Since 2004, scientists have been suggesting that the omega-3 index be used as a way to measure a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, in a similar way to how cholesterol levels are used today (1). A recent study funded by the National Institutes for Health even indicated that the omega-3 index could be a better predictor of death risk than serum cholesterol levels (2).
Omega-3 [(n-3)] long-chain PUFA, including EPA and DHA, are dietary fats with an array of health benefits (1). They are incorporated in many parts of the body including cell membranes (2) and play a role in antiinflammatory processes and in the viscosity of cell membranes (3, 4). EPA and DHA are essential for proper fetal development and healthy aging (5). DHA is a key component of all cell membranes and is found in abundance in the brain and retina (6). EPA and DHA are also the precursors of several metabolites that are potent lipid mediators, considered by many investigators to be beneficial in the prevention or treatment of several diseases (7).
Irish AB, Viecelli AK, Hawley CM, et al; Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oils) and Aspirin in Vascular Access Outcomes in Renal Disease (FAVOURED) Study Collaborative Group. Effect of fish oil supplementation and aspirin use on arteriovenous fistula failure in patients requiring hemodialysis: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(2):184-193. View abstract.
There have been conflicting results reported about EPA and DHA and their use with regard to major coronary events and their use after myocardial infarction. EPA+DHA has been associated with a reduced risk of recurrent coronary artery events and sudden cardiac death after an acute myocardial infarction (RR, 0.47; 95% CI: 0.219–0.995) and a reduction in heart failure events (adjusted HR: 0.92; 99% CI: 0.849–0.999) (34–36). A study using EPA supplementation in combination with a statin, compared with statin therapy alone, found that, after 5 y, the patients in the EPA group (n = 262) who had a history of coronary artery disease had a 19% relative reduction in major coronary events (P = 0.011). However, in patients with no history of coronary artery disease (n = 104), major coronary events were reduced by 18%, but this finding was not significant (37). This Japanese population already has a high relative intake of fish compared with other nations, and, thus, these data suggest that supplementation has cardiovascular benefits in those who already have sufficient baseline EPA+DHA levels. Another study compared patients with impaired glucose metabolism (n = 4565) with normoglycemic patients (n = 14,080). Impaired glucose metabolism patients had a significantly higher coronary artery disease HR (1.71 in the non-EPA group and 1.63 in the EPA group). The primary endpoint was any major coronary event including sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction, and other nonfatal events. Treatment of impaired glucose metabolism patients with EPA showed a significantly lower major coronary event HR of 0.78 compared with the non–EPA-treated impaired glucose metabolism patients (95% CI: 0.60–0.998; P = 0.048), which demonstrates that EPA significantly suppresses major coronary events (38). When looking at the use of EPA+DHA and cardiovascular events after myocardial infarction, of 4837 patients, a major cardiovascular event occurred in 671 patients (13.9%) (39). A post hoc analysis of the data from these diabetic patients showed that rates of fatal coronary heart disease and arrhythmia-related events were lower among patients in the EPA+DHA group than among the placebo group (HR for fatal coronary heart disease: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.27–0.97; HR for arrhythmia-related events: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.24–1.11, not statistically significant) (39). Another study found that there was no significant difference in sudden cardiac death or total mortality between an EPA+DHA supplementation group and a control group in those patients treated after myocardial infarction (40). Although these last 2 studies appear to be negative in their results, it is possible that the more aggressive treatment with medications in these more recent studies could attribute to this.
Omega-3 FA most likely reduce serum triglyceride levels by modulating very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and chylomicron metabolism. There is a consistent finding in the literature that the end effect of fish oil is decreased hepatic secretion of VLDL17—the major endogenous source of triglycerides. This effect occurs most likely through multiple mechanisms, including: (1) decreased synthesis of triglycerides because these omega-3 FA may not be the preferred substrates of the enzyme diacylglycerol O-acyltransferase,18 or they may interact with nuclear transcription factors that control lipogenesis19; cellular metabolism consequently shifts toward a decrease in triglyceride synthesis and an increase in FA oxidation; and (2) the promotion of apolipoprotein B degradation in the liver through the stimulation of an autophagic process.20 This means that fewer VLDL particles can be assembled and secreted. Fish oil may also accelerate VLDL and chylomicron clearance21 by inducing lipoprotein lipase activity.22
Heart disease. Eating fish can be effective for keeping people with healthy hearts free of heart disease. People who already have heart disease might also be able to lower their risk of dying from heart disease by eating fish. The picture is less clear for fish oil supplements. For people who already take heart medications such as a "statin" and those who already eat a decent amount of fish, adding on fish oil might not offer any additional benefit.