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How Much Fish Oil Is Safe to Take & What Are Benefits & Risks?

By Sue Roberts, M.P.H., R.D.

Fish oil is found in fatty fish such as mackerel, tuna, sturgeon, trout and salmon, and also in supplements made from these. Fish oil contains two different omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexenoic, or DHA, both of which have heart healthy benefits. Despite these advantages, be aware that mild and severe health risks are associated with high supplement dosages.

How Much is Enough?

Eat fatty fish twice a week, advices the American Heart Association. A 3.5-oz. portion of fatty fish provides approximately 1 g of omega-3 fatty acids. Get your omega-3 requirements met through food before resorting to supplements; however, if you do take fish oil pills limit your intake to 3 g per day. Discuss possible higher dosages with your physician.

Benefits

Research demonstrates the heart healthy effects of fish oils both for individuals with cardiovascular disease and for those without a history of heart problems. According to the American Heart Association, omega-3 fatty acids decrease abnormal heart beat and heart attack risk, slow hardening of the arteries and slightly lower blood pressure. In addition, fish oils lower blood triglyceride levels by 20 to 50 percent. It is also theorized that fish oils reduce fatalities caused by heart attacks more than the prescription drugs known as statins do.

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Risks

Taking fish oil in amounts greater than 3 g is considered unsafe, warns the UC Berkeley Wellness Guide. Mild side effects at this large dosage include nausea, belching or "fish burps," heartburn and diarrhea. Minimize these effects by taking supplements at mealtimes and gradually increase dosage amounts. More severe side effects caused by high dosages include an increased risk for excessive bleeding, stroke, elevated LDL cholesterol levels, immune system suppression and poor glycemic control in diabetic individuals.

Safety Concerns

Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding and young children should restrict fatty fish intake due to possible methylmercury content. This toxin is only found in fish meat, thus fish oil supplements are a safe substitute. Individuals allergic to fish should also avoid fish oil or omega-3 supplements manufactured from it. For those individuals with toxin contamination concerns, the American Heart Association advises individuals to cut off fish skin and the underlying fat layer prior to cooking. The benefits of fish oil consumption for older men and postmenopausal women outweigh any risks from possible toxin contamination.

Fish oils are known to interact with certain medications such as birth control pills and anti-hypertensive and anticoagulant drugs. Vitamin E levels can also decrease with fish oil supplementation. Consult your physician if you have concerns regarding fish oil and medication interaction.

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