Are the Benefits of Omega 3’s Outweighed by Potential Side Effects?

blood pressure, Brain Health, COVID-19, fish consumption, Health & Wellness, heart disease, Nutrition, omega 3's

In last week’s post, I highlighted differences between two omega 3 preparations, 1) purified EPA (Icosapent ethyl) and 2) combination of EPA/DHA as it relates to the risk of heart disease.

This past week we published a new study that examines the association between blood levels of omega 3 -fatty acids and the risk of major side effects (bleeding and atrial fibrillation).   Led by my colleagues Drs. Karan Kapoor and Michael Blaha, the study was designed to determine the extent to which these side effects might occur in participants of MESA (Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis), a national study of men and women being monitored for the development of heart related events over a multi-year period.

Decades earlier, Danish physicians Jørn Dyerberg and Hans O. Bang reported that heart disease was rare but bleeding risk increased among Greenlandic Eskimos that they proposed was due to their high consumption of EPA from whale blubber, herring and other omega-3 enriched fish. These studies gained worldwide attention and laid the foundation for the hypothesis that omega-3 supplementation intake might reduce the risk of heart disease.

As an aside, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Dyerberg when I presented some of our earlier work on triglycerides and heart disease at the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids in Lyon, France in 1998.

And although an increased risk of abnormal heart rhythms was not reported in Greenlandic Eskimos, two recent clinical trials that used high doses of purified EPA (REDUCE IT) or the combination of EPA/DHA (STRENGTH) identified an increased risk of atrial fibrillation.

Back to our study, not only was there a significantly lower (rather than higher) risk of major bleeding in men and women participants from MESA, but also the risk of atrial fibrillation was not increased.

Bottom Line: Adding omega 3 containing fish to your diet in place of saturated animal fat, is heart healthy- based on our current study it is also safe from major bleeding complications and atrial fibrillation. Purified EPA (Icosapent ethyl) as used in the REDUCE-IT study lowered the risk of cardiovascular events. Even though atrial fibrillation was slightly increased in REDUCE-IT, stroke rates-a primary complication of afib- were decreased.

Below are additional reasons why adding omega-3’s to your diet may improve overall health.

  1. We recently found supplementation with Icosapent ethyl to maintain bone mineral health in men and women with the Metabolic Syndrome.
  2. For each 1 serving per week increase in fish consumption, there is an approximate 7% lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  3. Eating salmon 3x weekly may lower blood pressure by 3-5 mmHg.
  4. Consumption of fatty fish improves tear production and symptoms related to dry eyes.
  5. Adding 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids daily is associated with reduced mental stress and anxiety.
  6. High blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with a trend towards reduced death from COVID-19.
  7. In men and women with heart failure, the addition of 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of re-hospitalization for heart failure.

Michael Miller, MD is Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland and author of  Heal Your Heart….”: published by Penguin Random House.  He served on the International Steering Committee for the REDUCE-IT trial.

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