As far as brand names go, it’s less than appetizing. And really, fish oil is pretty true to its name – it’s oil derived from fish. While it may not sound like something you want to ingest, fish oil is purported to have a wide range of medical benefits, making it one of the most popular items on the US supplement market.
Most users and marketers tout the effects of omega-3s, specialized fatty acids found in high quantities in fish oil. While many of the roles that omega-3s have in the body are relatively established, new research has just uncovered a key part they play in the maintenance of healthy eyesight.
What Is Fish Oil?
So we may have been a little reductionist earlier. Fish oil is derived specifically from certain types of cold-water fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines – cod liver is a particularly popular source. These species don’t produce their own omega-3s, but instead act as living hoovers for natural sources such as algae.
Source aside, fish oil should be seen primarily as a delivery system for omega-3s. Two of the types of fatty acid present in fish – eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid – are also commonly found in the human body, where they’re converted into a class of hormones known as eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are vital to normal body function. They act as chemical messengers between cells, controlling everything from fever to the detailed workings of the lungs.
The body uses fatty acids to build these eicosanoids and can turn to either omega-3s, or to slightly different acids called omega-6s, which are commonly found in poultry and vegetable oils. However, the two have a key difference. Eicosanoids derived from omega-3 fatty acids are less inflammatory than those derived from their omega-6 cousins. Maintaining a healthy balance between the two is crucial to controlling a wide range of diseases and conditions.
Uses of Fish Oil
It can be a little tricky sorting the actual uses of fish oil from the tenuous. Marketers do occasionally go overboard on supposed benefits. Fish oil does have the benefit of being very thoroughly studied, not something that we can say about every supplement. As a result, scientists have found several conclusive links between diseases and omega-3 supplementation and a wealth of connections that still require further investigation.
Perhaps the most established use of fish oil is in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Three conditions are widely believed to be affected by omega-3 levels: high triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, and secondary cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association goes on to list 27 other conditions that may be affected, but have less supporting evidence.
Psoriasis, a common, chronic inflammatory condition that causes a variety of skin irritations, also responds to fish oil supplementation.
After these two, things get a little muddier. You’ll often hear about the relationship between omega-3 acids and various cognitive disorders. Whether or not these relationships actually exist is still cause for debate, though large, recent studies have been largely negative. Fatty acid levels do appear to play a role in depression and some studies have supported the use of fish oil in treatment, though others have just as firmly dismissed its utility.
Less contentious is the use of fish oil in preventing Alzehemer’s disease or cognitive decline. In both cases, even though eicosanoids may be a contributing factor, there’s little solid evidence to suggest that fish oil can do any good.
Fish oil is also often marketed toward pregnant women. One study does suggest that fatty acid supplementation (algae-based in this case) improves the cognitive development of children whose mothers increased their intake. Fish oil also may help reduce the odds of an infant developing serious food allergies and skin conditions in early life. However, neither should be taken as gospel at this stage of research.
Eyes, along with brains, have long been known to contain large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Why they do remains something of a mystery, but a recent breakthrough may help crack the case. Just weeks ago, Louisiana researchers found a protein in the eye necessary for sight. Animal subjects that were genetically modified to lack it were rendered blind.
This protein turned out to have a highly specialized role. It removed omega-3 fatty acids from the bloodstream, then delivered it to cells in the eyes. That its removal resulted in blindness suggests that, at the very least, omega-3s are vital to not only healthy sight, but having sight at any level.
Fish oil also offers a range of other potential benefits to vision. Dry eye, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy all appear to be affected by omega-3 levels, though whether or not they’re likely to respond to supplementation remains uncertain.
Should You Be Using Fish Oil?
It depends. If you’re concerned about one of the three heart conditions above, then the answer is yes, provided you clear any supplements with your doctor beforehand (fish oil can interact with some medications).
As for vision, try to figure out if you’re getting the omega-3s you need from your diet. Anyone consuming seafood on a regular basis can probably get by without worries. On a more limited diet? Fish oil may make sense for you. Supplements are commonly available, look for cod oil pills or similar options. Pairing fish oil with a full-suite, eye-focused multivitamin like RYV’s own Ocu-Plus formula can help cover all your bases, ensuring that you’re getting everything you need to ensure healthy vision.