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Fish Oil & Omega 3 for Acne

Fish oil is an effective acne supplement. Its major constituents are Omega-3 fatty acids.
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What is Fish Oil?

Fish oil is obtained from the tissues of fatty or oily fish like cod, salmon, shark, swordfish, mackerel, tuna, halibut and catfish.

The major constituents of fish oil are Omega-3 fatty acids. These include EPA or Eicosapentaenoic acid and DHA or Docosahexaenoic acid.

These fish do not really synthesize Omega-3 fatty acids but instead obtain them from marine life lower in the food chain. Along with these fatty acids, these fish also accumulate antioxidants like iodine and selenium which find their way into fish oil.

The downside of directly accumulating compounds from their prey is that these fish can also accumulate environmental toxins such as mercury, dioxin and PCBs.

Almost all of the medical benefits of fish oil are due to the Omega-3 fatty acids. They are currently being investigated or used for the treatment of a wide variety of diseases. Medical conditions for which fish oil show promises range from cardiovascular diseases and cancers to depression and skin diseases.

What are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids which are commonly found in plant oils (flaxseed oil etc.) and oils obtained from marine life (fish oil, algal oil, squid oil etc.).

Apart from DHA and EPA, ALA or alpha Linolenic acid is also an important Omega-3 fatty acid in humans. ALA is a short-chain fatty acid while EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids.

In humans, ALA is converted to EPA which is then converted to DHA. While this conversion is only limited in humans, women convert more ALA to EPA and DHA than men.

Still, the amount of EPA and DHA obtained through this conversion is limited, and Omega-3 supplements such as fish oil are advised.

Although Omega-3 fatty acids were recognized to contribute to normal growth as early as in the 30s, their innumerable health benefits only became commonly known in the 90s.

In the 70s, a group of researchers documented the low incidence of cardiovascular diseases among the Inuit living in Greenland in spite of their high consumption of fatty fish. This cardiovascular protection is now known to be provided by the Omega-3 fatty acids found in those fish.

The cardiovascular benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids are chiefly due to EPA and DHA. ALA has not been shown to provide such benefits.

Omega-3 fatty acids stimulate blood circulation, reduce blood pressure and prevent blood clots by breaking down fibrin. The breakdown of fibrin can also help acne patients because it can help dissolve scars.

Other medical benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids include their effectiveness in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, ADHD, depression and nerve damage. They are also used for improving appetite and muscle mass in cancer patients, improving immune function, reducing inflammation and treating skin diseases such as psoriasis and acne.

The Anti-Inflammatory Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Up until the last few decades, Omega-6 fatty acids were more studied than Omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, they were the first fatty acids discovered to be converted to compounds known as eicosanoids.

Eicosanoids include leukotrienes, thromboxanes and prostaglandins. They are components of the immune reaction and are known as inflammatory agents.

Although eicosanoids are short-lived compounds, when the body produces them from Omega-6 fatty acids faster than they are broken down, a cycle of inflammation can result and contribute to acne breakouts.

Therefore, Omega-6 fatty acids can cause inflammation.

Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are described as anti-inflammatory. However, this is not totally accurate. Omega-3 fatty acids are also converted to eicosanoids but at a much slower rate.

This means that the eicosanoids produced from Omega-3 fatty acids do not stay long enough to cause actual inflammations. Instead, they are broken down faster than they are produced. This produces a net anti-inflammatory effect.

This is one of the reasons why the ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids should exceed Omega-6 fatty acids for fish oils and fatty acid supplements to provide the most therapeutic benefits.

How Fish Oil and Omega 3 Fatty Acids Treat Acne

Diet plays an important role in skin health. While some fats worsen acne, Omega-3 fatty acids actually reduce acne breakouts and severity.

The anti-inflammatory property of Omega-3 fatty acids is the main reason it is useful in acne treatment. By reducing skin inflammation, these fatty acids prevent the formation of acne lesions especially the deep ones such as nodules and cysts which appear in cases of severe acne.

Skin inflammation during acne is a result of bacterial action on the skin. When bacteria such as Propionibacterium acnes and Staphylococcus epidermis colonize the skin, they set off a chain reaction of infections and changes to the pilosebaceous units in the skin.

The immune system responds by sending the eicosanoids to the site of the bacterial attack.

When prostaglandins and leukotrienes reach the area of the skin affected by these bacteria, they can cause the tissues to swell. Leukotrienes also stimulate sebum production from the sebaceous gland.

To combat the actions of eicosanoids such as leukotriene on the sebaceous gland, a drug called zileuton can be taken to prevent increased sebum production. However, the same effect is provided by EPA found in fish oil.

Acne and Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Research Findings

A 2008 study published in Lipids in Health and Disease by M. Rubin et al. showed that acne patients given Omega-3 supplements containing 250mg of EPA four times daily for 8 weeks experienced a marked improvement in their inflammatory acne lesions.

However, the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids were recognized as early as the 60s. In a study published in 1961 by J.M Hitch and B.G Greenburg, all of the signs of acne including papules, pimples, seborrhea, comedones and cysts were at the lowest in teenagers who ate a lot of fish and seafood.

A 1989 paper published in the International Journal of Dermatology by Schaffer et al. showed that communities whose diets were rich in Omega-3 fatty acids had the lowest rates of acne.

Different studies between 2001 and 2007 established the link between inflammation, acne and supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids. A summary of the findings is provided below:

Omega 3 Fatty Acids & Inflammation
  • A subtype of leukotriene called leukotriene B4 or LTB4 was identified as a major cause of inflammatory acne lesions
  • Leukotriene B4 was also discovered to trigger a sharp increase in sebum production
  • Inhibition of leukotriene B4 reduces sebum production and reduces the formation of inflammatory acne lesions by as much as 70%
  • Omega-3 fatty acids can inhibit leukotriene B4. This is one of the mechanisms by which these fatty acids provide their anti-inflammatory effects
  • Fish oil can also provide similar benefits because it contains Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Apart from reducing skin inflammations, Omega-3 fatty acids can also prevent the hyperkeratinization of the sebaceous follicles and, therefore, reduce the breakdown of skin cells as well as the clogging of pores by dead skin cells and sebum

How to Use Fish Oil For Acne

The actual dose of fish oil to take for your acne will depend on the source of the fish oil you obtained and the severity of your acne.

Since there are no standard doses, it is best to start with a low dose of the fish oil. ½ teaspoon per day is a good starting dose. You may increase this to 1 teaspoon if you can tolerate the fish oil well.

It is worth noting that not all fish oils are equal.

Fish oils may contain other substances beside Omega-3 fatty acids. For example, cod liver oil also contains high levels of vitamins A and D. Therefore, it should be carefully used (dietary sources of vitamin A may have to be avoided) to prevent hypervitaminosis A.

Fish oil can also be rubbed on the skin to treat acne. You can take a little with a cotton ball and rub on the area covered by the acne for a minute. Leave it on overnight or at least for 6 hours before washing off.

Fish oil is generally well absorbed through the skin. Since most of the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids are provided locally in the skin, it is possible that the topical application of fish oil will provide the same benefits as its oral administration.

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