Omega 3 fatty acids—found in supplements and naturally in some foods like certain fish, and nuts and seeds—have long been touted for their health benefits, especially heart health. Yet, a lot is still unknown, including whether it's better to get your omega 3 fats from pills or in food—and the debate continues regarding how much they may actually help you avoid heart disease.
The strongest evidence for a beneficial effect of omega-3 fats has to do with heart disease. These fats appear to help the heart beat at a steady clip and not veer into a dangerous or potentially fatal erratic rhythm. (1) Such arrhythmias cause most of the 500,000-plus cardiac deaths that occur each year in the United States. Omega-3 fats also lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis. (1)
Harper, M., Thom, E., Klebanoff, M. A., Thorp, J., Jr., Sorokin, Y., Varner, M. W., Wapner, R. J., Caritis, S. N., Iams, J. D., Carpenter, M. W., Peaceman, A. M., Mercer, B. M., Sciscione, A., Rouse, D. J., Ramin, S. M., and Anderson, G. D. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation to prevent recurrent preterm birth: a randomized controlled trial. Obstet Gynecol 2010;115(2 Pt 1):234-242. View abstract.
Davidson, M. H., Stein, E. A., Bays, H. E., Maki, K. C., Doyle, R. T., Shalwitz, R. A., Ballantyne, C. M., and Ginsberg, H. N. Efficacy and tolerability of adding prescription omega-3 fatty acids 4 g/d to simvastatin 40 mg/d in hypertriglyceridemic patients: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Clin Ther 2007;29(7):1354-1367. View abstract.
Why would someone foul a perfectly good box of rotini with omega 3 oils? This is based on the belief that omega 3 fatty acids reduce heart disease and vascular risk, probably through reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. This is a plausible claim, but as we see over and over again in medicine, plausibility (while nice) is insufficient as a basis for clinical claims.
Participants treated with a daily dose of 2000 mg or more of omega-3 PUFAs showed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms. In addition, participants receiving supplements containing less than 60% EPA showed a significant association, but not those receiving supplements containing 60% or more EPA. The depression literature supports the clinical benefits of EPA-enriched formulations (≥60% or ≥50%) compared with placebo for the treatment of clinical depression.9,13,73-75 This opposite effect of EPA-enriched formations on anxiety and depression is intriguing and possibly linked to a distinct underlying mechanism of omega-3 PUFAs. Exploration of the effects of omega-3 PUFAs on anxiety symptoms is just beginning and studies assessing the dose response anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs have not yet been performed. Further phase 2 trials of anxiety symptoms among participants with neuropsychiatric illness or physical illness should aim to determine the optimal dose.
Fish or seafood allergy: Some people who are allergic to seafood such as fish might also be allergic to fish oil supplements. There is no reliable information showing how likely people with seafood allergy are to have an allergic reaction to fish oil. Until more is known, advise patients allergic to seafood to avoid or use fish oil supplements cautiously.
Although there are no randomized data on fish oil consumption and protection from sudden death, observational studies have linked omega-3 FA with the prevention of sudden death. In a population-based, case-control study of sudden cardiac death victims, the mean red blood cell membrane omega-3 FA level of the lowest quartile, when compared with the mean level of the third quartile, was associated with a relative risk reduction of 70%.33 A similar finding was appreciated in a nested, prospective, case-control study of the Physician Health Study cohort of 22,000 healthy males. In the 119 patients that succumbed to sudden death, baseline omega-3 FA blood levels were significantly lower than in matched controls.34 Finally, in an analysis of data from the Nurses Health Study, a cohort study of 84,688 women, an inverse association was shown between fish consumption and CAD-related death. The investigators concluded that the reduction in CAD deaths was likely due to a reduction in sudden deaths, as there was no difference in the rate of MI when comparing high and low fish consumption.35
Animal studies show potent reduction of liver fat stores, glucose levels, and cholesterol levels in mice supplemented with krill oil while being fed a high fat diet.64,65 While many of these effects are seen with fish oil as well, studies show that krill oil, with its unique phospholipid structure, had the added benefit of increasing fat-burning in mitochondria while reducing new glucose production in the liver.66,67 As with so many other complex disease processes, utilizing multiple pathways to reduce disease is a highly effective strategy.67
Omega 3 fatty acids are monounsaturated fats that come from food sources—primarily cold water fish (eg, salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel, and herring)—that contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Other fatty acids are derived from plant-derived sources of food—including nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds (eg, flax, chia, sunflower)—that have primarily ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).
Heterogeneity was examined using the Q statistic and the corresponding P values,41 and the I2 statistic was used to evaluate the proportion of variation resulting from among-study differences. Any possible publication bias was detected with both funnel plots and Egger regression in the main part of the meta-analysis.42 By using Duval and Tweedie’s trim-and-fill test, we adjusted the effect sizes for potential publication bias if there was evidence of publication bias detected by this test in the Comprehensive Meta-analysis statistical software, version 3.43 To investigate the potential confounding effects of any outliers within the recruited studies, sensitivity testing was conducted with the 1-study removal method to detect the potential outliers.44
The supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated oils prominent in fatty cold water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. In many observational studies, people who regularly consumed fish two or more times a week were less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths than those who ate fish infrequently or not at all.
In fact, dietary fat intake has been among the most widely studied dietary risk factors for breast and prostate cancers. Two studies from 2002 explain how omega-3 can protect against breast cancer. BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are two tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair DNA damage, a process that also prevents tumor development.
Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
People should get most of their nutrients from food, advises the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Foods contain vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and other substances that benefit health. In some cases, fortified foods and dietary supplements may provide nutrients that otherwise may be consumed in less-than-recommended amounts. For more information about building your own healthy eating pattern, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov. MyPlate offers messages, resources, and tools to help you make the choices that are right for you, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Badia-Tahull, M. B., Llop-Talaveron, J. M., Leiva-Badosa, E., Biondo, S., Farran-Teixido, L., Ramon-Torrell, J. M., and Jodar-Masanes, R. A randomised study on the clinical progress of high-risk elective major gastrointestinal surgery patients treated with olive oil-based parenteral nutrition with or without a fish oil supplement. Br.J.Nutr. 2010;104(5):737-741. View abstract.
Tanaka, K., Ishikawa, Y., Yokoyama, M., Origasa, H., Matsuzaki, M., Saito, Y., Matsuzawa, Y., Sasaki, J., Oikawa, S., Hishida, H., Itakura, H., Kita, T., Kitabatake, A., Nakaya, N., Sakata, T., Shimada, K., and Shirato, K. Reduction in the recurrence of stroke by eicosapentaenoic acid for hypercholesterolemic patients: subanalysis of the JELIS trial. Stroke 2008;39(7):2052-2058. View abstract.
Human diet has changed rapidly in recent centuries resulting in a reported increased diet of omega−6 in comparison to omega−3. The rapid evolution of human diet away from a 1:1 omega−3 and omega−6 ratio, such as during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, has presumably been too fast for humans to have adapted to biological profiles adept at balancing omega−3 and omega−6 ratios of 1:1. This is commonly believed to be the reason why modern diets are correlated with many inflammatory disorders. While omega−3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may be beneficial in preventing heart disease in humans, the level of omega−6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (and, therefore, the ratio) does not matter.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that everyone eats fish (particularly fatty, coldwater fish) at least twice a week. Salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, lake trout, and tuna are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids. While foods are your best bet for getting omega-3s in your diet, fish oil supplements are also available for those who do not like fish. The heart-healthy benefits of regular doses of fish oil supplements are unclear, so talk to your doctor to see if they're right for you. If you have heart disease or high triglyceride levels, you may need even more omega-3 fatty acids. Ask your doctor if you should take higher doses of fish oil supplements to get the omega-3s you need.
The GISSI-Prevenzione trial40 showed similar findings. In this open-label trial, 11,324 post-MI patients were followed for 3.5 years after randomization to either 1 g/d of omega-3 FA, vitamin E, both, or none. In the 2836 patients assigned to only omega-3 FA, the primary end point of death, nonfatal MI or stroke, was reduced by 10%. This decreased risk occurred despite a minimal triglyceride-lowering effect because of the relatively low dose of omega-3 FA. Of note, the GISSI-Prevenzione trial was done prior to the pervasive use of lipid-lowering agents. Only about 40% of patients were on any form of lipid-lowering therapy.
In another study, Australian researchers looked at whether giving infants added omega-3 fatty acids might improve health,4 including reducing their risk for heart disease. They gave 420 infants either an omega 3 supplement or olive oil from birth through six months, then revisited that at age 5 years to see if either group appeared healthier from a heart risk point of view.
Omega 3 is a type of fat. Small amounts of omega 3 fats are essential for good health, and they can be found in the food that we eat. The main types of omega 3 fatty acids are; alphalinolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is normally found in fats from plant foods, such as nuts and seeds (walnuts and rapeseed are rich sources). EPA and DHA, collectively called long chain omega 3 fats, are naturally found in fatty fish, such as salmon and fish oils including cod liver oil.
Another study conducted by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital examined the relationship between fish oil supplementation and indicators of cognitive decline. The subjects of the study were older adults: 229 cognitively normal individuals, 397 patients with mild cognitive impairment and 193 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They were assessed with neuropsychological tests and brain magnetic resonance imaging every six months while taking fish oil supplements. The study found that the adults taking fish oil (who had not yet developed Alzheimer’s and did not have genetic risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s known as APOE ε4) experienced significantly less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage than adults not taking fish oil. (9)
The three types of omega−3 fatty acids involved in human physiology are α-linolenic acid (ALA), found in plant oils, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both commonly found in marine oils. Marine algae and phytoplankton are primary sources of omega−3 fatty acids. Common sources of plant oils containing ALA include walnut, edible seeds, clary sage seed oil, algal oil, flaxseed oil, Sacha Inchi oil, Echium oil, and hemp oil, while sources of animal omega−3 fatty acids EPA and DHA include fish, fish oils, eggs from chickens fed EPA and DHA, squid oils, and krill oil. Dietary supplementation with omega−3 fatty acids does not appear to affect the risk of death, cancer or heart disease. Furthermore, fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes or any vascular disease outcomes.
Abnormal rapid heart rhythms (ventricular arrhythmias). Population research suggests that eating a lot of fish has no effect on the risk for abnormal rapid heart rhythms. Clinical research is inconsistent. Some research shows that taking fish oil daily does not affect the risk for abnormal heart rhythms. But other research shows that taking fish oil for 11 months delays the development of the condition. However, overall, taking fish oil does not seem to reduce the risk of death in people with abnormal rapid heart rhythms.