growth of plaques, which may trigger blood clots.
One way to get inflammation under control is to eat a heart-healthy diet. Chuck out processed and fast foods in favour of fatty fish, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Fish with the highest level of omega-3 are (1):
- Blue-eye trevalla
- Canned sardines
- Canned salmon
The rule of thumb is, the oilier the fish, the better (1). You can also consider barramundi, bream, squid, scallops, and mussels.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have been shown to reduce high triglyceride levels (2). Triglycerides are fats that your cells can use as energy. They are the most common fat in the body. Having too much triglyceride in your blood can increase the risk of developing fatty build-ups in the arteries and contribute to heart disease (4).
If you have high triglyceride levels, your doctor may recommend adding fish oil supplements containing docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), types of omega-3 fats (2). This is one of the many effective ways that fish oil supports heart health.
Increases good cholesterol
Fish oil supports heart health by improving high-density lipoprotein (HDL), also known as good cholesterol. HDL is called “good” because it transports excess cholesterol away from the arteries and sends it to the liver to be passed as waste. It is different from low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is called “bad” cholesterol because it can stick to artery walls and cause fatty build-ups that may end up impairing blood flow to the heart (5).
Consuming more omega-3 fatty acids from fish every day is shown to increase good cholesterol between 1-3% (2).
Improves blood pressure
Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids can slightly reduce blood pressure, demonstrating yet another aspect of fish oil health benefits (2). According to healthdirect.gov.au, more than a third of Australians over 18 years old have high blood pressure or hypertension (6).
If you’re struggling with hypertension, you may want to consider adding more fish to your diet. When paired with positive lifestyle changes, fish oil can help keep your blood pressure within a healthy range. This healthy range is defined as below 140/90 mmHg. As for those with pre-existing conditions, this figure is 130/80 mmHg (6).
How much fish should I eat?
In recognition of how fish oil supports heart health, the Heart Foundation strongly recommends that all adult Australians eat 2-3 servings of oily fish per week (1). This should provide around 250-500mg of DHA and EPA. The foundation also encourages people to eat one gram of plant-sourced omega-3 each day.
For adult Australians diagnosed with coronary heart disease, the recommended intake of DHA and EPA is much higher – at 1,000mg per day (2). This can be obtained through two or three weekly servings of oily fish or fish oil capsules.
What about contamination concerns?
One concern about eating fish is mercury contamination. But the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids outweigh the risks of consuming mercury or other contaminants (1). In fact, mercury levels in fish caught and sold in Australia is low. The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) recommends 2-3 servings of any fish every week (1). However, these fish types should be eaten less frequently:
- Orange roughy (deep sea perch)
- Shark (flake)
- Billfish (swordfish/broadbill/marlin)
If you are concerned about mercury contamination in fish oil supplements, you can rest easy. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) requires all fish oil supplements sold in the country to contain zero or near-zero mercury (1).
What supplements should I choose?
Consuming two to three servings of fish per week can allow you to meet the required daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids (2).
But individuals who are at higher risk of heart disease may consider supplementation to ensure that they exceed the recommended daily intake of fish oil as outlined by the Heart Foundation. If you want to augment your heart-healthy diet, it may be worth looking at supplements.
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*Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.
1. The Heart Foundation. (2015). Fish and omega-3: Questions and answers. https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/getmedia/4adbe011-db9a-4777-8a99-db6365e27cb1/Consumer_QA_Fish_Omega3_Cardiovascular_Health.pdf. Accessed on July 30, 2021
2. The Heart Foundation. Fish, fish oils, n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids & cardiovascular health. https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/getmedia/5195fde5-87f6-4c2a-b7c3-0745a47e5ab7/Summary_Evidence_FISH_FISH-OILS_FINAL.pdf. Accessed on July 30, 2021
3. John Hopkins Medicine. Fight Inflammation to Help Prevent Heart Disease. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/fight-inflammation-to-help-prevent-heart-disease. Accessed on July 30, 2021
4. Better Health. Triglyceride. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/triglycerides. Accessed on July 30, 2021
5. The Heart Foundation. Blood cholesterol. https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/heart-health-education/high-blood-cholesterol Accessed on July 30, 2021
6. Healthdirect Australia. High blood pressure (hypertension). https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/high-blood-pressure-hypertension Accessed on July 30, 2021