Is Too Much Fish Oil Dangerous for
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Last updated October 2, 2016 (originally published May 21, 2010)

By Louise Carr, Contributing Columnist

Fish oil has been hailed as a wonder-food in recent years. Its
biggest claim to fame is high levels of omega-3 fatty acids,
essential healthy fats that can help lower blood pressure,
reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and even improve
eye health.  But, is there any danger in taking fish oil
supplements? Is it possible to eat too much fish or take too
much fish oil?

First of all, let's be clear. For most of us, there is greater
danger in getting too
little fish oil than getting too much.

The benefits of consuming fish oil have been well-
documented. In a 2006 study from the Harvard School of
Public Health, researchers found that by eating around 2
grams per week of omega-3 fatty acids in fish, equal to
around two servings of fatty fish, the risk of dying from
heart disease was cut by more than one-third.

Omega-3 fatty acids contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA reduce
inflammation and pain, especially that associated with
conditions such as arthritis. The potential for omega-3 fatty
acids to reduce the occurrence of cancers, in particular
breast and prostate, is being researched. Clearly then, eating
fish with omega-3 .  Less clear, however, are the benefits of
consuming omega-3 in fish oil supplements rather than
eating the fish itself.

Fish oil is made from the tissues of oily fish. Many people
who don’t enjoy fish, or who can’t eat enough on a regular
basis, turn to supplements to boost their intake of these
beneficial fatty acids.

Fish oil supplement consumption in the United States has
rocketed. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, US
consumer sales of fish oil grew 29 percent to $627 million in
2007 and by a further 20 to 30 percent from 2007 to 2008.
Total sales of fish oil supplements have increased by more
than $600 million since 2001.  

Fish oil, it seems, can do no wrong. However, there are
notes of caution amongst the glowing health benefit reports.

Fish oil supplements may also harm your health. The U.S.
Food and Drug Administration classifies intake of up to 3
grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids from fish as GRAS
(Generally Regarded as Safe). Side effects from fish oil may
not initially be dangerous but taking above 3,000 mg over a
long period of time can cause problems.

What exactly are the dangers from taking too much fish oil?
How much is too much fish oil? Here is a list of the Top 10
health dangers associated with fish oil supplements and oily

Too Much Fish Oil Can Contribute to Toxic Levels of
Vitamin A---This Can Lead to Bone Fractures

Fish oil contains fat-soluble Vitamin A and may increase the
risk of Vitamin A toxicity. Specifically, taking fish oil
supplements as well as eating oily fish or liver (which are
also high in Vitamin A) more than once a week may make
your bones more likely to fracture in later life.

A Nurses Health Study in 2002 examined 72,337
postmenopausal women over a period of 18 years and
discovered that women who consumed at least 3000 mcg of
retinol (Vitamin A) a day were
48 percent more likely to
have a hip fracture compared to women whose daily intake
was less than 1250 mcg (4125 IU).

This is because Vitamin A in the form of retinol may interfere
with Vitamin D’s ability to absorb calcium in the body.

As fish oil supplements are high in retinol, taking them while
regularly consuming Vitamin A-rich foods can push you over
the safe limit.

What should you do, especially if you want to keep taking
fish oil supplements and eating loads of oily fish such as
salmon?  Get more Vitamin D. Make sure that you get enough

Sunlight is the most effective way to raise your Vitamin D
levels high enough to protect your bones.  And you needn't
overdo it and ruin your skin. Just 15 to 20 minutes of sun
gets you enough Vitamin D for bone health.

Too Much Fish Oil Increases the Risk of Bleeding

A potential side effect of consuming fish oil in high quantities
is an increased risk of bleeding. Bleeding can result in
nosebleeds, blood in the urine or in extreme cases, stroke.

Fish oils decrease the ability of your blood to form clots and
they reduce the stickiness of blood. If you are taking other
blood-thinning medication, such as aspirin, you should
consult your doctor.

Similarly, consult a medical professional if you are taking
medication to lower blood pressure. Small reductions in
blood pressure of 2-5mmHg have also been associated with
omega-3 fatty acids, with stronger effects at higher intakes.

Too Much Fish Oil Can Expose You to Heavy Metals

Certain species of fish such as mackerel, shark and swordfish
contain heavy metals like mercury, lead, nickel, and arsenic
and it follows that oil from these fish will also be affected.

However, consuming fish oil supplements has generally been
regarded as less risky than eating fresh fish. Harvard Medical
School researchers tested 5 brands of fish oil in 2003 and
found they had “negligible amounts of mercury and may
provide a safer alternative to fish consumption.”

The Food Standards Agency of the UK measured the total
mercury in 100 samples of fish oil supplements and found
just 9 samples that contained detectable levels of mercury.
When taking fish oil supplements go for brands that are
processed through molecular distillation which filters out
many harmful pollutants.

Fish Oil May Contain Unsafe Levels of PCBs

A lawsuit was filed in March 2010 against 10 fish oil
companies which it is alleged produce products that contain
unsafe levels of polychlorinated biphenyl compounds, or
PCBs. PCBs were banned in 1979 for causing cancer and
birth defects but are still found in some US waterways and
therefore in their fish. Plaintiffs argued all 10 brands tested
positive for the compound. However, the Council for
Responsible Nutrition (CRN) claims PCBs are everywhere in
the environment and that all fish or fish oil supplements will
have at least trace amounts of these organic compounds.

The case for PCBs isn't clear. A 2007 report on the benefits
and risks of eating fish compiled by the Institute of Medicine
calls the risk of cancer from PCBs “overrated.”

Too Much Fish Oil Can Cause Gastrointestinal Problems

One problem with taking large amounts of fish oil is the
damage it can do to your stomach. High doses can cause
stomach upsets, diarrhoea, heart burn and indigestion as
well as bloating and burping. Start your dose low and
consume it with a meal to minimise unpleasant effects.  

Keep fish oil in the fridge in a tightly closed container to
avoid the substance becoming rancid and upsetting the
stomach further.

Fish Oil Can Trigger An Irregular Heart Beat

A 1993-2003 study from the Portland VA Medical Center
found that fish oil supplements triggered potentially harmful
heart rhythms in the 200 patients studied, who already
suffered from heart irregularities.

Researchers discovered that 65 percent of the patients who
took fish oil supplements developed rhythm disturbances
over the next six months, compared with 36 percent of those
who took placebos. Around two-thirds of subjects taking
fish oil who suffered from tachycardia, or rapid heartbeat,
experienced episodes, compared with 37 percent of those
taking a placebo.

It's important to distinguish fish oil supplements from actual
oily fish. There has been no connection made by scientists
between eating oily fish such as salmon and experiencing a
rapid or irregular heart beat.]

Too Much Fish Oil Could Raise Bad LDL Cholesterol

While many take fish oil supplements thinking it will help
protect the heart, there is evidence that it may actually
increase some people’s chances of heart attack. A 1997
study from China recorded in the Journal of the Formosan
Medical Association shows that fish oil in large doses can
cause problems. Harmful LDL cholesterol can form plaques
that plug the arteries. Taking high levels of fish oil can cause
the body to raise levels of LDL cholesterol by up to 10
percent while creating a type of cholesterol that is unusually
good at forming these LDL plaques. The study found eating
moderate amounts of fish oil may help prevent heart attacks,
while taking extra fish oils may cause them.

Too Much Fish Oil During Pregnancy Can Be Dangerous

Expectant mothers should be careful when taking fish oil as
contaminants such as dioxins and mercury which may be
present in oily fish can cause increased problems during
pregnancy. High doses aren’t advisable due to the increased
risk of bleeding.

Fish Oil Can Trigger Allergies

Incidences of skin rash have been reported with fish oil and
although this side effect is rare people with an allergy or
hypersensitivity to fish should avoid fish oils, particularly in
high doses.

Fish Oil Can Cause Diabetes Complications

Fish oil can potentially increase blood sugar levels so should
be used with some caution by diabetics. Reports in the
1980s linked increased insulin need with long-term fish oil
consumption but available recent scientific evidence suggests
no major changes in blood sugar levels over the long term.


New research from Utrecht University in the Netherlands
published on September 12, 2011 in the journal
Cancer Cell
has found that
taking fish oil while you are undergoing
chemotherapy can inhibit the effectiveness of the

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