Is Taking Fish Oil the Answer to your Inflammation? Maybe.

Fish oil is a supplement often recommended to help reduce inflammation. Many people take it, including me and my family. Are there instances, however, where fish oil can actually do more harm than good and not be the answer? 

Unfortunately, yes. Read on to find out when, how and what to do about it. 

Disclaimer: Info cited can go off into so many different directions and immunology itself is super complex! All ideas presented below are oversimplified but thoroughly researched for optimal digestion. For more info see citation sources below.

Fish Oil as an Anti-Inflammatory

It’s well documented in the literature that fish oil is highly anti-inflammatory.* DHA and EPA, their resolvins and protectins (metabolic by- products of omega 3 fatty acids) and pro-resolving inflammatory mediators all contribute to eventually help stop the cycle of inflammation (1,5). One of the ultimate metabolic effects mediated by these compounds, is that they help fight oxidative stress (2). Basically, when you have more free radicals than antioxidants circulating in your system then your oxidative stress levels are high. The result? You’re inflamed. For many, taking fish oil is the answer to this.

Fish oil can also prevent inflammation from becoming chronic (4). Inflammation is our body’s natural response to invaders and/or injury and ultimately we want our bodies to turn on this cycle when we’re “threatened.” However, the problem for many, is that this cycle never turns off and they end up being chronically inflamed. Chronic inflammation is thought to be the root cause of many modern day diseases such as Alzheimers, Parkinsons, cancer etc.(5). Many take fish oil for this very reason as well.

So while taking fish oil seems to be the possible indirect panacea to the disease epidemic, the question still remains; when does taking high or moderately high doses fish oil become a problem? 

The Answer…

When your body can’t produce its own natural anti-inflammatory chemicals (11). In other words, it can’t quench oxidative damage on its own (6,8). If you have an impaired ability to form, produce and/or replenish your own core biological anti-oxidants, fish oil goes from being an anti-inflammatory substance to a pro-inflammatory one (9). 

At this point you may be thinking; “Wait… what?! But that’s why I’m taking fish oil to begin with!” This is where stopping the cycle of inflammation can get complex; because having the ability to form and/or maintain core antioxidants in the body is a separate but still vital component to resolving the inflammatory cycle. 

You can have a certain level of core antioxidants and still be chronically inflamed. This is an example of where fish oil can help (8). The problem with fish oil arises when you’re chronically inflamed AND have low levels of core antioxidants (9). So what are examples of these core antioxidants?

Core Biological Antioxidants


Glutathione is one example of a core anti-oxidant. It’s found in every cell in the body where it’s formed (10). However, age and any type of stress (physical and mental) can greatly reduce our glutathione levels (10). This means we lose much of our own body’s anti-inflammatory chemicals and processes. These reduced levels are linked to many diseases, symptoms and disorders (11). Also, if you’re one of the unlucky few that has gene polymorphysms (changes in gene status) you not only have to worry about depleting your levels, but inherently, you may be struggling with forming and/or producing it. 

Superoxide Dismutases (SODs)

SOD’s are another set of core antioxidants that our bodies produce (10). They constitute a very important defense system against oxidative stress in the body. These enzymes are found in our cells and help regulate a variety of processes including the immune system (10). The SODs are considered free radical scavengers and ultimately help prevent oxidative damage. Our bodies ability to synthesize them is highly dependent on diet and genes (isn’t everything?!) and an inability to “produce” SOD’s can also shift fish oil from an anti-inflammatory substance to a pro-inflammatory one (10,12).

The Shift (Auto-Oxidation) Process

When fish oil auto-oxidizes in your body it literally converts from an anti-inflammatory to a pro-inflammatory. DHA, rather than turning into its highly touted anti-inflammatory D series resolvins,  converts into isoprostanes and neuroprostanes; compounds formed by oxidative stress that play a crucial role in neurodegenerative diseases (8) and ultimately, inflammation. So instead of putting out the fire of inflammation, you’re adding fuel to it.

At this point you may be thinking: “well, then what’s the point of taking it, if there’s a chance that I might be making things worse?!”

Once again, the answer to reducing many modern day health concerns, in this case chronic inflammation, requires a multifaceted approach. There is no one mechanism that helps resolve the problem; rather a variety of changes need to be implemented.

How to Benefit from Fish Oil

Eat a wide range of whole, real, nutrient dense foods.

Vitamin and micro-nutrient deficiencies like vitamin A, copper or zinc reduce the function and activity of the SOD1 enzyme (10). Make sure to eat a “real food” diet (minimally processed– since highly processed foods are void of micro-nutrients) so as to assimilate these essential nutrients. Not only to help maintain SOD levels but also maintain all of your core antioxidants. 

Reduce stress.

Yes, stress (and perceived stress) is all inflammatory, but stress levels directly affect glutathione in our bodies (11). Low and/or are depleted levels of glutathione contribute to auto-xidation AND possibly the auto-oxidization of your fish oil.


You can supplement with the antioxidants mentioned above to balance fish oil, but keep in mind, that taking exogeneous antioxidants is not the same as your body making them. You can also supplement with the core compounds your body needs to make the above enzymes, compounds etc, (10). In the instances of genetic polymorphisms, supplementation may be the best solution. 

Seek out functional testing.

Micronutrient, glutathione and oxidative stress levels, are all markers and/or “windows you can peak into” through the use of functional testing. These markers can give you an excellent idea of what your own antioxidant and inflammation levels are and if fish oil can ultimately help.


So while, yes, our lifestyle today is an overall inflammatory lifestyle, our ability to recover from an inflammatory attack and restore our bodies back to their natural anti-inflammatory state is, ultimately, what’s of importance. It’s also imperative for long term health! 

So while taking fish oil may seem like a quick and easy fix, keep in mind, that when it comes to our health, there is no one supplement that can fix all; many changes need to occur and we’re all different. Knowing your own body, how it works and what state it’s in is key; so that you too, can benefit from taking high dose fish oil.

*While quality, sourcing, potency and other “anti-fish oil” arguments are all relevant, they are beyond the scope of this post. 

Interested in learning more about functional testing and how I can help you get relief from your symptoms? Contact me HERE.

Sources and Inspiration

1) DHA- and EPA-derived resolvins, protectins, and maresins in airway inflammation

2) Ameliorating Effect of Fish Oil on Acrylamide Induced Oxidative Stress and Neuronal Apoptosis in Cerebral Cortex

3) Everything You Should Know About Oxidative Stress

4) Supplementation with fish oil improves life quality, and decreases inflammatory status and oxidative stress in psoriasis

5) Inflammation: A unifying theory of disease Inflammation: A unifying theory of disease?

6)  Effects of Oral Glutathione Supplementation on Systemic Oxidative Stress Biomarkers in Human Volunteers

7) Profiling in resolving inflammatory exudates identifies novel anti‐inflammatory and pro‐resolving mediators and signals for termination

8) Functional Metabolomics Reveals Novel Active Products in the DHA Metabolome

9) Lipid Peroxidation End-Products as a Key of Oxidative Stress: Effect of Antioxidant on Their Production and Transfer of Free Radicals

10) What is Glutathione

11) Lipid peroxidation products are elevated in fish oil diets even in the presence of added antioxidants.

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