How Safe are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

This is a REPRINT of one of the first posts on WellPostpartum Weblog.  Feel free to add more recent data in the ‘comments’ section.


Just how good are fish oils?  Even U.S. Olympic equestrian teams used them to fuel their performance in Beijing!  These athletes sought improved joint and respiratory function as well as increased focus and stamina that can come with using fish oils.  Here discussion will center on it’s use in new mothers.

Many experts from various backgrounds are presenting information on Omega-3 fatty acids to many different types of audiences. 

Recently, David Kyle, Ph.D., the US director of the Mother and Child Foundation said “Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be able to reduce their chances of having postpartum depression and improve their baby’s neurological development by consuming an essential fatty acid called DHA.  We believe that the high incidence of postpartum depression in the United States may be triggered by a low dietary intake of DHA.”  DHA is a component of Omega 3 fatty acids.

There have been many questions surrounding the use of fish oils to prevent or treat perinatal mood changes.  Much of the controversy relates to the safety of fish oils, given that most of the fish in the world are contaminated with mercury, which is a neurotoxin.  Exposure to any heavy metals is bad for mental health, especially during pregnancy.

Have you ever heard the phrase “As mad as a hatter”?  Hat makers used to use mercury in their work and so they got a reputation as an agitated bunch.  We are exposed to trace amounts aluminum, lead, cadmium and mercury on a fairly regular basis.  It was recently found that the composer Beethoven may have suffered from depression due to lead toxicity.

One way of taking in aluminum is by cooking food in aluminum cookware or foil.  Aluminum is used for cookware because of it’s high heat conductivity, which means food cooks quicker in aluminum pots and pans.  Even if you cook with Teflon coated cookware, or better yet, cast iron coated in enamel, chances are your favorite restaurants use aluminum.  If you notice you feel sluggish and foggy a few days after eating at certain places you may want to avoid these restaurants.  Typically chain restaurants are more likely to use aluminum cookware.

One way of taking in trace amounts of mercury is by eating fish.  Small amounts of mercury, though not desirable, typically do not impact health.  Larger amounts could be ingested through the therapeutic use of fish oils.  Care should be taken when choosing which oils to use.

The brain is 60% fat and healthy fats are needed for proper brain function.  A low level of fatty acids in the brain is believed to be a possible risk factor for suicide.   Studies have shown that fish consumption lessens the rate and severity of depression.  Other researchers have stated, “…folate and LCPUFA (Omega 3s) might be important in both the etiology and severity of at least some psychiatric diseases.” 

The Omega 3 component DHA is so impressive it is even thought to prevent preterm labor

It has been estimated that the brain accumulates 67 mg DHA daily in the third trimester.  Thus, Omega’s are thought to be especially important during the third trimester of pregnancy. 

Although most researchers attention has gone to third trimester utilization of Omega 3’s, the baby’s nervous system undergoes the most rapid growth during the middle trimester.  It seems Mother’s body may lose the majority of it’s stores during this time.  Hopefully future research will focus more attention on the use of Omega 3’s during the second trimester and the postpartum period.


So, how does one balance the risk of mercury with the need for fatty acids?  Some women have opted to use flax seed oil instead of fish oil, but the body must convert flax seed oil in order for the brain to use it.  Also, flax seed is more bio available if it is freshly ground, but most new moms don’t have the time to shower, let alone grind seeds!

Using encapsulated fish oil is safe, if it is molecularly distilled oil and if it is fresh.  The U.S. Pharmacopoeia has verified certain brands to be free of mercury.  A review  of guidelines is found on Kathleen Kendall-Tackett’s site.   Kathleen has given a great deal of time to review numerous studies on long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, or Omega-3’s.  There are over 100 such studies on record; over 40 are posted here.  She mentions that there are two components to fish oils on the market- DHA and EPA.  It is good to look for a source that has these two components separated out on the label.

Even though Kathleen Kendall-Tackett and others seem to have recommended a high therapeutic dose of oils (1-2 grams to treat depression), Dr. Dean Raffelock recommends an even higher one.   Dr. Raffelock uses up to 3 grams (3000 mg daily) as treatment for women presenting with postpartum mood disorders. 

He offers this bit of advice; because the Omega-3 fats are highly unsaturated they are particularly susceptible to oxidative damage.  In other words, when these oils are exposed to air they quickly become spoiled.  Dr. Raffelock says most fish oils on the market are rancid.  This delicate oil must be fresh.  One way to find out if the oil is fresh is to simply bite open a capsule and taste it.  If there is a bitter, rancid taste take it back to the store and try the sources outlined on Kathleen Kendall-Tackett’s site.  You can also check out the list of practitioners on this blog for their personal recommendations.  Dr. Shoshana Bennett recommends a brand that includes Vitamin E, pomegranate seed oil, evening primrose oil, borage seed oil, and organic flax seed oil.  Fresh fish oils should taste sweet and not produce “fishy burps” when used.  

Another approach is to use krill oil.  Krill are the tiny, shrimp-like creatures at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain.  Because they are so small, they have little chance of having mercury toxicity and they are thought to contain a large amount of antioxidants.  Krill oil is much more potent than fish oil, so the dosage is typically much lower.  Though krill seems to be very promising, the use of krill oil poses two problems.  First, it is more expensive than fish oil.  Also, large-scale krill fishing operations could threaten the health of the oceans by diminishing the amount of food at the bottom of the food chain.  Women should balance their own personal need for help with the information presented above and always seek the advice of a health care professional.

One Response to “How Safe are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?”
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  1. […] compiled by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D.  I have also written an article entitled How Safe are Omega-3 Fatty Acids? here on WellPostpartum Weblog.  Enjoy reading and please, feel free to post your comments.  Many […]

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