February 18th, 2010
02:17 PM ET

How do I pick a fish oil supplement?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Stanley in New Jersey:

“With all the different information available on the Web, how does one determine what to look for in a fish oil supplement?


Stanley, I’m glad you’re being proactive about your health and considering fish oil. It’s actually one of the few vitamins and supplements I take and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to show it can be a powerful tool in preventing disease. Fish oil supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce a person’s risk of heart attack and heart disease and protect against stroke, dementia and other cognitive problems.

The American Heart Association even recommends that people with high triglyceride levels take 2 to 4 grams of fish oil supplements containing EPA & DHA. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are the two fatty acids in fish oil thought to have the biggest benefits.

However, before taking any supplement you should speak with your health care provider. In the case of fish oil supplements, the FDA warns not to take more than 2 grams of fish oil per day. If you take high doses there can be side effects such as excessive bleeding or possibly an interaction with another medication you’re taking.

To get specifics on what you should look for when choosing your supplement I asked Dr. Brent Bauer. He’s the director of the complementary and integrative medicine program at the Mayo Clinic. He said he recommends three things to his patients:
No. 1 Go big. Look for large manufacturers, which will most likely have been in the business longer and are not a “fly-by-night” outfit you might solely on the Internet.
No. 2 Look for the seal. Companies including USP and NSF analyze supplements for the real vitamin level and for any impurities. The seal on the label tells you an independent company has reviewed the supplement.
No. 3 Check them out. There are groups that offer independent reports (for a fee) of different brands on the market.

I should also add that all the experts I’ve talked to say, if possible, it’s better to get your omega-3s from fatty fish such as salmon and tuna rather than from a supplement.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.