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Fish Oil: New Information on Who Benefits

If heart health is on your radar, you’ve most likely heard that fish and fish oil can be beneficial. And while we have known for some time about the potential benefits of fish in the diet, the specific role of supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids has been less clear, thanks to different studies with inconsistent results.

New Research

Now we know more. A new study released this year has clarified the link between supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and the development of heart disease. This study took some significant steps:

  1. It summarized the data from multiple previous studies, in a way that provides more information than the individual studies themselves. Think of the Aristotle quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
  2. It looked at the best quality studies – called randomized trials.
  3. It also examined the valuable components of omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
  4. Finally, the researchers focused specifically on heart and circulatory complications.

The Results

Researchers found the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, either from food or supplements like fish oil, reduced the risk of heart disease by 6%. This drop might seem impressive at first glance but is actually statistically insignificant. The good news is there was a striking decrease in risk for patients who started out with high triglyceride levels (> 150 mg/dL) or LDL cholesterol (> 130 mg/dL). When the researchers included more nonrandomized studies, the drop in heart disease was 18%. Another significant result was that there doesn’t appear to be any harmful effect from taking fish-oil supplements.

What can we conclude?

First, supplementation with 1 g of omega-3 fatty acids daily, either from food or supplements, looks to be mildly beneficial in preventing heart and circulatory disease.

Second, the majority of the benefit is in patients who start out with an elevation of triglyceride or LDL cholesterol. Previous studies  have shown that otherwise healthy patients get minimal or no benefit from fish oil supplements.

Third, there doesn’t appear to be evidence of harm at this level of supplementation.

The work isn’t finished

There are more detailed studies underway to figure out the best level of supplementation for specific patients.

And don’t forget there are other potential benefits of fish oil supplementation unrelated to heart disease, so if taking a fish-oil pill makes you feel better or healthier, go for it. Just make sure to talk it over with your doctor before considering any supplement or other therapy.

Hungry for more? Here’s a video I recorded last year for the blogging site Vidoyen.com. The topic: Do Fish Oil supplements prevent heart disease?

Reference to original article: Alexander D, Miller P, Van Elswyk M, et al. A meta-analysis of randomized trials and prospective cohort studies of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic long chain omega-3 fatty acids and coronary heart disease risk. Mayo Clin Proc 2017;92:15-29

This article was originally published on The Heart Health Doctors, a blog written by OhioHealth cardiologists, Kanny Grewal, MD, and Anne Albers, MD.


About Dr. Kanny GrewalHeadshot photo of Kanny Grewal, MD

Dr. Kanny Grewal has been with OhioHealth Heart & Vascular Physicians since 1997 and is currently the system chief of cardiac imaging for OhioHealth. He practices at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital, specializing in cardiac imaging, including echocardiography, nuclear imaging and cardiac CT imaging. His clinical interest includes heart disease prevention and heart valve disease, but he enjoys providing consultations on all aspects of cardiology. He is cofounder of an online blog on heart prevention, www.hearthealthdocs.com. He is currently on the board of directors of the Columbus Medical Association. Dr. Grewal is an avid runner and also enjoys cycling and golf.