Fish Oils May Help People With Diabetes

Researchers find that omega-3 fatty acids (DHA) can help prevent fatty liver disease and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

It is common knowledge that people with type 2 diabetes are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In the late 1980s, researchers began to identify the use of dietary supplements with fish oil as one method to treat the typical dyslipidemia associated with diabetes. 

Omega 3 fatty acids

While animal fats are high in saturated fats, fish oils are high in polyunsaturated fats, specifically omega-3 fatty acids. Over the past few decades, many studies have shown some benefit to the addition of omega-3 fatty acids and new studies continue to be published today solidifying the fact that they may have some benefit in reducing cardiovascular disease.

A new study published in Diabetes Care1 also revealed that increasing fish intake, and subsequent omega-3 fatty acids, can also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes in men.  Additional studies can be helpful to assess its benefit for the entire population.

Latest Research

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially those derived from fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or sardines, may have a wider health benefit than previously suspected. Of importance to people with diabetes is the finding that DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) “may reduce the formation of harmful glucose metabolites linked to diabetic complications,” reported researchers from Oregon State University.

The investigators sought to further study the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids metabolites on the liver, a study coined “metabolomics.” The team discovered that when laboratory animals were given the equivalent of 2 to 4 grams per day of DHA, the supplement helped to prevent fatty liver disease and assisted in vitamin, carbohydrate, and amino acid metabolism.2

The study also looked at how the “Western diet,” characterized by an increased consumption of saturated fat, sugar, red meat, and processed grains, effects liver health.  Researchers were surprised that supplementation of DHA, helped protect the metabolic pathways that are commonly damaged from the “Western diet.”

3-Part Study

The study was the final installment in a 3-part series of tests that focused on how DHA and EPA, two forms of Omega -3 fatty acid, affected the metabolic health of laboratory mice’s livers.

The common unhealthy foods associated with this diet can raise bad cholesterol (LDL), cause liver problems, and be “highly atherogenic,” causing plaque buildup in the body’s arteries, said Donald Jump, PhD, professor at Oregon State University who took part in the recent study.

This is good news for people with diabetes, as DHA may be helpful in reducing the formation of dangerous glucose metabolites, leading to common diabetic complications. The data suggests that omega-3 fatty acids help decrease liver fat, inflammation, as well as aid in glucose and lipid metabolism, said Dr. Jump.

While Omega-3 has already been found to positively affect lipid metabolism and prevent liver inflammation, the new study found other biological pathways, such as amino acid, carbohydrate, and vitamin metabolism, were benefitted from DHA consumption. The study was able to do this by looking at how DHA aided the metabolic pathways that smaller molecules like carbohydrates, lipids, and amino acids take as they’re processed in the liver, said Dr. Jump.

Conflicting Findings

There have been numerous additional studies conducted on omega-3 fatty acids over the years. These studies have varied in their conclusions. Dr. Jump noted that omega-3’s benefits have yet to be fully established. Oftentimes this is because much of the research done on omega-3 fatty acids included different forms of supplements administered in varying quantities to both diabetic and non-diabetic subjects.

Also, people with diabetes or other chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease are commonly already taking other medications. This makes it challenging for researchers to examine just how exactly fatty acids like DHA may or may not benefit their health, said Dr. Jump.

Talk With Your Doctor

While the recent study does suggest DHA fatty acids can help reduce liver inflammation and benefit glucose and lipid metabolism, experts still stress that consultation with an experienced doctor or endocrinologist is important before adding a large supplementation of DHA fatty acid to one’s diet.

“I would definitely recommend [people with diabetes] talk to their healthcare provider before buying supplements,” said Keith Carlson RN, BSN, NC-BC, a nurse practitioner and contributing author to

“Ask your healthcare provider if they recommend a particular brand. Do your research. If you’re really not sure go see a diabetes educator and endocrinologist,” he added.

There are numerous online resources that further discuss the benefits of omega-3 consumption, including the American Diabetes Association and National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Updated on: July 26, 2017