When a prestigious medical journal recently published a meta-analysis of fish oil studies that determined that fish oil was NOT associated with a statistically significant reduction in risk of major cardiovascular events, it seemed to fly in the face of decades of research.
How could this be true? The heart health benefits of fish oil have been well documented since the 1970s.
We were curious about the contradiction in research so we sought out an explanation from one of the most well respected authorities on nutrition and functional foods—The Linus Pauling Institute (LPI).
Their explanation in an article published in the Journal of Lipid Research cleared things up nicely. In a nutshell, LPI professor Donald Jump says the evidence supporting the heart health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is strong, despite ‘less conclusive’ recent studies. He makes several important points about the recent analysis.
Jump notes that the vast majority of studies included in the analysis were secondary prevention trials, meaning that the recruited subjects had pre-existing CVD or were at increased cardiovascular risk. Thus, supplementation with omega-3 PUFAs may not appear to support cardiovascular health in patients who have CVD and likely taking drug therapy (e.g., statins, aspirin, anti-hypertensive medications).
“When so many people in these studies are taking a regimen of medications to address the same issues that fish oil might also affect, it’s easy to understand why any added benefit from the fish oils is more difficult to detect,” Jump explained.
By contrast, many of the early studies were done before more modern drugs were available. “The studies done several decades ago showed value even for that patient population (those with CVD), but the more recent studies are less conclusive. We believe that one explanation is the effectiveness of current state-of-the-art treatments now being offered,” he added.
However, observational epidemiologic studies have consistently found that increased fish consumption or higher omega-3 PUFA blood levels are associated with a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular events in healthy adults.
Beyond cardiovascular health, fish oils are important for visual and neurological development as well as supporting healthy inflammatory balance and cognitive function as we age. Omega-3 PUFAs can be obtained from both food and supplemental sources. If you do not regularly consume fish, the LPI recommends a two-gram fish oil supplement several times per week.
Linus Pauling Institute
Journal of Lipid Research