Update On Omega-3 Supplementation And Heart Disease

How Much Omega-3s Do You Need?

Pendulum
Pendulum

In previous issues of “Health Tips From The Professor” I have described the medical consensus about omega-3 supplementation and heart disease as resembling a pendulum.

A few positive studies are published, and the pendulum swings in the positive direction. The medical consensus becomes, “Omega-3s may reduce heart disease risk.”

Then a few negative studies are published, and the pendulum swings in the other direction. The consensus becomes that omega-3 supplements are worthless. One review a few years ago went so far as to say that fish oil supplements were the modern-day version of snake oil.

Meta-analyses combine the data from multiple clinical studies to increase statistic power and minimize the effect of clinical studies that are outliers. They are supposed to provide clear answers to medical questions like the effect of omega-3 supplements on heart disease.

However, the meta-analyses published to date have also reached conflicting conclusions about the effectiveness of omega-3 supplementation. No wonder you [and the medical community] are confused!

In 2018 three large, well-designed, clinical studies looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on heart disease risk were published. They reached different conclusions. However, they covered a much wider range of omega-3 doses than previous studies. And the studies with the highest doses of omega-3s showed the most positive effect of omega-3 supplementation on the reduction of heart disease risk.

That lead a group of doctors and scientists from the United States and Finland to postulate that many previous studies had failed to find an effect of omega-3 supplements on heart disease risk because the dose of omega-3s they used was too low.

These scientists designed a very large meta-analysis (AA Bernasconi et al, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2020.08.034) to test their hypothesis. In short, their study was designed to:

  • Determine whether supplementation with the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA resulted in reduced heart disease risk.
  • Quantify the relationship between the dose of EPA + DHA and the risk of heart disease outcomes.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was a meta-analysis of 40 randomized control clinical studies on the effect omega-3 supplementation on heart disease outcomes. Specifically:

  • It included all high-quality clinical studies of omega-3 supplementation published before August 2019.
  • It included a total of 135,267 participants.
  • It included participants at both low and high risk of developing heart disease.
  • It included studies of supplementation with EPA alone and with EPA + DHA.
  • It included omega-3 doses ranging from 400 mg/day to 5,500 mg/day.
  • It excluded dietary studies because:
    • It is difficult to measure the dosage of omega-3s that participants are consuming in dietary studies.
    • It is difficult to assure their compliance with dietary advice.
    • There is variation in the omega-3 content of various foods.
    • Participants in these studies are often advised to make other changes in diet. It then becomes difficult to know whether any benefits observed were from changes in omega-3s or from changes in other components of the diet.

Update On Omega-3 Supplementation And Heart Disease

omega-3 supplements and heart healthHere are the results of the meta-analysis. Supplementation with EPA or EPA + DHA reduced:

  • Coronary Heart disease (defined as diseases caused by atherosclerosis, such as angina, heart attack, and heart failure) by 10%.
  • Heart Attacks by 13%.
  • Coronary Heart disease deaths by 9%.
  • Heart attack deaths by 35%.

Because of the large number of participants in this meta-analysis, they were able to reach some other important conclusions:

  • Despite the claims you may have heard about a new drug consisting of highly purified EPA, this study found no evidence that EPA supplementation was superior to EPA + DHA supplementation.
  • Even though heart medications provide some of the same benefits as omega-3s, this study concluded that omega-3 supplementation reduced the risk of heart disease even for patients on multiple heart medications.
  • This study also concluded that omega-3 supplementation was likely to be effective for people at both low and high risk of heart disease. This means that omega-3 supplementation is likely to be beneficial for preventing heart disease.

The authors concluded: “The current study provides strong evidence that EPA + DHA supplementation is an effective strategy for the prevention of certain coronary heart disease outcomes…Considering the relatively low costs and side effect profiles of omega-3 supplementation and the low drug-drug interactions with other standard therapies…clinicians and patients should consider the potential benefits of omega-3 (EPA/DHA) supplementation…”

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Heart AttackThe most significant conclusions from this study are the reduction in heart attacks and heart attack deaths. That is because:

  • Approximately 1.5 million Americans suffer a heart attack each year. For those who survive their quality of life may be permanently altered.
    • A 13% reduction in heart attacks means that something as simple as EPA + DHA supplementation might prevent as many as 195,000 heart attacks a year.
  • Approximately 100,000 Americans will die from a heart attack each you.
    • A 35% reduction in heart attack deaths means that EPA + DHA supplementation might prevent as many as 35,000 deaths from heart attacks each year.
  • For many Americans sudden death from a heart attack is the first indication that they have heart disease.
    • As Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. That is why EPA + DHA supplementation makes sense for most people.

I can’t say that this study will be the final word on omega-3 supplementation and heart disease risk. However, several recent studies have supported the benefit of omega-3 supplementation at reducing heart disease risk. The pendulum has clearly swung in the direction of omega-3s being beneficial for heart health.

Of course, omega-3 supplementation is not a magic “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You can’t expect it to overcome the effects of a bad diet and lack of exercise with omega-3 supplementation alone. You need a holistic approach.

The American Heart Association recommends:

Doctor With Patient

  • If you smoke, stop.
  • Choose good nutrition.
    • Choose a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, non-tropical vegetable oils, and nuts.
    • Choose a diet that limits sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.
  • Reduce high blood cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Reduce your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol and get moving.
  • Lower High Blood Pressure.
  • Be physically active every day.
    • Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Manage diabetes.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Limit alcohol.
  • Have a regular physical checkup.

Add in omega-3 supplementation to these recommendations and you have a winning combination.

How Much Omega-3s Do You Need?

Question MarkAs I mentioned at the beginning of this article the omega-3 dosages used in the studies included in this meta-analysis ranged from 400 mg/day to 5,500 mg/day. More importantly, there were enough participants in these studies to obtain a fairly accurate estimate of dose response. This allow the authors to answer the question, “How much omega-3s do I need?”The study found that:

  • The protective effect of omega-3s for heart attack deaths and coronary heart disease deaths plateaued with dosages of EPA + DHA that exceeded 800 – 1200 mg/day.
  • The dose response of the protective effect of omega-3s for non-fatal heart attacks was linear over a wider range of dosages, with every increase 1,000 mg/day of EPA + DHA decreasing the risk of heart attack by 9%.

Based on the totality of their data, the authors concluded, “…clinicians and patients should consider the potential benefits of omega-3 supplementation, especially using 1,000 to 2,000 mg/day dosages, which are rarely obtained in most Westernized diets, even those including routine fish consumption.”

The Bottom Line

A recent meta-analysis combined the data from 40 clinical studies with over 135,000 participants looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on various types of heart disease. The study found that supplementation with EPA or EPA + DHA reduced:

  • Coronary Heart disease (defined as diseases caused by atherosclerosis, such as angina, heart attack, and heart failure) by 10%.
  • Heart Attacks by 13%.
  • Coronary Heart disease deaths by 9%.
  • Heart attack deaths by 35%.

Because of the large number of participants in this meta-analysis, they were able to reach some other important conclusions:

  • This study found no evidence that EPA supplementation was superior to EPA + DHA supplementation.
  • This study concluded that omega-3 supplementation reduced the risk of heart disease even for patients on multiple heart medications.
  • This study also concluded that omega-3 supplementation was likely to be effective for people at both low and high risk of heart disease. This means that omega-3 supplementation is likely to be beneficial for preventing heart disease.
  • The optimal dose of EPA + DHA appeared to be 1,000 – 2,000 mg/day.

The authors of the study concluded: “The current study provides strong evidence that EPA + DHA supplementation is an effective strategy for the prevention of certain coronary heart disease outcomes…Considering the relatively low costs and side effect profiles of omega-3 supplementation and the low drug-drug interactions with other standard therapies…clinicians and patients should consider the potential benefits of omega-3 (EPA/DHA) supplementation, especially using 1,000 to 2,000 mg/day dosages, which are rarely obtained in most Westernized diets, even those including routine fish consumption.”

For more details, including a more detailed discussion of what this study means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Do Omega-3 Supplements Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

Will The Omega-3 Controversy Continue?

adhd symptoms childrenThe prevalence of ADHD has increased dramatically in the last couple of decades. One study reported that the percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD has increased by 42% between 2003 and 2011. Another study reported an increase of 67% between 1997 and 2015. Currently, 10-12% of American schoolchildren are diagnosed with ADHD. That amounts to around 6 million children with ADHD, at a cost to taxpayers of over $45 billion.

An estimated 65% of children with ADHD are taking medications to control their symptoms. Unfortunately, those medications don’t work for 20-40% of patients with ADHD. Even worse, ADHD medications come with serious side effects like loss of appetite and delayed growth, sleep disorders, nausea & stomach pains, headaches, moodiness and irritability.

Even more worrisome is that many children say they “just don’t feel right” while they are on the drugs. Finally, there is the unintended message we are sending our children that drugs are the solution to their problems.

It is no wonder that millions of parents are looking for more natural solutions for their child’s ADHD. One of the most popular natural approaches is supplementation with omega-3s. But do omega-3 supplements work, or is this just another myth created by supplement companies to lighten your wallet?

The scientific evidence is conflicting. Some clinical studies support the efficacy of omega-3 supplements for reducing ADHD symptoms. Other studies claim they have no benefit.

In today’s issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”, I review a recent meta-analysis (JP-C Chang et al, Neuropsychopharmacology, 43: 534-545, 2018) that attempts to provide a definitive answer to this question.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was designed to answer three questions:

1)    Does omega-3 supplementation reduce ADHD symptoms?

2)    Does omega-3 supplementation improve cognitive skills in children with ADHD?

3)    Is there an association between omega-3 status and ADHD?

Previous meta-analyses on these topics had design flaws such as:

·       Including both children and adult subjects.

·       Including subjects with diagnosis other than ADHD.

·       Including trials that supplemented with vitamins and other nutrients in addition to omega-3s.

The authors of this study tried to avoid these limitations by using the following criteria for the studies that were included in their meta-analysis.

1)    The studies were randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of omega-3 supplementation with DHA and EPA alone or in combination.

2)    The participants were school-aged children (4-12 years) and adolescents (13-17 years) who had a diagnosis of ADHD.

3)    The study measured the effect of omega-3 supplementation on clinical symptoms of ADHD or measures of cognitive performance (omission errors, commission errors, forward memory, backward memory, and information processing).

4)    The studies were large enough to measure statistically significant differences.

5)    The studies were published in peer-reviewed journals.

With these criteria there were:

·       Seven studies with 534 children looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms.

·       Three studies with 214 children looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognitive performance.

·       Twenty studies with 1276 children looking at the association between omega-3 status and ADHD.

Do Omega-3 Supplements Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

adhd symptoms omega-3sThe results of this meta-analysis were as follows:

1)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced ADHD symptoms reported by parents.

2)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly improved cognitive measures associated with attention span (omission and commission errors). [Note: Omission errors consist of leaving important information out of an answer. Commission errors consist of including incorrect information in an answer.]

·       Omega-3 supplementation did not improve cognitive measures associated with memory and information processing. This has also been reported in most previous studies.

·       The best way to think of this is that children with ADHD are fully capable of learning their schoolwork. However, they may have trouble demonstrating what they have learned on exams because of omission and commission errors.

·       In this context, omega-3 supplementation may help them perform better on exams and reduce test-taking anxiety.

3)    For hyperactivity, only studies with EPA dosages of 500 mg per day or greater showed a significant reduction in symptoms.

4)    Children diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of DHA, EPA, and total omega-3s.

The authors concluded: “In summary, there is evidence that omega-3 supplementation … improves clinical symptoms and cognitive performances in children and adolescents with ADHD, and that these youth have a deficiency in omega-3 levels. Our findings provide further support to the rationale for using omega-3s as a treatment option for ADHD.”

They also said: “Our paper shows that EPA supplementation dosage >500 mg should be considered when treating youth with ADHD, especially those with predominantly hyperactivity/impulsivity presentation.”

Will The Omega-3 Controversy Continue?

ArgumentThis is an excellent study, but it is unlikely to be the final word on this subject. That is because there is a fundamental flaw in all previous studies on this important subject, including the ones included in this meta-analysis.

In the words of the authors: “In terms of ‘personalized medicine’, it is tempting to speculate that a subpopulation of youth with ADHD and low levels of omega-3s may respond better to omega-3 supplementation, but there are no studies to date attempting this approach.”

Until studies of omega-3 supplementation and ADHD symptoms include measures of omega-3 status before and after supplementation, those studies are likely to continue giving conflicting results. That is because:

·       If most of the children in the study have low omega-3 status, we are likely to see a positive effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms.

·       If most of the children in the study have high omega-3 status, we are likely to see a negative effect of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

confusionWhile this study is unlikely to end the omega-3 controversy, it is a very well-designed study that combines the results of multiple double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. In short, it is a very strong study.

Omega-3s have no side effects and multiple health benefits. If your child suffers from ADHD, omega-3 supplementation is worth a try.

However, we need to keep omega-3 supplementation in perspective:

·       Not every child with ADHD will respond to omega-3 supplementation.

·       Omega-3s alone are likely to reduce, but not eliminate, the symptoms.

·       There are other natural approaches that should be considered.

You will find details on omega-3s and other natural approaches for reducing ADHD symptoms in an earlier issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

The Bottom Line

A recent meta-analysis looked at the effect of omega-3 supplementatation on ADHD symptoms. Here is a brief summary of the data:

1)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced ADHD symptoms reported by parents.

2)    Omega-3 supplementation significantly improved cognitive measures associated with attention span (omission and commission errors). [Note: Omission errors consist of leaving important information out of an answer. Commission errors consist of including incorrect information in an answer.]

·       Omega-3 supplementation did not improve cognitive measures associated with memory and information processing. This has also been reported in most previous studies.

·       The best way to think of this is that children with ADHD are fully capable of learning their schoolwork. However, they may have trouble demonstrating what they have learned on exams because of omission and commission errors.

·       In this context, omega-3 supplementation may help them perform better on exams and reduce test-taking anxiety.

3)    For hyperactivity, only studies with EPA dosages of 500 mg per day or greater showed a significant reduction in symptoms.

4)    Children diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of DHA, EPA, and total omega-3s.

The authors concluded: “In summary, there is evidence that omega-3 supplementation … improves clinical symptoms and cognitive performances in children and adolescents with ADHD, and that these youth have a deficiency in omega-3 levels. Our findings provide further support to the rationale for using omega-3s as a treatment option for ADHD.”

They also said: “Our paper shows that EPA supplementation dosage >500 mg should be considered when treating youth with ADHD, especially those with predominantly hyperactivity/impulsivity presentation.”

For more details on the study and a perspective on omega-3 supplementation compared to other natural approaches for reducing ADHD symptoms, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Can Fish Oil Make Children Smarter?

When Do Omega-3 Supplements Make Sense?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Confused ChildWe know that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are critically important for brain development. But will they really help our kids learn better? Some studies suggest that they do, while other studies have come up empty. Why is this? More importantly, what does it mean for your children? Will fish oil supplements help or not?

I’ve selected today’s study (Portillo-Reyes et al, Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35: 861-870, 2014) because it sheds some light on those important questions.

Can Fish Oil Make Children Smarter?

This study looked at the effect of supplementation for 3 months with 360 mg of EPA + DHA on cognitive function of malnourished Mexican children, ages 8-12 years old. The children came from poor neighborhoods where foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids were seldom available. Low intake of omega-3 fatty acids was confirmed by a food frequency survey.

Cognition was assessed based on a battery of 16 standardized cognition tests at the beginning of the study and again 3 months later.

The results were fairly clear cut. The children receiving the fish oil supplements showed significant gains in mental processing speed, visual-motor coordination, perceptual integration, attention span and executive function compared to children receiving a placebo. In case you were wondering, the first three most strongly affect a child’s ability to learn and last two affect their tendency to display ADHD symptoms.

What Is the Significance of This Study?

There are a lot of things not to like about the study:

  • It was a small study (59 children total)
  • Blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were not determined.
  • It was a short term study (12 months would have been better).
  • Measuring the ability to learn is difficult. Experts in the field differ about which cognitive tests are best. I’m not taking a position on the adequacy of the tests they were using because that is not my area of expertise.
  • Because it was done in a poor region of Mexico, one could argue that its applicability to children in this country is uncertain.

 

So why even mention this study? That’s because it illustrates an important principle – one that is often ignored in the design and interpretation of clinical studies.

Simply put, the principle is that not everyone will benefit equally from supplementation. It is the malnourished and the sick who will benefit most. When you focus your clinical studies on those groups you are most likely to observe a benefit of supplementation. When you focus your study on well nourished, healthy individuals it will be much more difficult to observe any benefit. And if you perform a meta-analysis of all studies, without evaluating the studies on the basis of need – nutrition status and health status – benefits will also be much more difficult to demonstrate.

This study is just one example of that principle. In an earlier “Health Tips From the Professor” (Can DHA Help Johnny Read?) I reported on a study looking at the effect of DHA supplementation on reading ability of English schoolchildren. In that study, it was the children who were most deficient in DHA and started with the lowest reading skills who benefitted most from DHA supplementation.

What does all of this mean to you?

  • If you are a parent, you may be asking if a study done with Mexican children eating poor diets has any relevance for your kids. In today’s world of pop tarts and pizza it just might. Most children don’t order sardines on their pizza. As a consequence, many American children don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
  • Should your children be getting more omega-3s in their diet? A recent study concluded that most American children only get 20-40 mg/day of DHA from their diet. So if your child’s food preferences don’t include salmon, sardines and the like – and if your child is experiencing learning issues or problems with ADHD, you might consider adding fish oil supplements to their diet. There’s no need to megadose. The international standard is around 200 mg/day of DHA for children 7 or older.
  • If you are one of those people who is confused by conflicting headlines about the benefits of supplementation, you may want to look at the studies behind those headlines and ask if supplementation would have been likely to provide any benefit in the subjects studied.

The Bottom Line:

1)     A recent study reported that supplementation with fish oil significantly improved learning skills in children consuming a diet that was deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.

2)     If your children are not consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as coldwater fish, you might wish to make sure that they are getting adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. Most experts recommend around 200 mg/day for children over 7.

3)     This study also illustrates the principle that supplementation is most likely to be of demonstrable benefit to those who have the worst diets and the greatest need. That doesn’t mean that supplementation won’t benefit everyone, but it does mean that it may be difficult to prove the value of supplementation in healthy people consuming a good diet.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

Do Omega-3s Lower Blood Pressure?

The Good News About Fish Oil

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

High Blood PressureHigh blood pressure or hypertension is a major problem in this country. Over 60% of Americans have high blood pressure. Only 47% of those with hypertension are adequately controlled. 20% of them don’t even know that they have high blood pressure.

In this case, ignorance is definitely not bliss. That’s because high blood pressure significantly increases the risk of stroke, heart attacks and congestive heart failure.

The causes of high blood pressure are many. Genetics, obesity, lack of exercise, sodium, alcohol, saturated fats and too few fresh fruits and vegetables all play a role. Age also plays a role. As we age, our blood vessels become less flexible and our blood pressure rises by about 0.6 mm Hg per year.

Medications can help, but many of them have significant side effects and often aren’t fully effective in controlling blood pressure. That’s why natural approaches are so important.

Because there are so many causes of hypertension, natural approaches for lowering your blood pressure are not simple. Natural approaches start with weight loss, restricting sodium intake, increasing physical activity, moderating alcohol intake and something called the DASH diet. In short, there is not just one simple change that you can make that will totally eliminate hypertension. It requires a complete lifestyle change.

That’s why the latest study on the effect of omega-3s on blood pressure is so exciting. If the headlines are true, adding omega-3s to your diet may be one of the most effective things you can do to lower your blood pressure naturally. So let’s examine the study to see if the headlines are accurate.

How Was The Study Designed?

This study (Miller et al, American Journal of Hypertension, doi:10.1093/ajh/hpu024) was a very large, well designed study. It is a meta-analysis of 70 randomized, placebo controlled clinical studies. Key characteristics of these studies were:

  • The mean study duration was 69 days. That means these beneficial effects occur relatively quickly.
  • The mean EPA + DHA dose was 3.8 g/day (range = 0.2 – 15 g/day). A wide range of doses was included.
  • The EPA & DHA came from all sources (seafood, EPA+DHA fortified foods, fish oil, algal oil, and purified ethyl esters. The source did not affect the outcome.
  • Olive oil was the most commonly used placebo, with omega-6 vegetable oils being used as placebos in a few studies. The choice of placebo did not affect the outcome.
  • None of the people in these studies were taking blood pressure lowering medications. That means these studies were specifically designed to see whether omega-3s lowered blood pressure, not whether they had any additional benefit for people already taking medications. This is important because if you only focus on groups who are already taking multiple medications, you tend to obscure the beneficial effects of omega-3s (see my recent Health Tip “Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?”)

Do Omega-3s lower Blood Pressure?

Fish OilThe authors of the study reported that:

  • Compared to placebo, EPA+DHA reduced systolic blood pressure (that’s the upper reading) by 1.52 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure (that’s the lower reading) by 0.99 mm Hg.
  • When they looked at those participants who already had high blood pressure, the numbers were even more impressive – a 4.51 mm Hg decrease in systolic blood pressure and a 3.05 mm Hg decrease in diastolic blood pressure. That’s important because for each 2 mm Hg reduction in blood pressure there is a 6% decrease in stroke mortality, a 4% decrease in heart disease mortality, and a 3% decrease in total mortality.

More to the point, the authors of the study concluded that “A decrease of 4.51 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure among those with high blood pressure could help an individual avoid having to take medication to control blood pressure levels”.

  • When they looked at the study participants who had normal blood pressure the numbers were still significant – a 1.25 mm Hg decrease in systolic blood pressure and a 0.62 decrease in diastolic blood pressure. The authors pointed out that this could prevent, or at least delay, the age-related progression towards hypertension.
  • The effect of omega-3s on systolic blood pressure (4.51 mm Hg decrease) was comparable to the most successful lifestyle interventions – 3-10 mm Hg decrease for 10 pound weight loss, 4-9 mm Hg decrease for increased physical activity, 2-8 mm Hg decrease for sodium restriction, and 2-4 mm Hg for decreased alcohol consumption.
  • A dose of at least 1 gm/day of EPA+DHA was required for a significant decrease in systolic blood pressure, and a dose of over 2 gm/day was required for a significant decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure

While this is a single study, it is consistent with a number of previous studies in this area. Based on the existing body of literature I would recommend omega-3s as part of a holistic approach for keeping your blood pressure under control.

The Bottom Line:

1)     A recent meta-analysis of 70 published clinical studies (AJH, doi: 10.1093/ajh/hpu024) has shown fairly convincingly that omega-3 fatty acids are effective at lowering blood pressure. Moreover, this study is consistent with a number of previous studies. The evidence appears to be strong enough for omega-3s to be considered as part of a holistic approach to keeping your blood pressure under control.

2)     If you already have high blood pressure, you should know that omega-3s caused blood pressure to decrease by 4.51 mm Hg in people like you. The authors of the study concluded that this decrease in blood pressure is large enough that some people may be able to avoid blood pressure medicines entirely. For others addition of omega-3s to their diet will likely allow their physicians to reduce the dose of medications required to keep their blood pressure under control – thus minimizing the side effects of the medications.

3)     If you already have slightly elevated blood pressure that has not yet progressed to clinical hypertension, you should know that omega-3s also give a modest decrease in blood pressure in people like you. The authors of the study concluded that this decrease was enough to prevent or delay the age-related onset of hypertension.

4)     The effect of omega-3s on reducing blood pressure is equivalent to the most successful lifestyle changes (weight loss, increased physical activity, sodium restriction and alcohol moderation). That doesn’t mean that you should pop fish oil pills and forget the other lifestyle changes. The idea is to combine as many of those lifestyle changes as possible so that you may never have to worry about high blood pressure again.

5)     You need at least 1 gm/day of EPA+DHA to reduce systolic blood pressure and more than 2 gm/day to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

6)     Contrary to the hype you may have been reading elsewhere, the source of EPA+DHA didn’t matter. The only caveat is that many people really struggle with trying to get 1-2 gm/day of EPA+DHA from fish. It’s a bit too much of a good thing.

7)     Don’t think of hypertension as a “Do it yourself” project. Hypertension is a silent killer. It’s one of those diseases where the first symptom is often sudden death – or, even worse, a life that is no longer worth living. Work with your physician. Let them help you find the right balance between lifestyle changes (including omega-3s) and medications to keep your blood pressure under control.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Are Saturated Fats Good For You?

Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Fats Wrong?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

fatty steakBring out the fatted calf! Headlines are proclaiming that saturated fats don’t increase your risk of heart disease – and that they may actually be good for you.

The study (Annals of Internal Medicine, 160: 398-406, 2014) that attracted all the attention in the press was what we scientists call a meta-analysis. Basically, that is a study that combines the data from many clinical trials to improve the statistical power of the effect being studied.

And it was a very large study. It included 81 clinical trials that looked at the effects of various types of fat on heart disease risk.

Are Saturated Fats Good For You?

The answer to this question is a simple No. The headlines suggesting that saturated fats might be good for you were clearly misleading. The study concluded that saturated fats might not increase the risk of heart disease, but it never said that saturated fats were good for you.

In short, the study concluded that:

  • Saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and long-chain omega-6 polyunsaturated fats did not affect heart disease risk.
  • Long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats decreased heart disease risk [Note: The original version of the paper said that the decrease was non-significant, which is what the headlines have reported. However, after several experts pointed out an error in their analysis of the omega-3 data, the authors corrected their analysis, and the corrected data show that the decrease in risk is significant.]
  • Trans fats increased heart disease risk

If those conclusions are correct, they would represent a major paradigm shift. We have been told for years that we should limit saturated fats and replace them with unsaturated fats. Has that advice been wrong?

Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Fats Wrong?

Before we bring out the fatted calf and start heaping butter on our12 ounce steaks, perhaps we should look at some of the limitations of this study.

We Eat Foods, Not Fats

When the authors broke the data down into the effects of individual saturated and unsaturated fatty acids on heart disease risk some interesting insights emerge.

For example, with respect to saturated fats:

  • Both palmitic acid and stearic acid – which are abundant in palm oil and animal fats – increased the risk of heart disease.
  • On the other hand, margic acid – which is more abundant in dairy products – decreased the risk of heart disease.

Whipped CreamSo while the net effect of saturated fats on heart disease risk may be zero, these data suggest:

  • It is still a good idea to avoid fatty meats, especially red meats, if you want to reduce your risk of heart disease. When you focus on foods, rather than fats this fundamental advice has not changed in over 40 years! In next week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” I will share some of the latest research on the dangers of red meat.
  • With fatty dairy foods the situation is a little more uncertain. I’m not ready to tell you to break out the butter and whipped cream just yet, but recent research does suggest that dairy foods have some beneficial effects that may outweigh their saturated fat content.

With respect to omega-3 fatty acids:

  • alpha-linolenic acid – which is found in vegetable oils and nuts and is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acids in our diets – had no effect on heart disease risk.
  • On the other hand, EPA and DHA – which are found primarily in oily fish and omega-3 supplements – decreased heart disease risk by 20-25%.

Once again, while the net effect of omega-3 fatty acids on heart disease risk was very small, that’s primarily because most Americans consume mostly alpha-linolenic acid and very little EPA and DHA. This study shows that fish oil significantly reduces heart disease risk, which is fully consistent with the heart healthy advice of the American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health over the past decade or more.

What We Replace the Fats With Is Important

A major weakness of the current study is that it did not ask what the individual clinical trials were replacing the fatty acids with. Many of them were simply replacing the saturated fats with carbohydrates. To understand why that is important, you have to go back to the research of Dr. Ancel Keys.

The whole concept of saturated fats increasing the risk of heart disease is based on the groundbreaking research of Dr. Ancel Keys in the 50’s and 60’s. But, it is important to understand what his research showed and didn’t show.

His research showed that when you replaced saturated fats with monounsaturated fats and/or polyunsaturated fats the risk of heart disease was significantly reduced. He was the very first advocate of what we now call the Mediterranean diet. (He lived to 101 and his wife lived to 97, so he must have been on to something.)

Unfortunately, his diet advice got corrupted. The mantra became low fat diets, where the saturated fat was replaced with carbohydrates – mostly simple sugars and refined flours. Since diets containing a lot of simple sugars and refined flours also increase the risk of heart disease you completely offset the benefits of getting rid of the saturated fats.

Just in case you think that is outdated dietary advice, Dr. Key’s recommendations were confirmed by a major meta-analysis published in 2009 (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89: 1425-1432, 2009). That study showed once again that replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates had no effect on heart disease risk, while replacing them with polyunsaturated fats significantly reduced risk.

The Bottom Line:

You can put the fatted calf back out to pasture. The headlines telling you that saturated fats don’t increase the risk of heart disease were overstated and misleading. This study does not represent a paradigm shift. In fact, when you analyze the study in depth it simply reaffirms much of the current dietary advice about fats.

1)     When you simply replace saturated fats with carbohydrates, as did many of the studies in the meta-analysis that generated all of the headlines, there is little or no effect on heart disease risk. However, other studies have shown that when you replace the saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats you significantly reduce heart disease risk.

In short, if you are interested in reducing your risk of heart disease, low fat diets may be of relatively little value while Mediterranean diets may be beneficial. No paradigm shift there. That sounds pretty familiar.

2)     Fatty meats, especially red meats, appear to increase the risk of heart disease. No surprises there.

3)     Alpha-linolenic acid, the short chain omega-3 fatty acid found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils, does not decrease heart disease risk. However, EPA and DHA, the long chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements significantly decrease heart disease risk. That’s probably because the efficiency of conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to EPA & DHA in our bodies is only around 10%. No surprises there.

4)     The study did suggest that dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk. While there are a few other studies supporting that idea, I’m not ready to break out the butter and whipped cream yet. More research is needed.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

Does Fish Oil Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fish OilOne of my readers recently sent me a video titled “Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?” and asked me to comment on it. The doctor who made the video claimed that the most recent studies had definitively shown that omega-3 fatty acids, whether from fish or fish oil, do not decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke or cardiovascular death. He went on to say that the case was closed. There was no point in even doing any more studies.

My reader, like many of you, was confused. Wasn’t it just a few years ago we were being told that clinical studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduce the risk of heart disease? Hadn’t major health organizations recommended omega-3 fatty acids as part of a heart health diet? What has changed?

The answer to the first two questions is a resounding YES, and “What has changed?” is THE story.  Let me explain.

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Healthy People

If we look at intervention studies in healthy people (what we scientists refer to as primary prevention studies) the results have been pretty uniform over the years. In a primary prevention setting, fish oil cannot be shown to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease (Rizos et al, JAMA, 308: 1024-1033, 2012).

That’s not unexpected because it is almost impossible to show that any intervention significantly reduces the risk of heart disease in healthy populations. For example, as I pointed out in recent Health Tips From the Professor (“Do Statins Really Work?” and “Can An Apple A Day Keep Statins Away?”) you can’t even show that statins significantly reduce heart attack risk in healthy populations.

If you can’t prove that statins reduce the risk of heart attacks in a healthy population, it should come as no surprise that you can’t prove that fish oil reduce heart attacks in a healthy population. To answer that question we need to look at whether fish oil reduces the risk of heart attacks in high risk populations.

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Sick People – The Early Studies

Most of the early  studies looking at the effect of fish oil in patients at high risk of cardiovascular disease (what we scientists refer to as secondary prevention studies) reported very positive results.

For example, the DART1 study (Burr et al, Lancet, 2: 757-761, 1989) and the US Physician’s Health Study (Albert et al, JAMA, 279: 23-28, 1998) reported a 29% decrease in total mortality and a 52% decrease in sudden deaths related to heart disease in patients consuming diets rich in omega-3 containing fish.

Even more striking was the GISSI-Prevenzione study (Marchioli et al, Lancet, 354: 447-455, 1999; Marchioli et al, Eur. Heart J, 21: 949-952, 2000; Marchioli et al, Circulation, 105: 1897-1903, 2002). This was a very robust and well designed study. It looked at the effect of a fish oil supplement providing 1 g/day of omega-3 fatty acids on the risk of a second heart attack in 11,323 patients who had survived a non-fatal heart attack within the last 3 months – a very high risk group.

The results were clear cut. Over the next 3.5 years supplementation with fish oil reduced overall death by 15% and sudden death due to heart disease by 30% compared to a placebo. And, if you looked at the first 4 months, when the risk of a second heart attack is highest, the fish oil supplement reduced the risk of overall death by 41% and sudden death by 53%.

The authors estimated that treating 1,000 heart attack patients with 1 g/day of fish oil would save 5.7 lives per year. That is almost identical to the 5.2 lives saved per 1,000 patients per year by the statin drug pravastatin in the LIPID trial (NEJM, 339: 1349-1357, 1998).

No wonder the American Heart Association said that patients “could consider fish oil supplementation for heart disease risk prevention.”

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Sick People – The Latest Studies

Heart Health StudyHowever, the most recent studies have been uniformly negative. For example, the ORIGIN trial (Bosch et al, NEJM, 367: 309-318, 2012) treated 12,536 patients who were considered at high risk of heart disease because of diabetes or pre-diabetes with either 1 g/day of fish oil or a placebo. This was also a robust, well designed study, and it found no effect of the fish oil supplement on either heart attacks or deaths due to heart disease.

Similarly, a recent meta-analysis looking at the combined effects of 14 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in patients at high risk of heart disease found no significant effect of fish oil supplements on overall deaths, sudden death due to heart disease, heart attacks, congestive heart failure or stroke (Kwak et al, Arch. Int. Med., 172: 686-694, 2012).

No wonder you are confused by all of the conflicting studies. You must be wondering: “Is the American Heart Association wrong?” “Are fish oil supplements useless for reducing heart disease risk?”

What Has Changed Between The Early Studies & The Latest Studies?

When a trained scientist sees the outcome of well designed clinical studies change over time, he or she asks: “What has changed in the studies?” It turns out that a lot has changed.

1)     In the first place the criteria for people considered at risk for heart attack and stoke have changed dramatically. Not only has the definition of high cholesterol” been dramatically lowered, but cardiologists now treat people for heart disease if they have inflammation, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, pre-diabetes or minor arrythmia.

For example, the GISSI-Prevenzione study recruited patients who had a heart attack within the past three months, while the ORIGIN study just looked at people who had diabetes or impaired blood sugar control. While both groups could be considered high risk, the patients in the earlier studies were at much higher risk for an imminent heart attack or stroke – thus making it much easier to detect a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation.

2)     Secondly, the standard of care for people considered at risk for heart disease has also changed dramatically. In the earlier studies patients were generally treated with one or two drugs – generally a beta-blockers and/or drug to lower blood pressure. In the more recent studies the patients generally receive at least 3 to 5 different medications – medications to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides, reduce inflammation, reduce arrhythmia, reduce blood clotting, and medications to reduce the side effects of those medications.

Since those medications perform many of the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids, it is perhaps no surprise that it is now very difficult to show any additional benefit of omega-3 fatty acids in patients on multiple medications.

The bottom line is that we are no longer asking the same question. The earlier studies were asking whether fish oil supplements reduce the risk of heart attacks or cardiovascular death in patients at high risk of heart disease. The more recent studies are asking whether fish oil supplements provide any additional benefits in a high risk population that is already on 3-5 medications to reduce their risk of heart disease.

However, the people who are writing the headlines you are reading (and the videos you are watching) are not making that distinction. They are pretending that nothing has changed in the way the studies are designed. They are telling you that the latest studies contradict the earlier studies when, in fact, they are measuring two different things.

Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

Was the doctor who made the video “Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?” correct in saying that omega-3 fatty acids are ineffective at reducing the risk of heart disease? The answer is yes and no.

If you take the medical viewpoint that the proper way to treat anyone at the slightest risk of heart disease is with 3-5 medications – with all of their side effects, the answer seems to be pretty clear cut that adding fish oil to your regimen provides little additional benefit.

However, that is not the question that interests me. I’d like to know whether I can reduce my risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death by taking omega-3 fatty acids in place of those drugs – as the original studies have shown.

I’m sure many of my readers feel the same way.

The Bottom Line

  • Studies performed prior to 2000 have generally shown that fish oil supplements reduce the risk of a second heart attack in patients who have previously had a heart attack. One study even suggested that they were as effective as statin drugs at reducing heart attack risk in this population.
  • Recent studies have called into question the beneficial effects of fish oil supplements at reducing the risk of heart disease. However, these studies were performed with lower risk patients and the patients were on 3-5 medications to reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • The recent studies are no longer evaluating whether fish oil supplements can reduce the risk of heart disease. They are asking whether they have any additional beneficial effects for people taking multiple medications. That’s a totally different question.
  • So ignore the headlines saying that fish oil is snake oil. If you are content taking multiple medications to reduce your risk of heart disease, it is probably correct to say that omega-3 fatty acids provide little additional benefit.
  • However, if you are interested in a more holistic, drug-free approach to reducing your risk of heart disease, I still recommend omega-3 fatty acids as part of a heart healthy diet, as does the American Heart Association.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Could Omega-3s Improve Reading Skills?

Can DHA  Help Johnny Read?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Child-Reading-BookIf you are like most parents, you want to do everything you can to assure that your kids have the skills they need to succeed in school, and reading probably tops the list of necessary skills. If your child is reading below their age level, could something as simple as better nutrition improve their reading ability?

Recent studies have shown that the omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, play a very important role in normal brain function – especially memory, focus, concentration, and attention span.

I have shared with you previous studies which have shown that optimal DHA intake in pregnant women plays an important role in the early mental development of their children. On the other end of the age spectrum, studies have shown that optimal omega-3 fatty acid intake in older adults can delay cognitive decline.

I have also shared with you studies showing that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in children with ADD and ADHD significantly reduce their symptoms. What about children without hyperactivity? Could omega-3 fatty acids affect their ability to learn?

Many Children Are Deficient in Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The Food and Nutrition Board has not yet set US standards for DHA intake, but the international standard is 200 mg for children 7 years old and older. Unfortunately, cod liver oil is a thing of the past, and foods rich in DHA are not particularly popular with children. Consequently, most children in this country are only getting around 20-40 mg of DHA per day.

And that shows up in their blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids. A recent study in England looked at blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids in 493 seven to nine year olds with below average reading performance who were enrolled in Oxfordshire primary schools (P. Montgomery et al, PLoS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066697).

All of them had low blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids (both DHA and EPA), and the blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were directly related to their reading ability. In non-scientific language that simply means that those with the poorest reading abilities had the lowest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

This study is particularly significant because another study by the same group showing that DHA supplementation improved reading skills in underperforming children.

Could Omega-3s Improve Reading Skills?

This study (Richardson et al., PLoS ONE 7: e43909.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043909) looked at 362 normal 7-9 year old children enrolled in mainstream primary schools in Oxfordshire, England.

These children were all reading at significantly below the average for their grade levels. The study excluded children with specific medical difficulties that might affect their ability to read, children who were already taking medications expected to affect behavior or learning, children for whom English was not their first language, and children who were already eating fish more than twice a week or taking omega-3 supplements.

The children were given either supplements containing 600 mg of DHA per day or a placebo containing corn and soybean oil. At the end of 16 weeks the children were rescored on a standardized reading test.

Reading-ScoresThe results were quite interesting. When the scientists looked at children reading in the lower third of their class, the affect of DHA on their ability to read was non-significant. However, when they looked at the children who were performing in the bottom 20% of their class with respect to reading, DHA supplementation resulted in a 20% improvement in their reading score. And when they looked at children in the bottom 10% of their class with respect to reading, DHA supplementation resulted in a 50% increase in reading scores. These changes were highly significant.

To put this in perspective, the children performing in the bottom 20% of their class improved their reading efficiency by around 0.8 months with respect to their normal reading age, and the children in the bottom 10% of their class improved their reading efficiency by around 1.9 months with respect to their normal reading age.

Strengths and Weaknesses of The Studies

 

On The Minus Side:

  • First and foremost we must remember that nutrition is only one of many factors that can affect reading performance in children. You shouldn’t think of DHA as a magic bullet that will cure your child’s reading problems by itself.
  • This is a single pair of studies that need to be replicated.
  • This study does not establish the optimal dose of DHA needed to improve reading in underperforming children. Until dose response studies have been done we don’t know whether 600 mg is needed or whether simply making sure that the children reach the recommended 200 mg per day of DHA would be sufficient.

On The Plus Side:

  • Both of these were very well controlled studies, and they complemented each other perfectly.  One study showed that students with the poorest reading ability had the lowest blood levels of DHA. The other study showed that children with the poorest reading ability experienced the greatest improvement with DHA supplementation.
  • These studies were not done with third world children. They were studies with normal, healthy children in a prosperous European country.
  • These studies are fully consistent with previous studies looking at the effects of DHA on cognition in children.

The Bottom Line

What does this study mean for parents whose children may be struggling with their reading in school?

  • The lead author concluded: “We have shown that in the mainstream, general population, something as simple as DHA can benefit reading abilities in underperforming children.”
  • It’s perhaps not that ironclad yet. But if your kid or grandkid is reading below their grade level, DHA supplementation is both safe and inexpensive. It’s worth giving it a try.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

Is it How Much You Eat, or How Much You Keep?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Brain HealthWhy do some studies conclude that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a strong mind, a strong heart and will wipe out inflammation – while other studies suggest that they are ineffective? The simple answer is that nobody really knows.

However, in the process of reviewing two recent studies on omega-3 fatty acids and brain health I made an interesting observation that offers a possible explanation for the discrepancies between studies. And if my hypothesis is correct, it suggests that the design of many of the previous studies with omega-3 fatty acids is faulty.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

The first study (J.K. Virtanen et al, J Am Heart Assoc, 2013, 2:e000305 doi: 10.1161/JAHA.113.000305) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain function in older adults (>65 years old). It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with better white matter grade and a 40% reduction in subclinical infarcts (Sorry for the technical jargon – but both of those are good things in terms of brain function for those of us who are getting a bit older).

The second study (C. M. Milte et al, J of Attention Disorders, 2013, doi: 10.1177/1087054713510562) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on children (ages 6-13) with ADHD. It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with improved spelling and attention and reduced oppositional behavior, hyperactivity, cognitive problems and inattention.

What Is The Common Thread In These Studies?

Why, you might ask, am I comparing a study in the elderly, where the concern is retention of cognitive skills, with a study on ADHD in children?

That’s because there is a very important common thread in those two studies. It wasn’t the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet that counted. It was the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood that made the difference.

The first study included a detailed dietary history to estimate the habitual intake of omega-3 fatty acids in the participants.

  • There was no correlation between estimated dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids and any measure of brain function in those older adults.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3s and brain health in that population group.

The second study was actually a placebo controlled intervention study in which the children were given 1 gm/day of either omega-3 fatty acids or omega-6 fatty acids.

  • Once again, there was no correlation between dietary intake of omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids and any outcome related to ADHD.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids or omega-3/omega-6 ratio and improvement in multiple measures of ADHD.

How Could The Effect of Dietary Intake And Blood Levels Of Omega-3s Be So Different?

Fish OilBoth studies were relatively small and suffered from some technical limitations, but the most likely explanations are:

  • Inaccurate recall of the participants as to what they eat on a habitual basis. (study 1)
  • Individual differences in the ability of participants to convert short chain omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods such as canola oil, flaxseed oil and walnuts) to the beneficial long chain fatty acids (found in cold water fish). (study 1)
  • Poor compliance in taking the supplements. (study 2)

Why Are These Studies Important?

The most important insight to come out of both of these studies is that it is essential to actually measure blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and not just rely on dietary intake or supplementation for a valid clinical trial.

That’s a concern because blood measurements of omega-3 fatty acids are expensive and have not been a part of many of the clinical studies that have been performed to date. Even the largest, best designed clinical study is worthless if the dietary recalls aren’t accurate or people don’t take their capsules.

We need to go back and reevaluate many of the clinical studies that have been published.

We need to ask:

  • Are their conclusions valid?
  • Did some studies fail to show that omega-3s were effective simply because they only measured dietary intake and not how much of the omega-3s actually accumulated in the blood?

The Bottom Line

  • High blood levels of omega-3s in the blood correlated with improved brain health in the elderly and reduced ADHD symptoms in children
  • These studies were small, but they are consistent with a number of other studies that have come to similar conclusions.
  • Blood levels of omega-3s are better predictors than dietary intake for evaluating the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Many previous studies that failed to find an effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain health, heart health or inflammation did not actually measure blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids. These studies should be reevaluated.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Are Cholesterol Lowering Drugs Right For You?

Do Statins Really Work?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Do statins really work?Statins – those ubiquitous drugs used to lower cholesterol levels – are big business!

Over 20 million Americans are currently being treated with statin drugs at a cost that runs into billions of dollars every year. And cardiologists have just recommended that another 20 million Americans consider using cholesterol lowering drugs. 44% of the men and 22% of the women in this country are now being told that they should be using statin drugs.

Some of my cardiologist friends are so convinced that statin drugs prevent death from heart attacks that they have said, only half-joking, that we should just add statins to the water supply.

Are Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Right For You?

Is the faith of doctors in the power of statin drugs to prevent death from heart disease justified? To answer that question in full we need to look at people who have already survived a heart attack and people who have never had a heart attack separately.

If you’ve already had a heart attack the evidence is clear cut.

  • If you have had a heart attack, there is good evidence that statins will reduce your risk of dying from a second heart attack.
  • In the technical jargon of the scientific world that is referred to as secondary prevention.

But what about those millions of Americans who are being prescribed statin drugs who have never had a heart attack? This is something we scientists refer to as primary prevention.

What Do The Studies Actually Say About Statins And Primary Prevention?

Here the evidence is not clear at all. Two major reports have cast doubt on the assumption that statins actually do prevent heart attacks in people who have not already had a first heart attack.

In the first study, Dr. Kausik Ray and colleagues from Cambridge University in England performed a meta-analyis of 11 clinical studies involving over 65,000 participants (Ray et al, Arch. Int. Med., 170: 1024-1031, 2010). They focused on those participants in the studies who had not previously had a heart attack (primary prevention).

  • They found that the use of statins over an average of 3.7 years had no statistically significant effect on mortality. In short, statins had no effect on the risk of dying from heart disease or any other cause.
  • Dr. Sreenivasa Sechasai, one of the doctors involved in the study, said “We didn’t find a significant reduction in death despite having such a huge sample size. This is the totality of evidence in primary prevention. So if we can’t show a reduction with this data, it is unlikely to be there.”

The second study was a Cochrane Systemic Review of statins published January 19th, 2011.  It stated that there was not enough scientific evidence to recommend the use of statins in people with no previous history of heart disease with some caveats (see below).

To help you understand the significance of that conclusion, let me give you a bit of background:

  • First you need to understand that the Cochrane Collaboration is an independent, non-profit organization that carefully reviews the scientific evidence behind medical treatments and proposed medical treatments.
  • Cochrane Reviews are considered the “Holy Grail” of evidence-based medicine (ie. medicine based on the best scientific evidence rather than what the pharmaceutical companies would have you believe).
  • So when a Cochrane Review concludes that there isn’t enough evidence to recommend use of statins in patients with no prior history of heart disease that is pretty big news in the medical world.

How Should These Studies Be Interpreted?

Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying. The Cochrane Review said that statin drugs are overprescribed, but it did not say that everyone who has not had a heart attack will not benefit from statins. It said that there are a number of risk factors that need to be considered in evaluating individual patients for statin use.

  • Simply put, that means that it is not as simple as saying that everyone with no previous history of heart disease should not be on statin drugs.
  • If you are currently taking statin drugs and you have no previous history of heart disease, you may want to discuss with your physician whether the Cochrane Review of statin drugs changes their opinion of whether se of those drugs is still warranted for you.
  • But the bottom line is that only your physician is trained to take into account all of the factors that increase your risk of heart disease and the best therapeutic approach for reducing your risk of heart attack.

There Is A Double Standard In The Medical Community

More importantly, these studies highlight the difficulty in showing that anything works when you start out with a healthy group of adults with no prior evidence of disease (primary prevention).

And, the way that doctors have responded to primary prevention studies shows that there is a double standard in how primary prevention trials are interpreted in the medical community. For example:

  • There is no good evidence that statins prevent fatal heart attacks in healthy people.
  • However, because statins do work in high risk patients, most doctors recommend their use by millions of Americans who have never had a heart attack.
  • There is also no good evidence that nutrients like vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids prevent fatal heart attacks in healthy people.
  • However, there is evidence that both vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids prevent heart attacks in high risk patients, yet most doctors will tell you they are a waste of money.

It is food for thought.

The Bottom Line

1)    Statin drugs clearly save lives when used by people who have already had a heart attack.

2)    On the other hand, there is no proof that statin drugs prevent heart attacks in people who have not previously had a heart attack

3)    Statin drugs do have side effects. Increased risk of diabetes, liver damage, muscle damage and kidney failure are the best documented, although memory loss has also been reported.

4)    I am not recommending that you stop using statin drugs without consulting your doctor. I am suggesting that you discuss the benefits and risks of statin drug use with your doctor.

5)    Perhaps the most important poin tto come out of these studies is that it almost impossible to prove the benefit of any intervention in a primary prevention trial. If you can’t prove that statins work in healthy people, it is not surprising that it is difficult to prove that other interventions work.

6)   Finally, the way that these studies have been interpreted shows that there is a clear double standard in how the medical community evaluates primary intervention trials.

  • Statin drugs don’t show any benefit in a primary prevention setting, yet most doctors still recommend them.
  • Vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids don’t show any benefit in a primary prevention setting, and most doctors recommend against them.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Decrease Risk Of Depression In Women?

Do Happy Fish Make Happy Women?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Woman playing with autumn leaves The days are getting shorter, and those shorter days can lead to depression. You may have seen the recent headlines saying “Omega-3 fatty acids may decrease the risk of depression in women”. If you suffer from seasonal depression, should you be stocking up on fish oil capsules? Let’s look at the study behind the headlines.

The Theory Behind The Study

Depression appears to be increasing in modern society. For example, between 1991 and 2002, the prevalence of major depression has more than doubled in the United States from 3.3% to 7.1%.

There are many causes of depression, but some experts blame the dramatic increase in omega-6 fatty acids in the diet.  For example, per capita consumption of soybean oil, much of it in processed foods, has increased 1000-fold during the past century. That’s a concern because omega-6 fatty acids interfere with the body’s ability to convert vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids into the longer chain omega-3 fatty acids thought to be effective in reducing depression.

This has lead to the hypothesis that omega-3 fatty acids in the diet may help prevent depression, and a number of clinical studies have supported that hypothesis.

How Was The Study Designed?

The study (M. A. Beydoun et al, J. Nutr., doi: 10.3945/jn.113.179119, 2013) looked at 1,746 adults age 30-64 living in Baltimore Maryland. The participants were a representative sample of African Americans and whites, men and women. Omega-3 fatty acid intake was based on two 24-hour dietary recalls. Depressive symptoms were based on something called CES-D, which is a 20 item, self-reporting symptom rating scale.

What Did The Study Actually Show?

The results were pretty dramatic for women:

  • Women with the highest intake of omega-3 fatty acids/day were 49% less likely to suffer from depression than women with the lowest intake.
  • No significant effect of omega-3 fatty acid intake on the prevalence of depression was seen for the men in this study. This was the first study to look at men and women separately, so it’s not yet clear whether this is a true sex-specific difference or simply due to the relatively small sample size and reduced incidence of depression in men.

Limitations Of The Study:

There were numerous limitations to this study, but the most important were:

  • It did not ask whether the participants were taking fish oil supplements, and it did not substantiate the dietary recalls by measuring actual levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood.
  • It just measured associations, not cause and effect.

The Bottom Line:

This is not a particularly strong study, but it is consistent with a least half a dozen other studies that have obtained similar results. So, based on the total body of published studies my recommendations are:

1)     If you are a woman and you’re suffering from mild depression you might want to talk with your doctor about increasing your omega-3 fatty acid intake before you start taking an anti-depressive medication. Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce heart disease risk, lower inflammation and provide other benefits. The drugs generally have side effects rather than side benefits.

2)    We don’t have any good data yet on what dose of omega-3 fatty acids are needed, but the 500-1,000 mg/day that the NIH recommends for heart health might be a good starting place.

3)     If you’re a guy, this paper suggests that the jury is out about whether omega-3s can help you with depression. More studies will be required. In the meantime, just remember that omega-3s have lots of other health benefits.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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