Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of fat necessary for a healthy body. Specifically, this fat has been thought to be important for heart health. This type of fat cannot be made in the body. Instead, we need to get it from the food we eat. Omega 3 fats can be found in a variety of foods but are most abundant in fish, nuts, and oils like olive or canola oil. Because of the interest in the health benefits of these fats, a number of omega 3 nutritional supplements have been created. They may be sold as omega 3 supplements or fish oil supplements. But previous studies have not completely proven that taking supplements have any benefit for heart health.
Korean researchers assessed the benefits of omega 3 supplements in decreasing the risk of having future events, such as heart attacks or death, in patients who already had cardiovascular disease. The review of studies, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, did not find a lower risk of heart events or death in people with a history of cardiovascular disease that were taking omega 3 supplements.
The systematic review included 14 randomized trials. The trials evaluated two types of omega 3 acid supplements called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The supplements were given to 20,485 participants with cardiovascular disease. The participants were followed for 1 to 4.7 years.
Over the course of the trials, participants were tracked for any new heart problems or other serious events like heart attack, sudden cardiac death, heart failure, stroke, or death from any cause. Participants that were given the omega 3 supplements did not have a lower risk of new heart events, strokes, or death compared to those that did not take the supplements.
A systematic review is considered a reliable form of research. It combines smaller similar trials to create a large pool of participants. Having a greater number of participants means the results are more reliable. However, the review is only as good as the individual trials. In this case, the review did not have a thorough assessment of the quality of the trials that were included. Poorer quality trials will decrease the reliability of the results. This study also focused on people who already have heart disease. There may be different outcomes in healthy people.
This study is one of many that demonstrates uncertainties in supplements. The supplement debate can be frustrating. A supplement may be heralded as a lifesaver only to be discredited a short time later. In reality, supplements are often chosen to help fill in nutritional gaps or increase the intake of a "super" vitamin. A healthy, well-balanced diet should provide you with all the nutrients you need. For a heart healthy diet, make sure to include plenty of fruits and vegetables, get enough fiber, and find a balance of healthy fats. As far as taking supplements, rather than going with the latest trend, discuss your nutritional intake with your doctor to see if there is really a need to be taking a supplement such as fish oil. Otherwise, you may be wasting your money.
Kwak SM, Myung SK, et al. Efficacy of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements (Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid) in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Meta-analysis of Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-Controlled Trials.
Arch Intern Med. 2012 Apr 9.
Last reviewed August 2012 by Brian P. Randall, MD
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