In the constant quest for better health, omega-3 fatty acids are a key player. Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that have numerous health benefits, including reducing inflammation and possibly lowering the risk or improving the condition of a variety of chronic diseases and disorders.
The body cannot make omega-3s, so the only way to get them is through diet. If you’re not getting the two servings of seafood per week that the American Heart Association recommends, dietary supplements, such as fish oil and krill oil, are a quick, convenient way to boost omega-3 intake.
What is fish oil?
Fish oil is an omega-3-rich dietary supplement derived from fatty fish, such as sardines, anchovies, and mackerel. It is available in both capsule and liquid form.
What is krill oil?
Krill oil is an alternative to fish oil that is derived from small marine crustaceans instead of fatty fish. Krill oil is widely available in capsule form.
Benefits of both
Fish oil and krill oil both contain the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Studies show that a diet rich in omega-3s such as EPA and DHA has a variety of health benefits, including:
- Cardiovascular health: Omega-3s help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. There is also evidence that the EPA and DHA found in krill oil can lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and raise ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.
- Cancer prevention: A diet rich in omega-3s may help to lower the risk or slow the progression of colon, breast, and prostate cancer. The evidence for this, however, comes from population studies and animal studies, and more research is needed in this area.
- Cognitive health: Studies have had mixed results, but omega-3s, taken in conjunction with standard prescription medications, may help treat depression and bipolar disorder. Omega-3s may also benefit those with schizophrenia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.There is more solid evidence for omega-3s playing a role in protecting against age-related cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Inflammation: The typical Western diet provides a very high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, which may increase inflammation in the body. An omega-3 supplement can help to achieve a more ideal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and reduce inflammation.
- Arthritis and joint pain: The anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s may reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, including joint pain and stiffness. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of ninety patients with cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and/or osteoarthritis saw a significant reduction in inflammation and arthritic symptoms in just two weeks with a daily dose of 300 mg of krill oil.
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS): Numerous studies have found that supplementation of omega-3s reduces the pain and other symptoms of PMS as well as reducing the need for pain medication. One study of forty-two adolescents with dysmenorrhea (painful period) found a significant improvement in symptoms in those taking omega-3 compared with placebo.
Added benefits of krill oil
Krill oil and fish oil share many of the same health benefits, but krill oil has a few other factors that boost its efficacy.
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are present in both supplements, but in fish oil they are mostly triglycerides or ethyl esters and in krill oil they are mostly phospholipids. The different chemical makeup of phospholipids may make them easier for the body to absorb than the triglyceride/ethyl ester composition of EPA and DHA in fish oil.
The bioavailability of EPA and DHA may therefore be higher in krill oil, thus requiring a smaller dosage than fish oil to achieve the same health benefits.
A double-blind clinical study found krill oil (500mg twice a day) was as effective at lowering lipid levels as a much higher dose of purified omega-3 ethyl ester (1000mg twice a day) PUFAs. While both supplements lowered triglyceride levels, only krill oil was able to improve ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol and levels of apolipoprotein A1. The researchers concluded that krill oil has lipid-lowering effects comparable to those obtained from a 4-fold higher dose of purified omega 3 ethyl ester PUFAs.
Other studies have also found evidence that krill oil is more effective (in lower doses) than fish oil at lowering ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol while raising ‘good’ HDL cholesterol levels.
Based on studies so far, krill oil is at least as effective as fish oil at increasing the amount of EPA and DHA in the blood, perhaps more so. This means that there is more of the healthful omega-3 fatty acids available for the body to use.
The smaller dosage of krill oil also makes it easier to take. The large capsule size of fish oil supplements, or the oily, sometimes fishy aftertaste of liquid supplements can make taking fish oil a challenge. The higher bioavailability of the omega-3s in krill oil allows for a smaller capsule size, which makes it easier to ingest.
Krill oil also contains the powerful antioxidant astaxanthin, which is uncommon in fish oil. Astaxanthin is an antioxidant carotenoid pigment, also found in sources such as salmon and shellfish, that is associated with cardiovascular health and a stronger immune system.
Krill oil is also considered to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable than fish oil because krill reproduce much more quickly than the fatty fish used for fish oil, although it is important to select supplements that are endorsed by Friend Of The Sea or the Marine Stewardship Council.
Consult your doctor and follow the dosage recommendations on the package when taking krill oil. Omega-3 supplements should not be taken if you are on blood thinners or preparing for surgery, as omega-3s in large doses have an anti-clotting effect. More research is needed on the possible side effects of krill oil for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
It is recommended to get a daily dose of 250-500 mg of EPA and DHA combined, and not to exceed 5,000 mg. Keep in mind that this includes EPA and DHA from supplements as well as diet.
The Bottom Line
Research shows that the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in fish oil and krill oil offer a variety of health benefits. Supplementation with krill oil has the added benefits of omega-3s with a higher bioavailability (easier for the body to absorb and use) plus the antioxidant astaxanthin.
Some studies have shown that krill oil may be even more beneficial to cardiovascular health than fish oil. These added benefits along with the smaller dosage make krill oil an attractive choice when looking for an omega-3 supplement.