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Best of Fishy Medicine

February 9, 2011 Written by JP       [Font too small?]

The way you perceive things can dramatically influence the results you find. I think many people accept this concept as true to some extent. But how many of us actually keep this philosophy in mind when applying it in practical terms? For example – when psychiatrists throughout the world prescribe a medication for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or clinical depression, most patients are inclined to believe that it will relieve their symptoms. However, would the same mindset hold true if a physician “prescribed” eating more fish or supplementing with fish oil for the same conditions? Setting aside the relative efficacy of the respective treatments, it’s important to understand that the way you think about any given therapy is likely to affect the outcome – for better or for worse.

One of the most powerful natural health concepts I know of is to: think of food and supplements as serious medicine. Don’t just dismiss them as something we all need to sustain our bodies. Food is so much more than that. There are naturally occurring chemicals in everyday foods that can promote healing in ways that medications cannot. What’s more, using food to enhance health puts you in the enviable position of protecting your good health so that, eventually, you may not require certain medical interventions at all.

Many health experts consider fish a superfood. Chief among its attributes are two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA or docosahexaenoic acid and EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid, which appear to influence the human body and brain in some positive and specific ways. This is illustrated in several current studies that are featured in the medical literature:

  1. Recently, a group of 92 children with ADHD was given a placebo or 500 mg of EPA over a 15 week period. Those receiving the fish oil demonstrated improvements in ADHD symptoms as measured by the Conners’ Parent/Teacher Rating Scale. The kids classified as “oppositional” exhibited the greatest reduction in undesirable symptoms. The concluding remarks of the researchers note that, “Increasing EPA and decreasing omega-6 fatty acid concentrations in phospholipids were related to clinical improvement”. (1)
  2. An examination of 33,623 Swedish women with varying degrees of “psychotic-like symptoms” determined that eating fish regularly significantly lowered the incidence of “high level symptoms”. The risk of such symptoms was 53% higher in women who didn’t eat fish at all as compared to those consuming fish 3 to 4 times a week. As a side note, women with the highest Vitamin D intake demonstrated a 37% reduced likelihood of psychotic characteristics. Certain species of fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines are excellent sources of Vitamin D. (2,3)
  3. The May 2010 issue of the International Journal of Cancer reports that DHA is capable of delaying the development and inhibiting the growth of neuroblastomas in an animal model. This is a form of cancer that takes root in nerve tissue of infants and young children. Previous laboratory investigations suggest that DHA can lead to the selective death or apoptosis of neuroblastoma cells. The next line of inquiry will be “studies aiming at a clinical application in children with high-risk neuroblastoma”. (4,5)
DHA May Contribute to Improved Mental Development and Mental Health
Source: Am J Clin Nutr 89: 958S-962S, 2009. (link)

Many people would likely benefit from the inclusion of more fish in their diet. But not just any fish will do. The April 2010 issue of Eat Well magazine provides a convenient and informative guide to selecting the healthiest seafood for ourselves and the environment.

  • “6 Super Green Fish To Serve” - Albacore Tuna (troll or pole-caught in the US or British Columbia), Mussels & Oysters (farmed), Pink Shrimp & Spot Prawns (wild-caught in British Columbia and Oregon), Rainbow Trout (farmed) and Salmon (wild-caught in Alaska)
  • “6 Threatened Fish to Save” - Bluefin Tuna, Chilean Sea Bass, Groupers, Monkfish, Orange Roughy and Salmon (farmed)

In order to make the “best of” list, certain criteria had to be met, including low levels of select contaminants such as mercury (<216 parts per billion/ppb) and PCBs (<11 ppb). In addition, these fish are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids and are classified as “sustainable”.

Eating a diet that’s abundant in DHA and EPA is essentially a return to form for human beings. Most of our ancestors were very familiar with just this type of menu plan. However, the modern age has brought about a significant shift in what we eat. The past few centuries have also shuttled in a number of health concerns that weren’t nearly as prevalent in previous generations. The reasons for this documented decline in health are many. But few medical experts disagree that diet and lifestyle considerations are pivotal factors in this downward spiral. Thankfully, diet and lifestyle can be modified. Now that’s my idea of serious medicine. (6,7,8)

Update: February 2011 - I’ve noticed that increased awareness about environmental toxins is frequently making its way into the “fish as health food” debate. As is often the case, there’s some evidence underlying the concerns expressed by consumers and health care experts alike. It’s true that our waterways are exposed to a greater number of questionable chemicals than ever before. But the implications need to be examined closely. For instance, research from both Canada and Europe concedes that regular fish consumption can lead to higher levels of chlorinated pesticides and mercury in humans. However, the human body is quite resilient and this added chemical burden doesn’t necessarily mean that poor health will follow. The current issue of the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging presents an illustration. The eating habits of 3,380 mothers were carefully analyzed during the first trimester. No association between fatty fish, lean fish or shellfish intake and fetal growth or neonatal complications was discovered. What also needs to be taken into account is the overall risk-benefit balance of fish or any other dietary component. Study after study indicates that those who eat more fish appear to be protected from a variety of age-related health threats including certain forms of cancer, dementia and kidney disease. This cannot and should not be discounted when considering whether to include fish in your diet. The bottom line is that fish offers too much promise to simply abandon indiscriminately. Instead I think it’s best to select the cleanest possible fish available and/or to supplement with purified sources of omega-3 fatty acids. (9,10,11,12,13,14,15)

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!


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4 Comments & Updates to “Best of Fishy Medicine”

  1. Laurence Says:

    I love how you said the best natural health concept is to think of food and supplements as serious medicine. Most people think taking vitamins isn’t important and is actually dangerous! The fact of the matter is that only about 25 people have died over the last 25 years from vitamin overdose! I take omega-3 supplements every day, because (as you rightly pointed out) it’s one of the most important nutrients for the body. I’ve dealt with depression over the years and I heard that eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help treat depression. I did that, and what do you know, it worked (at least I think it did because I’m happier). I took anti-depressants for a while, which did nothing. I just read the study that was published that 1\4th of people on antidepressants don’t even have symptoms of depression. Maybe we should start giving people fish oil supplements instead of antidepressants! I really liked that chart you made that talks about how DHA may contribute to improved mental development. I’ve heard that omega-3s are really important early in life because that’s when the brain needs it to develop. I’m not sure, but I think eating lots of omega-3 fatty acids might also help delay aging of the brain? Regardless, omega-3s are extremely important for the body! I wrote an article on my nutrition blog about it :) http://nutritionisthesolution.com/are-omega-3-supplements-good-for-you
    I checked out your Feb 2011 update about environmental toxins and the food as health foods debate. I’ve decided that I’m not going to eat salmon anymore, even if it’s wild. There are simply too many toxins even in the natural environment because of all these oil spills. Of course, farm raised salmon is even worse because it has PCBs. I don’t see why people can’t eat nuts instead of salmon to get omega-3 fatty acids, what do you think?

  2. JP Says:


    I’m a big fan of various nuts and seeds. However they don’t supply the same forms of omega-3s that are found in fish (DHA & EPA). For those that wish to avoid eating fish altogether, I generally suggest considering purified fish oil or krill oil. It’s also important to remember that wild salmon provides a good source of the rare antioxidant astaxanthin and protein.

    Be well!


  3. WP @ The Conscious Life Says:

    Thanks for the well-written article, JP! You’ve made otherwise complicated research data into something that laymen can understand. Indeed, many diseases can be treated and even prevented if we take the foods we eat each day seriously, and stop treating our mouth as a trash hole.

    While there’s no doubt that fish is good for us, I’m also worried about overfishing. As you’ve rightly highlighted, some species are dangerously close to extinction. So I do hope more awareness can be driven in this area: Eat fish from sustainable fisheries.


  4. JP Says:

    Update 06/17/15:


    Br J Nutr. 2015 Jun 16:1-8.

    Dietary intakes of fats, fish and nuts and olfactory impairment in older adults.

    It is unclear whether lifestyle modifications, such as dietary changes, should be advocated to prevent olfactory dysfunction. We investigated the association between dietary intakes of fats (saturated, mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and cholesterol) and related food groups (nuts, fish, butter, margarine) with olfactory impairment. There were 1331 and 667 participants (older than 60 years) at baseline and 5-year follow-up, respectively, with complete olfaction and dietary data. Dietary data were collected using a validated semi-quantitative FFQ. Olfaction was measured using the San Diego Odor Identification Test. In a cross-sectional analysis of baseline data, those in the highest v. lowest quartile of n-6 PUFA intake had reduced odds of having any olfactory impairment, multivariable-adjusted OR 0·66 (95 % CI 0·44, 0·97), P for trend = 0·06. Participants in the highest v. lowest quartile of margarine consumption had a 65 % reduced odds of having moderate/severe olfactory impairment (P for trend = 0·02). Participants in the highest quartile compared to the lowest quartile (reference) of nut consumption had a 46 % (P for trend = 0·01) and 58 % (P for trend = 0·001) reduced odds of having any or mild olfactory impairment, respectively. Older adults in the highest v. lowest quartile of fish consumption had 35 % (P for trend = 0·03) and 50 % (P for trend = 0·01) reduced likelihood of having any or mild olfactory impairment, respectively. In longitudinal analyses, a marginally significant association was observed between nut consumption and incidence of any olfactory impairment, highest v. lowest quartile of nut consumption: OR 0·61 (95 % CI 0·37, 1·00). Older adults with the highest consumption of nuts and fish had reduced odds of olfactory impairment, independent of potential confounding variables.

    Be well!


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