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How Good is Fish Oil for You Really?

“Make sure to take your fish oil,” Hunter Hillenmeyer, the vastly underrated former Chicago Bears linebacker told me.

It was six years ago, and I was interviewing him for an article about his life post-football. Inevitably our conversation drifted toward the issue of head injuries in the sport, and Hillenmeyer suggested fish oil as a possible remedy for brain damage.

Normally I dismiss this kind of advice as junk science — especially when it comes to athletes, who have consistently proven themselves to be some the biggest rubes on the planet — but I was willing to consider it because it was coming from Hillenmeyer.

He was — and remains — a profoundly interesting guy. He was the Bears’ union representative and finished his MBA from Northwestern while still playing in the NFL, a remarkable feat. His career was cut short by concussions, and he was one of the first NFL players to publicly speak out about the dangers of head trauma in the sport. Not to mention, Hillenmeyer successfully transitioned into a career in the startup world, eventually starting his own company, Overdog, that allows gamers to play against their favorite athletes in Madden (and other games). He remains a concussion awareness advocate, but unlike other famous former players, including fellow Chicago Bear alum Mike Ditka, Hillenmeyer doesn’t believe children should abandon the sport altogether — he just wants to make the game safer.

And, of course, he believes in the curing powers of fish oil.

But is fish oil legit? Like, does it actually work, or is it bullshit?

The short answer is kinda.

The longer answer is yes, fish oil has been found to provide many advantageous health effects, but most fish oil supplements are bullshit and don’t deliver any of those benefits.

Studying fish oil is actually its own kind of cottage industry. A cursory search for “fish oil” in Google Scholar, Google’s academic study database, returns more than half a million pages of results. At 10 results per page, that’s 5 million academic papers that in some way reference fish oil. And research about the health effects of fish dates back to the 1950s, when scientists were looking into whether fish oil could be used to treat diabetes. (Consensus: Unclear.)

Granted, not all of these studies are directly about the effect of fish oil on humans. And even some of the ones that do are hyper-specific and esoteric — e.g., “Biodiesel Production from Waste Fish Oil with High Free Fatty Acid Content from Moroccan Fish-Processing Industries.” But the sheer number of studies speaks to the endless fascination with fish oil, and how the wellness-industrial complex has touted fish oil as some kind of cureall. A few of the things it will allegedly improve, per that complex: Your skin, your vision, your waistline, your immune system and the health of your unborn baby. Some even tout it as a cancer treatment — the height of dubiousness.

WebMD, however, offers a more reliable confirmation of some of fish oil’s health benefits — namely, the presence of omega-3 fatty acids, a substance the human body doesn’t produce on its own. This makes fish oil highly effective at treating heart disease, and mildly effective at other heart-related ailments such as clearing clogged arteries and high blood pressure.

It’s less clear, however, if fish oil lives up to its reputation as a “brain food.” Some early research suggest fish oil might help with mental function — it might even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease — but the evidence isn’t yet conclusive.

Either way, the mitigating factor here is the quality of the fish oil supplement a person takes. Supplements remain unregulated by the FDA despite companies making outlandish health claims about their products. So you can never be quite sure what you’re getting.

And so, Harvard Medical School suggests an easy solution to the fish oil supplement problem: Eat fish instead of taking supplements. Salmon, mackerel and other fatty fish are rich in omega-3s, which is what you’re looking for anyway.

Give the fish oil supplements to your dog. At best, he turns into a Lassie-like superdog. At worst, you get to marvel at its incredibly disgusting farts.