Are Omega-3 Supplements Effective?

26 Jul

Research keeps reinforcing the broad benefits of the Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) for a variety of conditions. Omega-3 fatty acids, found abundantly in oily fish, have been promoted primarily as nutrients that promote cardiovascular health. The importance of increasing omega-3 supplementation has resulted from the observation that our modern diets are inadequate in omega-3 content. Long ago, especially in the era of the hunter-gatherer, diets were much higher in omega-3s. Omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory and they counteract the inflammatory effects of omega-6 fats which are overabundant in modern diets. Restoring this imbalance by increasing omega-3 intake should be a goal for anyone who is looking to stay healthy.

What We Want to Avoid – Sudden Heart Attack
One of the reasons we can suffer from a sudden heart attack or stroke is inflammation of the wall of the artery. With an inflammatory reaction of the arterial wall, a sudden thrombus, or clot, can occur and effectively cause a blockage of blood flow. If the blocked artery is a coronary artery of the heart, you can suffer a sudden heart attack. If the blocked artery is in the brain, you can suffer a stroke.

America is Falling Short of the Recommended Omega-3 Intake
Studies show that adults in the United States are falling short of even modest intake goals for omega-3 fats. American Heart Association recommendations include an emphasis on the intake of two 3.5-oz servings per week of oily fish in order to increase Omega 3 intake, while the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended the consumption of two 4-oz servings of seafood per week to provide an average amount of 250 mg/day of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3s have been shown to positively help other areas of body function other than the heart. Fish oil supplementation has been correlated to slowing down the degeneration of muscle and related decline of strength with age as well as improve strength of bone. Studies have shown fish oil reduces the normal decline in muscle mass and function in older adults by increasing thigh muscle volume, hand grip strength, and one-repetition maximum upper and lower body strength. As such, omega-3s appear to offer a therapeutic approach for preventing degeneration of muscle fiber (known as sarcopenia) in older adults. In regards to bone health, studies have shown fish oil to benefit bone mineral density through various mechanisms, including the modulation of the inflammatory response in bone tissue as well as through a regulatory effect on the function of osteoblasts and osteoclasts, the cells responsible for bone remodeling.

Omega-3 Helps More than the Heart
Additional promising news about Omega-3 is related to brain health and memory. In the groundbreaking new area of research, Veronica Witte and colleagues from the Department of Neurology at Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin investigated the impact of high intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish on the aging brain. The study included 65 healthy men and women between the ages of 50 and 75 and aimed to assess whether supplementation with fish-based omega-3 fats could improve cognition, brain structure and memory. The results showed that the fish oil intervention improved cognitive executive functioning by 26% from baseline, whereas the placebo group showed no improvement. Omega-3 was also correlated to improved episodic memory function in adults with mild memory complaints,

Despite all the promising news about Omega-3 there has been increased media coverage recently related to earlier data showing a potential association between the intake of omega-3 fats and prostate cancer in men. In order to explore this connection further, Francesca Crowe from the Cancer Epidemiology Unit of the University of Oxford and co-researchers from around the world contributed to a collaborative investigation of the role of circulating fatty acids in prostate cancer risk. Overall, the researchers concluded that there is no strong evidence that circulating fatty acids are important predictors of prostate cancer risk.

A further meta-analysis led by Dominik Alexander of the EPidStat Institute in Ann Arbor, MI, and supported by omega-3 industry association GOED (Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s) also downplays any association between omega-3 levels and prostate cancer. In their comprehensive and systematic review, the researchers concluded that the meta-analysis failed to support an association between the intake of omega-3 fatty acids and the risk of prostate cancer. Taking the findings from this meta-analysis together with the one conducted by Francesca Crowe, it is clear that the association between omega-3 intake and prostate cancer is tenuous at best.

Omega-3 Benefits
Despite recent negative reports in the mainstream media concerning the intake of these healthy fats and prostate cancer, it is clear that their health benefits extend to multiple areas. In view of the fact that most adults in the United States have inadequate intakes of these nutrients, it is important that people continue to pursue efforts to increase omega-3 consumption mainly through diet and consider supplementation as a means to bridge the gap if approved by their medical physician.

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