One reason omega-3 fatty acids may be so beneficial to this many aspects of health could be that they help decrease system-wide inflammation. (49, 50, 51, 52, 53) Inflammation is at the root of most diseases and is related to the development of nearly every major illness, so by eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet, you give your body its best chance to fight disease like it was designed to do.
In 2016, AHRQ reviewed 143 studies that evaluated the effects of giving omega-3 supplements to pregnant or breastfeeding women or giving formulas with added DHA to infants. They found that when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their babies’ birth weight was slightly higher, but the risk of an undesirably low birth weight did not change. Also, when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their pregnancies lasted a little longer, but there was no effect on the risk of premature birth. Omega-3s were not found to have effects on any other aspects of the mothers’ or infants’ health or the infants’ long-term development. Aspects of the infants’ health that were not shown to be affected by omega-3s include growth after birth, visual acuity, long-term neurological and cognitive development, and the risks of autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and allergies.
Cardiovascular disease is the cause of 38% of all deaths in the United States, many of which are preventable (28). Chronic inflammation is thought to be the cause of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease (29). EPA and DHA are thought to have antiinflammatory effects and a role in oxidative stress (30) and to improve cellular function through changes in gene expression (31). In a study that used human blood samples, EPA+DHA intake changed the expression of 1040 genes and resulted in a decreased expression of genes involved in inflammatory and atherogenesis-related pathways, such as nuclear transcription factor κB signaling, eicosanoid synthesis, scavenger receptor activity, adipogenesis, and hypoxia signaling (31). Circulating markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), TNF α, and some ILs (IL-6, IL-1), correlate with an increased probability of experiencing a cardiovascular event (32). Inflammatory markers such as IL-6 trigger CRP to be synthesized by the liver, and elevated levels of CRP are associated with an increased risk of the development of cardiovascular disease (33). A study of 89 patients showed that those treated with EPA+DHA had a significant reduction in high-sensitivity CRP (66.7%, P < 0.01) (33). The same study also showed a significant reduction in heat shock protein 27 antibody titers (57.69%, P < 0.05), which have been shown to be overexpressed in heart muscle cells after a return of blood flow after a period of ischemia (ischemia-reperfusion injury) and may potentially have a cardioprotective effect (33).
Researchers are taking a hard look at a different sort of balance, this one between possible effects of marine and plant omega-3 fats on prostate cancer. Results from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and others show that men whose diets are rich in EPA and DHA (mainly from fish and seafood) are less likely to develop advanced prostate cancer than those with low intake of EPA and DHA. (6) At the same time, some-but not all-studies show an increase in prostate cancer and advanced prostate cancer among men with high intakes of ALA (mainly from supplements). However, this effect is inconsistent. In the very large Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, for example, there was no link between ALA intake and early, late, or advanced prostate cancer. (7)
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.
More than 30 clinical trials have tested different omega-3 preparations in people with depression. Most studies have used omega-3s as add-on therapy for people who are taking prescription antidepressants with limited or no benefit. Fewer studies have examined omega-3 therapy alone. Clinical trials typically use EPA alone or a combination of EPA plus DHA, at doses from 0.5 to 1 gram per day to 6 to 10 grams per day. To give some perspective, 1 gram per day would correspond to eating three salmon meals per week.
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