Should Athletes Be Taking Omega-3s?

Can Omega-3s Protect Your Brain?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Contact sports like football and soccer can be an athlete’s ticket to fame and fortune. That is a powerful motivator. But many elite athletes in contact sports pay a terrible price after their playing days are over.

Repeated head trauma can lead to a condition called Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy or CTE. In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that spread through the brain, killing brain cells. Eventually, this can lead to irrational behavior and/or early-onset Alzheimer’s, which is, indeed, a terrible price to pay for their brief moment in the spotlight.

The NCAA is aware of the damaging effects of repeated head trauma and are experimenting with rule changes and improvements to protective head gear to reduce it. But, given the pressures of college teams to win at all costs, it will be impossible to completely eliminate head trauma from contact sports.

So, it is important to ask, “What else we can do?” Several studies have suggested that omega-3s may mitigate the damaging effect of repeated head trauma. For example:

  • The omega-3s DHA and EPA are metabolized to molecules called resolvins and protectins, which protect brain tissue from oxidative stress and help restore damaged brain tissue.
  • DHA and EPA also reduce the inflammation associated with brain injury, so the brain can heal faster.
  • DHA and EPA boost the level of a protein called BDNF in the brain. It helps trigger the production of new brain cells, which also aids in the recovery from brain injury.
  • Finally, some medical clinics have reported that high dose omega-3s help speed the recovery from severe head trauma.
  • This is concerning because omega-3s are largely missing from the diet of college athletes.

This raises the question, “Should athletes be taking omega-3s?”omega 3 supplements

The kinds of studies mentioned above suggest that DHA and EPA might help protect athletes from the damaging effects of repeated head trauma, but it is difficult to prove:

  • If a patient comes into a clinic with severe brain trauma, the symptoms are obvious. And if omega-3s speed recovery it will become apparent in weeks or months. This effect is easy to measure.
  • On the other hand, the effects of repeated, minor head trauma on a highly trained athlete are often not apparent until decades later. Therefore, any protective effects of omega-3s would also not become apparent for decades. Clinical studies don’t last that long.

Because of this, current research focuses on markers of brain damage such as neurofilament light chain or Nf-L. Nf-L is a neuronal protein that is released into the bloodstream by dying neurons. It is widely considered to be an early marker for neurodegenerative diseases such as those seen in former college football players. Previous studies have shown:

  • Nf-L blood levels increase during the season for NCAA-level college football players.
  • College football players have a very low omega-3 index, a measure of omega-3 status.
  • DHA supplementation reduces Nf-L levels in college football players.

With this in mind, the authors of this study (JL Heileson et al, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 18:65, 2021) looked at the effect of a high-dose, comprehensive omega-3 supplement on Nf-L levels in the blood of NCAA football players during the playing season.

How Was This Study Done?

clinical studyVolunteers from two geographically distinct NCAA football teams were recruited for this study. One team (n=31) was given a daily high-dose omega-3 supplement providing 2,000 mg of DHA, 560 mg of EPA, and 320 mg of DPA starting during pre-season (fall) practices and continuing through the entire season. Compliance with the supplement regimen was 93%.

Volunteers from the other team (n=35) received no supplements and served as a control.

Participants from both teams were advised which foods were high in omega-3s and were asked to limit servings to no more than 2 per week for the duration of the study.

Players were excluded from the study if they:

  • Were on long-term (>20 days) anti-inflammatory therapy.
  • Were using fish oil supplements.
  • Ate more than two servings of fish per week.
  • Were on medications to control blood pressure or blood lipid levels.

Blood samples were drawn 7 days before pre-season practice, at the end of pre-season practice, 3 times during the season, and at the end of the season (a total of 6 blood draws).

The blood samples were analyzed for Nf-L, a marker of brain injury, and Omega-3 Index, a measure of omega-3 status.

Should Athletes Be Taking Omega-3s?

As I stated above, compliance with the supplementation regimen was excellent (93%) and this was reflected in the blood levels of long-chain omega-3s. Between the first and last blood sample drawn:

  • DHA and EPA levels increased 2-fold.
  • DPA levels, on the other hand, decreased slightly.
    • This suggests that the beneficial effects of omega-3 supplementation were primarily due to DHA and EPA. I will discuss the implications of this below.
  • The omega-3 index increased from 4.3%, which is considered poor, to 7.4%, which is considered near optimal.

The effect of omega-3 supplementation on Nf-L levels was striking:

  • In the control team (no supplementation) Nf-L levels increased 1.5-fold during the pre-season practices and remained elevated throughout the regular season.
  • In the team receiving omega-3 supplementation there was no significant increase in Nf-L levels.

The authors of the study concluded, “These findings suggest a…neuroprotective effect of combined EPA+DPA+DHA omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in American-style football athletes.”

The authors went on to say, “Similar elevations of Nf-L have been reported with RHI [repeated head injuries] in other contact sport athletes. These data suggest that those other contact sports athletes may also benefit from omega-3 supplementation…”

So, let’s return to the original question, “Should athletes be taking omega-3s?” Here is my take on the study:

  • The conclusions of the authors are appropriately cautious. This study shows that omega-3 supplementation reduces an indicator of possible brain damage (Nf-L), but the actual symptoms of brain damage don’t appear for decades.
    • Therefore, this study suggests, but doesn’t prove, that omega-3 supplementation may reduce Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy (CTE) for athletes who competed in contact sports during their college years.
  • This study used an omega-3 supplement containing EPA, DHA, and DPA. It resulted in an increase in EPA and DHA levels, but not DPA levels. Thus, there is no evidence that the DPA portion of the supplement was needed. I recommend a supplement with a 4:1 ratio of DHA to EPA for brain health.
  • This study did not establish an optimal dose of omega-3s. Until more information is available, I would recommend around 2,000 mg of DHA and 500 mg of EPA for athletes in contact sports, but the optimal dose may be lower or higher.

Can Omega-3s Protect Your Brain?

If you are not a college athlete competing in contact sports (which would include most of us), you are probably wondering what this means for you. Here are my thoughts.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

  • You never know when you may suffer unexpected head trauma. It could be a car accident. It could be a fall. You might be playing a friendly game of softball and get hit in the head by a foul ball. You get the point.
  • And the best time to make sure you have enough omega-3s (specifically DHA + EPA) in your brain is before the trauma occurs.

But how much DHA + EPA is enough? This is where it gets confusing.

  • Recommendations range from 500 mg/day to 3,000 mg/day depending on whether the goal is to reduce death from heart disease, lower blood pressure, or lower triglycerides.
  • This study used 2,500 mg/day to reduce a marker of brain damage in college athletes, but we don’t know whether that is optimal.
  • Finally, these numbers are averages, and none of us are average. We all utilize omega-3s from supplements with different efficiencies.

My recommendation is to use the Omega-3 Index as a gauge. It tells us how much DHA + EPA we have actually accumulated in our tissues.

  • An Omega-3 Index of 8% is considered optimal for heart health, and this study suggests it might be optimal for brain health as well.
  • So, my recommendation is to get your Omega-3 Index measured at 6-month intervals until you have determined the amount of supplemental DHA + EPA you need to attain and maintain an 8% Omega-3 Index.
  • Based on this study, I would recommend a high-purity supplement with an ~4:1 ratio of DHA to EPA if your primary goal is brain health. But other studies suggest that an EPA to DHA ratio of 3:2 may be optimal for heart health.

In short:

  • While the evidence is not definitive, this study suggests that it might be prudent to have accumulated enough DHA and EPA in your neural tissue to help reduce the complications of unexpected brain trauma.
  • This study also suggests that you may wish to aim for an Omega-3 Index of 8%.
    • An Omega-3 Index of 8% likely has side benefits. There is also evidence that it may reduce the rate of cognitive decline as you age, help protect your heart, and reduce inflammation.
  • The ratio of DHA to EPA in the supplement you choose may be different for brain health and heart health. If you are equally interested in brain and heart health, just be sure your supplement provides both DHA and EPA.

The Bottom Line 

Repeated head injuries are a major concern for NCAA football players and college athletes in other contact sports. That’s because repeated head injuries during their playing years are associated with a degenerative brain condition called Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy or CTE, which can lead to irrational behavior and/or early-onset Alzheimer’s.

A recent study looked at the effect of a high-dose, comprehensive omega-3 supplement on Nf-L, a marker of brain injury, in NCAA football players during the playing season. Two teams were selected.

  • In the team receiving no omega-3s, Nf-L increased 1.5-fold during preseason practice and remained elevated throughout the playing season.
  • In the team receiving omega-3 supplementation there was no significant increase in Nf-L levels.

The authors of the study concluded, “These findings suggest a…neuroprotective effect of… omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in American-style football athletes.”

The authors went on to say, “Similar elevations of Nf-L have been reported with RHI [repeated head injuries] in other contact sport athletes. These data suggest that those other contact sports athletes may also benefit from omega-3 supplementation…”

For more information on this study and what it means for all of us who are not college athletes, 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.

 ____________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

 

 

Can You Slow The Aging Process?

A Holistic Approach To Living Healthy Longer

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Fountain Of YouthEver since Ponce de Leon’s famed 1513 expedition, people have been searching for the proverbial “Fountain of Youth”.

There have been hucksters selling pills and potions to reverse the aging process. Most of them didn’t work. They were no better than snake oil.

There have been legitimate scientists investigating the effect of supplements, diets, and lifestyle on the aging process. Most of these studies have come up empty.

In this study (M Gagesch et al, Journal of Frailty And Aging, 12: 71-77, 2023) the authors hypothesized that a holistic approach might be better than individual interventions. They asked whether a combination of vitamin D3 supplementation, omega-3 supplementation, and exercise might be more effective at slowing the aging process than any one of them alone.

There was good reason for choosing each of these interventions:

  • Low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels have been associated with frailty in several studies. But association studies do not prove cause and effect, and no randomized, placebo control studies have measured the effect of vitamin D supplementation on frailty.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to skeletal muscle health, and some studies have suggested omega-3 supplementation may improve muscle function in older adults.
  • A recent study has reported that a supervised exercise program reduced frailty in older adults. The authors wanted to see if the same was true for unsupervised, at-home exercise program.

How Was This Study Done?

clinical studyThe data from this study were collected as part of the DO-HEALTH study, a 3-year, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial designed to identify interventions that support healthy aging in European adults aged 70 and older.

Initially, 2,157 healthy, community-dwelling adults were enrolled from five countries (Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, and Portugal). They were examined in clinical centers at the beginning of the study and years 1, 2, and 3, with phone follow-up at 3-month intervals.

Aging was measured by something called the frailty index. At each clinic visit the participants were evaluated in five areas:

  1. Weakness was measured as grip strength. Weakness was defined as being in the lowest quintile of grip strength for someone their age and gender.

2) Fatigue was defined as a positive answer to the question, “In the last month have you had too little energy to do the things you wanted to do?”

3) Involuntary weight loss was defined as >5% weight loss within a year.

4) Low gait speed was defined as <2 ft/sec walking speed.

5) Low activity level was defined as a response of, “Less than once a week” to the question, “How often do you engage in activities that require a low or moderate level of energy such as gardening, cleaning the car, or going on a walk?”

    • Participants with 0 positive items were classified as robust.
    • Those with 1 or 2 positive items were classified as pre-frail.
    • Those with 3 or more positive items were classified as frail.

Only those participants from the DO-HEALTH study classified as robust at the first clinical visit (1,137 participants) were included in this study. The study measured how many of them became pre-frail or frail during the average follow-up of 2.9 years.

The interventions were:

  • Capsules containing a total of 2,000 IU/day of vitamin D3 with sunflower oil capsules as a placebo.
  • Capsules containing a total of 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA in a 1:2 ratio with a sunflower oil capsule as a placebo.
  • Exercise consisting of an unsupervised strength-training routine for 30 minutes, 3 times per week.
  • In this case the control was an unsupervised joint-flexibility routine for 30 minutes, 3 times per week.

The interventions were done individually, two together (vitamin D + omega-3, vitamin D + exercise, omega-3 + exercise), and all three together (vitamin D + omega-3 + exercise).

The results were corrected for age, sex, and low-trauma falls in the preceding 12 months.

Finally, the study measured blood 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and omega-3 levels at each office visit. They found:

  • 28% of the participants were deficient in vitamin D at the beginning of the study.
  • The interventions gave the expected increase in vitamin D and omega-3 status.

Can You Slow The Aging Process?

Older Couple Running Along BeachAt the end of 3 years:

  • 61.2% of the participants had declined from robust health to the pre-frail category.
  • 2.6% of the participants had declined from robust health to the frail category.

[Note: The terms “pre-frail” and “frail” are measures of aging which I have described above.]

The number of participants in the frail category were too small to obtain a statistically significant measure of the effects of vitamin D, omega-3s, and exercise on frailty, so I will only discuss the results measuring their effect on pre-frailty in this review. These results are:

  • None of these interventions had a statistically significant effect on aging by themselves, as measured by the transition from robust health to pre-frailty.
  • None of these interventions had a statistically significant effect on aging when combined in pairs, although the vitamin D3-omega-3 pair came close to significance (31% reduction in pre-frailty with a probability of 94% (probabilities of 95% and above are considered significant.))
  • However, the combination of vitamin D3, omega-3s, and exercise reduced the risk of aging by 39%, which was statistically significant (96% probability).

The authors concluded, “Robust, generally healthy and active older adults without major comorbidities [diseases], may benefit from a combination of high-dose, supplemental vitamin D3, marine omega-3s, and SHEP [unsupervised strength training] with regard to the risk of becoming pre-frail over 3 years.”

A Holistic Approach To Living Healthy Longer

holistic approachThis study was a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, which is the gold standard for clinical studies. It was also unusually large (1,137 participants) and long (3 years) for this kind of study.

It was also much better than most double-blind, placebo-controlled studies in that it included three interventions (vitamin D3 supplementation, omega-3 supplementation, and exercise) and looked at their effect on aging individually, in pairs, and all three together.

One take-home lesson from this study was that a holistic approach that included all 3 interventions was superior to any one of these interventions alone or in pairs.

But the most important take-home lesson is this:

If you asked your doctor what you should do to slow the aging process, he or she would probably tell you, “Exercise may help, but forget supplementing with extra vitamin D or omega-3s. They have no proven benefits.”

They would be correct based on studies of each of these interventions individually. And the studies they might quote would be double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, the gold standard of clinical studies.

But would that be the best advice. Clearly not. The best advice would be to follow a holistic approach and use all 3 interventions together.

Unfortunately, this is true for most studies of supplementation. Supplements are tested individually, as if they were “magic bullets”. And most of these studies come up short. They fail to find a significant benefit of supplementation.

Supplements are almost never tested holistically in combination with each other and other interventions, but that’s where the “magic” really happens.

If you are a regular reader of “Health Tips From The Professor”, this should come as no surprise to you. I have often shared the Venn diagram on the upper left and said that the sweet spot is when two or more of these interventions overlap.

Of course, this is the first study of its kind. More studies are needed. More importantly, we need studies to fill in the other parts of the Venn diagram. We need to ask about the effect of diet and obesity on aging. For example:

  • If we add a healthy diet to vitamin D, omega-3s, and exercise, can we reduce aging even more dramatically?
  • Is the effort it takes to lose excess weight worth it? Does adding it to diet, supplementation, and exercise reduce the aging process even more?

Of course, I think the answer to those questions is an unequivocal, “Yes”. Multiple studies have shown that both a healthy weight and a healthy diet help you live healthier longer.

But I am a scientist. Neither diet nor weight loss have been tested in combination with supplementation and exercise. I would like to see studies combining all these modalities in a single double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment.

So, what does this mean for you? If you want to slow the aging process, if you are in search of your personal “Fountain of Youth…

  • This study suggests that vitamin D3 supplementation (2,000 IU/day), omega-3 supplementation (1,000 mg of EPA + DHA), and an exercise program that emphasizes strength training can help you slow the aging process.

But that is only the beginning. I also recommend…

  • Including a healthy diet and a healthy weight in your anti-aging regimen.
  • Making sure your diet has enough protein and leucine, since older adults need more of both to maximize the benefits of strength training.
  • Including other supplements as evidence for their benefit in slowing the aging process becomes available.

The Bottom Line 

A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study looked at the effect of vitamin D3 supplementation (2,000 IU/day), omega-3 supplementation (1,000 mg/day EPA + DHA in a 1:2 ratio), and an unsupervised strength training program on the aging process.

It differed from most other double-blind, placebo-controlled studies in that:

  • It was larger (1,137 participants) and longer (3 years) than most.
  • More importantly, each intervention was tested individually, in pairs, and all 3 together.

The study found that:

  • None of these interventions had a statistically significant effect on aging by themselves.
  • None of these interventions had a statistically significant effect on aging when combined in pairs, although the vitamin D3-omega-3 pair came close to significance.
  • However, the combination of vitamin D3, omega-3s, and exercise reduced the risk of aging by a statistically significant 39%.

One take-home lesson from this study was that a holistic approach that included all 3 interventions was superior to any one of these interventions alone or in pairs.

But the most important take-home lesson is this:

If you asked your doctor what you should do to slow the aging process, he or she would probably tell you, “Exercise may help, but forget supplementing with extra vitamin D or omega-3s. They have no proven benefits.”

They would be correct based on studies of each of these interventions individually. And the studies they might quote would be double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, the gold standard of clinical studies.

But would that be the best advice? Clearly not. The best advice would be to follow a holistic approach and use all 3 interventions together.

Unfortunately, this is true for most studies of supplementation. Supplements are tested individually, as if they were “magic bullets”. And most of these studies come up short. They fail to find a significant benefit of supplementation.

Supplements are almost never tested holistically in combination with each other and other interventions, but that’s where the “magic” really happens.

For more information on this study and my recommendations on how to slow the aging process 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.

 ___________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

Is HDL Good For Your Heart?

Is Everything You Knew About HDL Wrong?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

HDL CHolesterolIn last week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” I talked about one of the greatest strengths of the scientific method – namely that investigators constantly challenge, and occasionally disprove, existing paradigms. That allows us to discard old models of how things work and replace them with better ones.

Last week I shared a study that disproved the paradigm that low to moderate alcohol consumption is healthier than total abstinence. This week I share several studies that challenge the belief that HDL cholesterol is good for your heart.

The belief that HDL is good for your heart has all the hallmarks of a classic paradigm.

  • It is supported by multiple clinical studies.
  • Elaborate metabolic explanations have been proposed to support the paradigm.
  • It is the official position of most medical societies, scientific organizations, and health information sites on the web.
  • It is the recommendation of most health professionals.
  • It has been repeated so often by so many trusted sources that everyone assumes it must be true.

Once we accept the HDL/heart health paradigm as true, we can construct other hypotheses on that foundation. For example:

  • Raising your HDL levels naturally takes effort. Pharmaceutical companies have been pursuing the “magic pill” that raises HDL levels without any effort on your part.
  • Low carb diets like the Keto and Paleo diets are high in saturated fat. The low carb enthusiasts claim this is a good thing because saturated fat raises HDL levels, and HDL is good for your heart.

But what if the underlying HDL/heart health paradigm weren’t true? These hypotheses would be like the parable of a house built on a foundation of sand. The paradigm will be washed away as soon as it is critically tested.

So, let’s look at experiments that have challenged the HDL/heart health paradigm.

Do Drugs That Increase HDL Levels Work?

The first hint that the HDL/heart health paradigm might be faulty happened when a pharmaceutical company developed a drug that selectively increased HDL levels.

The drug company thought they had found the goose that laid golden eggs. Just imagine. People wouldn’t have to lose weight, exercise, or change their diet. They could simply take a pill and dramatically decrease their heart disease risk. A drug like that would be worth $billions.

The problem was that when they tested their drug (torcetrapib) in clinical trials, it had absolutely no effect on heart disease outcomes (AR Tall et al, Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 27:257-260, 2007).

The pharmaceutical company couldn’t believe it. Raising HDL levels just had to reduce heart disease risk. They concluded they didn’t have the right drug, and they continued to work on developing new drugs.

That was 16 years ago, and no HDL-increasing drug has made it to market. Have they just not found the right drug, or does this mean the HDL/heart health paradigm is incorrect?

Does Saturated Fat Decrease Heart Disease Risk?

Now let’s turn to two claims of low carb enthusiasts.

#1: Saturated fats decrease your risk of heart disease in the context of a low carb diet. I have debunked that claim in several previous issues of “Health Tips From The Professor”. But let me refer you to two articles here – one on saturated fat and heart disease risk and one on low-carb diets.

#2: Saturated fats decrease heart disease risk because they raise HDL levels. This is the one I will address today.

The idea that saturated fats decrease heart disease risk because they raise HDL levels is based on a simplistic concept of HDL particles. The reality is more complex. Several clinical studies have shown:

  • The type of fat determines the property of the HDL particles.
    • When polyunsaturated fats predominate, the HDL particles have an anti-inflammatory effect. When saturated fats predominate, the HDL particles have a pro-inflammatory effect.
  • Anti-inflammatory HDL particles relax the endothelial cells lining our blood vessels. That makes the lining of our blood vessels more pliable, which improves blood flow and reduces blood pressure.
    • Anti-inflammatory HDL particles also help reduce inflammation of the endothelial lining. This is important because an inflamed endothelial lining is more likely to accumulate fatty plaques and to trigger blood clot formation that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

So, the question becomes, “What good is it to raise HDL levels if you are producing an unhealthy, pro-inflammatory HDL particle that may increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes?”

In short, these studies suggest it isn’t enough to just focus on HDL levels. You need to ask what kind of HDL particles you are creating.

Is HDL Good For Your Heart?

strong heartOnce the studies were published showing that…

  • Drug-induced increase of HDL levels without any change in health habits is not sufficient to decrease heart attack risk, and…
  • Not all HDL particles are healthy. There are anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory HDL particles, which likely have opposite effects on heart attack risk…

…some people started to question the HDL/heart health paradigm. And one group came up with the perfect study to test the paradigm.

But before I describe the study, I need to review the term “confounding variables”. I described the term and how it affects clinical studies in last week’s article. Here is a brief synopsis:

  • The studies supporting the HDL/heart health paradigm are association studies. Association studies measure the association between a single variable (in this case, increase in HDL levels) and an outcome (in this case, heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and total deaths).
  • Associations need to be corrected for other variables known to affect the same outcome (things like age, gender, smoking, and diabetes would be examples in this case).
  • Confounding variables are variables that also affect the outcome but are unknown or ignored. Thus, they are not used to correct the associations, which can bias the results.

The authors of this study (M Briel et al, BMJ 2009:338.b92) observed that most interventions that increase HDL levels also lower LDL levels. Lowering LDL is known to decrease the risk of heart disease deaths. But this effect had been ignored in most studies looking at the association between HDL and heart disease deaths.

They hypothesized that the change in LDL levels was a confounding variable that had been ignored in previous studies and may have biased the results.Heart Disease Study

To test this hypothesis the authors searched the literature and identified 108 studies with 299,310 participants that:

  • Compared the effect of drugs, omega-3 fatty acids, or diet with either a placebo or usual care.
  • Measured both HDL and LDL levels.
  • Measured reduction in cardiovascular risk.
  • Had a randomized control design.
  • Lasted at least 6 months.

They found that every 10 mg/dl decrease in LDL levels in these studies was responsible for a:

  • 7.1% reduction in heart disease events (both heart disease deaths and non-fatal heart attacks).
  • 7.2% reduction in heart disease deaths.
  • 4.4% reduction in total deaths.

After correcting for the effect of decreased LDL levels on these heart disease outcomes, the increase in HDL levels had no statistically significant effect on any of the outcomes.

The authors concluded, “Available data suggest that simply increasing the amount of circulating HDL cholesterol does not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease events, coronary heart disease deaths, or total deaths. The results support reduction in LDL cholesterol as the primary goal for lipid modifying interventions.”

In other words, this study:

  • Supports the author’s hypothesis that LDL levels were a confounding variable that biased the studies supporting the HDL/heart health paradigm.
  • Concludes that increasing HDL levels has no effect on heart disease outcomes, thus invalidating the HDL/heart health paradigm.

Is Everything You Knew About HDL Wrong?

Peek Behind The CurtainDoes that mean that everything you knew about HDL is wrong? Not exactly. It just means that you need to change your perspective.

Don’t focus on HDL levels. Peek behind the curtain and focus on what’s behind the HDL levels. For example:

  • Losing weight when overweight increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to weight loss than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • Exercise increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to exercise than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • Reversing pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to the reversal of diabetes than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • High-dose omega-3 fatty acids increase HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to the omega-3 fatty acids than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • The Mediterranean diet increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to the diet than to the increase in HDL levels.

And if you want to go the drug route:

  • Statins and some other heart drugs increase HDL levels, but the reduction in heart disease outcomes is probably due to their effect on LDL levels rather than their effect on HDL levels.

On the other hand:

  • Saturated fats increase HDL levels. But saturated fats increase heart disease risk and create pro-inflammatory HDL particles. So, in this case the increase in HDL levels is not a good omen for your heart.
  • Drugs have been discovered that selectively increase HDL levels. However, there is nothing of value behind this increase in HDL levels, so the drugs have no effect on heart disease outcomes.

The Bottom Line 

In this article I discuss several studies that have challenged the HDL/heart health paradigm – the belief that HDL is good for your heart.

For example, one group of investigators analyzed the studies underlying the HDL/heart health paradigm. They hypothesized that these studies were inaccurate because they failed to account for the effects of LDL levels on heart disease outcomes.

After correcting for the effect of decreased LDL levels on heart disease outcomes in the previous studies, the authors showed that increases in HDL levels had no significant effect on any heart disease outcome.

The authors concluded, “Available data suggest that simply increasing the amount of circulating HDL cholesterol does not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease events, coronary heart disease deaths, or total deaths. The results support reduction in LDL cholesterol as the primary goal for lipid modifying interventions.”

In other words, this study:

  • Supports the author’s hypothesis that LDL levels were a confounding variable that biased the studies supporting the HDL/heart health paradigm.
  • Concludes that increasing HDL levels has no effect on heart disease outcomes, thus invalidating the HDL/heart health paradigm.

Does that mean that everything you knew about HDL is wrong? Not exactly. It just means that you need to change your perspective. Don’t focus on HDL levels. Focus on what’s behind the HDL levels. For more information on that, read the article above.

For more information on this study, and what it 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.

____________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

Prenatal Supplements Strike Out Again

Is It Three Strikes And You Are Out?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Pregnant CoupleIf you are pregnant, you want the best for your unborn baby. Your doctor has recommended a prenatal supplement, but do the prenatal supplements on the market meet your needs? A few months ago, I shared two studies that concluded that most prenatal supplements on the market are woefully inadequate.

In fact, the authors said, “[Our] analysis found that prenatal supplements vary widely in content, often only contain a subset of essential vitamins, and the levels were often below…recommendations.”

In other words, their study found that most prenatal vitamins on the market may not be adequate to support your needs and the needs of your child through pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Now, a third study on the topic has been published (KA Saunders et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 117: 823-829, 2023. It differs from the previous studies in that:

1) The previous two studies took a comprehensive approach, while this study focused on 6 key nutrients.

  • The previous studies included all nutrients important for a healthy pregnancy including choline, iodine, and vitamin K, which have only recently been shown to be important for a healthy pregnancy.
  • This study focused on 6 nutrients, vitamin A, vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids, which have long been recognized as essential for a healthy pregnancy.

2) The previous two studies focused on prenatal supplements, while this study focused on all supplements that might be taken by pregnant women.

3) The previous two studies asked whether supplements provided recommended amounts of all nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy. This study took a “Goldilocks approach” and asked whether levels of these 6 essential nutrients were appropriate (“just right”). The study:

  • Started by determining the intake of these 6 key nutrients by American women. The authors of the study then added the amount of each nutrient provided by the supplements in their study to the amount of that nutrient in the diet of American women and:
    • Calculated the minimum amount of each nutrient that would be needed to assure that 90% of American women taking a particular supplement would meet the recommended intake for pregnant and lactating women.
    • Calculated the maximum amount of each nutrient provided by supplements in their study to assure that that 90% of American women taking that supplement would not get potentially toxic amounts of that nutrient.
  • In other words, for each of the 6 nutrients they calculated a supplemental dose range that was neither too low nor too high. They called this the “appropriate dose range” for each nutrient. Goldilocks would have called it “just right”.

I’m sure you are anxiously waiting to learn what their study found. But before we go there, I will describe how the study was done.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyFor the dietary intake portion of the study, the authors used dietary intake data previously collected from the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) study.

The ECHO study is a consortium of 69 medical centers across multiple states. It is an observational study of mothers and their offspring designed to understand the effects of early life exposures on child health and development.

The current study analyzed dietary intake data for 2450 participants from 6 medical centers across 5 states in the ECHO study. The women in this study were diverse with respect to ethnicity, education, and weight.

All pregnant women in the current study completed at least one 24-hour dietary recall between 6-week gestation until delivery (24% completed one dietary recall. 76% completed two or more dietary recalls). Dietary intake was generally assessed with an expert interviewer and included all foods and beverages consumed in the previous 24 hours.

For the supplement portion of the study, the authors used the NIH Dietary Supplement Label Database because it is the most complete listing of supplements in the US. The authors selected 20,547 supplements that contained at least one of the 6 essential nutrients from this database.

To determine which of the 20,547 supplements contained appropriate levels of the 6 nutrients (vitamin A, vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids) selected for this study, the authors used the process described in the introduction above. Briefly:

  • The authors added the amount of each nutrient provided by the supplements in their study to the amount of that nutrient in the diet of American women and:
  • Calculated the minimum amount of each nutrient that would be needed to assure that 90% of American women taking a particular supplement would meet the recommended intake for pregnant and lactating women.
  • Calculated the maximum amount of each nutrient provided by supplements in their study to assure that that 90% of American women taking that supplement would not get potentially toxic amounts of that nutrient.

In other words, for each of the 6 nutrients they calculated a supplemental dose range that was neither too low nor too high. They called this the “appropriate dose range” for each nutrient.

Why Are The 6 Nutrients Included In This Study Important?

Dietary Intake Is Often Inadequate

The diet analysis of pregnant American women in this study found:

  • 42% were at risk of inadequate vitamin A intake.
  • 96% were at risk of inadequate vitamin D intake.
  • 45% were at risk of inadequate folic acid intake.
  • 55% were at risk of inadequate calcium intake.
  • 93% were at risk of inadequate iron intake.
  • 67% were at risk of inadequate omega-3 intake.

The percentage of women at risk for inadequate intake of these nutrients varied with age, ethnicity, and income levels. But the overall message is clear. Most American women are not getting enough of these essential nutrients from their diet alone.

The Risk of Inadequate and Excessive Intake Of These Nutrients

These 6 nutrients were chosen in part because reviews by the Cochrane Collaboration have concluded that inadequate intake of these nutrients are associated with complications during pregnancy and delivery. They can also adversely affect the health and normal development of the baby.

This is important because the Cochrane Collaboration is considered the Gold Standard of clinical studies. You can find a more detailed description of Cochrane Collaboration studies and why they are the Gold standard here.

[Note: The Cochrane Collaboration has not yet evaluated choline, iodine, and vitamin K for pregnant women, but their inclusion in prenatal supplements is supported by multiple clinical studies.]

In addition, excess intake of all these nutrients except omega-3s can harm both the fetus and the mother. The is why the Food and Nutrition Board has set ULs (Upper Limits – the level above which toxicity can occur) for 5 of the 6 nutrients. This is important because previous studies have suggested that up to 25% of women may be getting toxic levels of one or more of these nutrients when you consider both their dietary intake and their prenatal supplement.

Summary

In other words, both too little and too much of these nutrients can harm the mom and her baby. It is critical that prenatal supplements get the dosing right.

It is for that reason that the authors of this study have set an “appropriate dose range” (high enough that 90% of women have enough of each nutrient to prevent deficiency and low enough that 90% of women do not exceed the UL for each nutrient) as the standard for evaluating the adequacy and safety of supplements for pregnant women.

Prenatal Supplements Strike Out Again

Of the 20,547 supplements (421 labeled as prenatal supplements) available on the US market as of December 31, 2022, the investigators reported that:

  • Only 69 (0.3%) supplements contained all 6 nutrients considered essential for a healthy pregnancy.
  • Only 1 supplement contained all 6 nutrients at the appropriate doses, and it wasn’t even labeled as a prenatal supplement.

In addition:

  • One supplement containing all 6 nutrients put 100% of the women in their study at risk for excessive intake of folic acid.
  • Another supplement containing all 6 nutrients put 46% of the women in their study at risk of inadequate calcium intake.

The authors concluded, “Almost no US dietary supplements provide key nutrients in the doses needed for pregnant women. Affordable and convenient products that fill the gap between food-based intake and estimated requirements of pregnancy without inducing excess intake are needed to support pregnant women and their offspring.”

In short, the conclusion of this study can be summed up as, “Prenatal Supplements Strike Out Again”.

[Note: It sometime takes a while for supplement labels to be posted in the NIH Dietary Supplement Label Database. The authors acknowledged that this study may not include supplements introduced or reformulated in the last quarter of 2022.]

Is It Three Strikes And You Are Out? 

pregnant women taking vitaminsIf you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, this should be a wake-up call.

70% of pregnant women in this country take prenatal supplements, usually based on recommendations by their health care provider. They assume the prenatal supplements meet their needs and the needs of their unborn baby.

Yet three studies evaluating the adequacy of prenatal supplements have been published in the past few months. They took very different approaches in evaluating the supplements. But all three studies concluded that the vast majority of prenatal supplements on the market are woefully inadequate.

You may be wondering, “Is it three strikes, and you are out?” Are there no decent prenatal supplements on the market?  The answer to those questions is, “No. There are good prenatal supplements on the market.”

You may be wondering how I can say that in the face of such overwhelming negative data. That’s because while all 3 studies were very good studies, they each had “blind spots”:

1) Each of the studies used very stringent criteria for identifying adequate prenatal supplements. In some cases, their criteria were stricter than the RDA recommendations and the recommendations of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology for pregnant and lactating women. It could be argued that their criteria were too stringent.

2) In the case of the current study, it could also be argued that evaluating only 6 nutrients is not a good criterion for evaluating the adequacy of prenatal supplements. For example, I looked up the one supplement rated as adequate in this study. It does provide appropriate doses of the 6 nutrients this study focused on. It also provides appropriate doses of vitamin K and iodine. But it does not provide choline. It is a very good supplement for women, but it is not the perfect prenatal supplement.

So, what can you do? How can you find the best prenatal supplement for you? Unfortunately, you cannot rely on advice from your friends or your health professional. You cannot rely on advertisements. That is a good place to start, but you have to do your own sleuthing.

With that in mind, I have listed 7 simple rules for selecting the best possible prenatal supplement in  my article about the first two studies. Use these rules for evaluating every prenatal supplement you come across. Happy sleuthing.

The Bottom Line 

A recent study evaluated all 20,547 supplements on the US market to see if they met the needs of pregnant women in this country.

  • They focused on 6 nutrients (vitamin A, vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, iron, and omega-3s) known to be essential for a healthy pregnancy.
  • They determined the dietary intake for all 6 nutrients in a cross section of pregnant women in the US.
  • They added the amount of the 6 nutrients in each of the 20,547 supplements to the dietary intake of those nutrients by pregnant women.
  • They then asked which supplements provided the “appropriate dose” of all 6 nutrients. They defined “appropriate dose” as the dose range that was.
    • High enough to prevent deficiency of that nutrient in 90% of pregnant women taking the supplement…and…
    • Low enough to prevent toxicity from that nutrient in 90% of pregnant women taking the supplement.
  • In other words, for each of the 6 nutrients they calculated a supplemental dose range that was neither too low nor too high.

Of the 20,547 supplements (421 labeled as prenatal supplements) available on the US market:

  • Only 69 (0.3%) supplements contained all 6 nutrients they considered essential for a healthy pregnancy.
  • Only 1 supplement contained all 6 nutrients at the appropriate doses, and it wasn’t even labeled as a prenatal supplement.

The authors concluded, “Almost no US dietary supplements provide key nutrients in the doses needed for pregnant women. Affordable and convenient products that fill the gap between food-based intake and estimated requirements of pregnancy without inducing excess intake are needed to support pregnant women and their offspring.”

[Note: It sometime takes a while for supplement labels to be posted in the NIH Dietary Supplement Label Database. The authors acknowledged that this study may not include supplements introduced or reformulated in the last quarter of 2022 or early 2023.]

If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, this should be a wake-up call.

70% of pregnant women in this country take prenatal supplements, usually based on recommendations by their health care provider. They assume the prenatal supplements meet their needs and the needs of their unborn baby.

Yet three studies evaluating the adequacy of prenatal supplements have been published in the past few months. And all three studies concluded that the vast majority of prenatal supplements on the market are woefully inadequate.

You may be wondering, “Is it three strikes, and you are out?” Are there no decent prenatal supplements on the market?  The answer to those questions is, “No. There are good prenatal supplements on the market.”

You may be wondering how I can say that in the face of such overwhelming negative data. That’s because while all 3 studies were very good studies, they each had “blind spots”:

For more details on this study and 7 tips on finding the best prenatal supplement 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. 

____________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

 

 

Which Supplements Are Good For Your Heart?

How Should You Interpret This Study? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

strong heartFebruary is Heart Health month. So, it is fitting that we ask, “What is the status of heart health in this country?” The American Heart Association just published an update of heart health statistics through 2019 (CW Tsao et al, Circulation, 145: e153-e639, 2022). And the statistics aren’t encouraging. [Note: The American Heart Association only reported statistics through 2019 because the COVID-19 pandemic significantly skewed the statistics in 2020 and 2021].

The Good News is that between 2009 and 2019:

  • All heart disease deaths have decreased by 25%.
  • Heart attack deaths have decreased by 6.6%.
  • Stroke deaths have decreased by 6%.

The Bad News is that:

  • Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in this country.
  • Someone dies from a heart attack every 40 seconds.
  • Someone dies from a stroke every 3 minutes.

Diet, exercise, and weight control play a major role in reducing the risk of heart disease. Best of all, they have no side effects. They represent a risk-free approach that each of us can control.

But is there something else? Could supplements play a role? Are supplements hype or hope for a healthy heart?

All the Dr. Strangeloves in the nutrition space have their favorite heart health supplements. They claim their supplements will single-handedly abolish heart disease (and help you leap tall buildings in a single bound).

On the other hand, many doctors will tell you these supplements are a waste of money. They don’t work. They just drain your wallet.

It’s so confusing. Who should you believe? Fortunately, a recent study (P An et al, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 80: 2269-2285, 2022) has separated the hype from the hope and tells us which “heart-healthy” supplements work, and which don’t.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis was a major clinical study carried out by researchers from the China Agricultural University and Brown University in the US. It was a meta-analysis, which means it combined the data from many published clinical trials.

The investigators searched three major databases of clinical trials to identify:

  • 884 randomized, placebo-controlled clinical studies…
  • Of 27 types of micronutrients…
  • With a total of 883,627 patients…
  • Looking at the effectiveness of micronutrient supplementation lasting an average of 3 years on either…
    • Cardiovascular risk factors like blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides…or…
    • Cardiovascular outcomes such as coronary heart disease (CHD), heart attacks, strokes, and deaths due to cardiovascular disease (CVD) and all causes.

[Note: Coronary heart disease (CHD) refers to build up of plaque in the coronary arteries (the arteries leading to the heart). It is often referred to as heart disease and can lead to heart attacks (myocardial infarction). Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a more inclusive term that includes coronary heart disease, stroke, congenital heart defects, and peripheral artery disease.]

The investigators also included an analysis of the quality of the data in each of the clinical studies and rated the evidence of each of their findings as high quality, moderate quality, or low quality.

Which Supplements Are Good For Your Heart?

The top 3 heart-healthy supplements in this study were:

Omega-3s And Heart DiseaseOmega-3 Fatty Acids:

  • Increased HDL cholesterol and decreased triglycerides, both favorable risk factors for heart health.
  • Deceased risk of heart attacks by 15%, all CHD events by 14%, and CVD deaths by 7% (see definitions of CHD and CVD above).
  • The median dose of omega-3 fatty acids in these studies was 1.8 g/day.
  • The evidence was moderate quality for all these findings.

Folic Acid:

  • Decreased LDL cholesterol (moderate quality evidence) and decreased blood pressure and total cholesterol (low quality evidence).
  • Decreased stroke risk by 16% (moderate quality evidence).

Coenzyme Q10:

  • Decreased triglycerides (high quality evidence) and reduced blood pressure (low quality evidence).
  • Decreased the risk of all-cause mortality by 32% (moderate quality evidence).
  • These studies were performed with patients diagnosed with heart failure. Coenzyme Q10 is often recommended for these patients, so the studies were likely performed to test the efficacy of this treatment.

There were three micronutrients (vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin D) that did not appear to affect heart disease outcomes.

Finally, as reported in previous studies, β-carotene increased the risk of stroke, CVD mortality, and all-cause mortality.

In terms of the question I asked at the beginning of this article, this study concluded that:

  • Omega-3, folic acid, and coenzyme Q10 supplements represent hope for a healthy heart.
  • Vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin D supplements represent hype for a healthy heart.
  • β-carotene supplements represent danger for a healthy heart.

But these conclusions just scratch the surface. To put them into perspective we need to dig a bit deeper.

How Should You Interpret This Study?

Question MarkIn evaluating the significance of these findings there are two things to keep in mind.

#1: This study is a meta-analysis and meta-analyses have both strengths and weaknesses.

The strength of meta-analyses is that by combining multiple clinical studies they can end up with a database containing 100s of thousands of subjects. This allows them to do two things:

  • It allows the meta-analysis to detect statistically significant effects that might be too small to detect in an individual study.
  • It allows the meta-analysis to detect the average effect of all the clinical studies it includes.

The weakness of meta-analyses is that the design of individual studies included in the analysis varies greatly. The individual studies vary in things like dose, duration, type of subjects included in the study, and much more.

This is why this study rated most of their conclusions as backed by moderate- or low-quality evidence. [Note: The fact that the authors evaluated the quality of evidence is a strength of this study. Most meta-analyses just report their conclusions without telling you how strong the evidence behind those conclusions is.]

#2: Most clinical studies of supplements (including those included in this meta-analysis) have two significant weaknesses.

  • Most studies do not measure the nutritional status of their subjects prior to adding the supplement. If their nutritional status for a particular nutrient was already optimal, there is no reason to expect more of that nutrient to provide any benefit.
  • Most studies measure the effect of a supplement on a cross-section of the population without asking who would be most likely to benefit.

You would almost never design a clinical study that way if you were evaluating the effectiveness of a potential drug. So, why would you design clinical studies of supplements that way?

With these considerations in mind, let me provide some perspective on the conclusions of this study.

Coenzyme Q10:

This meta-analysis found that coenzyme Q10 significantly reduced all-cause mortality in patients with heart failure. This is consistent with multiple clinical studies and a recent Cochrane Collaboration review.

Does coenzyme Q10 have any heart health benefits for people without congestive heart failure? There is no direct evidence that it does, but let me offer an analogy with statin drugs.

Statin drugs are very effective at reducing heart attacks in high-risk patients. But they have no detectable effect on heart attacks in low-risk patients. However, this has not stopped the medical profession from recommending statins for millions of low-risk patients. The rationale is that if they are so clearly beneficial in high-risk patients, they are “probably” beneficial in low-risk patients.

I would argue a similar rationale should apply to supplements like coenzyme Q10.

Omega-3s:

This study found that omega-3 reduced both heart attacks and the risk of dying from heart disease. Most previous meta-analyses of omega-3s and heart disease have come to the same conclusion. However, some meta-analyses have failed to find any heart health benefits of omega-3s. Unfortunately, this has allowed both proponents and opponents of omega-3 use for heart health to quote studies supporting their viewpoint.

However, there is one meta-analysis that stands out from all the others. A group of 17 scientists from across the globe collaborated in developing a “best practices” experimental design protocol for assessing the effect of omega-3 supplementation on heart health. They conducted their clinical studies independently, and when their data (from 42,000 subjects) were pooled, the results showed that omega-3 supplementation decreased:

  • Premature death from all causes by 16%.
  • Premature death from heart disease by 19%.
  • Premature death from cancer by 15%.
  • Premature death from causes other than heart disease and cancer by 18%.

This study eliminates the limitations of previous meta-analyses. That makes it much stronger than the other meta-analyses. And these results are consistent with the current meta-analysis.

Omega-3s have long been recognized as essential nutrients. It is past time to set Daily Value (DV) recommendations for omega-3s. Based on the recommendations of other experts in the field, I think the DV should be set at 500-1,000 mg/day. I take more than that, but this would represent a good minimum recommendation for heart health.

folic acidFolic acid:

As with omega-3s, this meta-analysis reported a positive effect of folic acid on heart health. But many other studies have come up empty. Why is that?

It may be because, between food fortification and multivitamin use, many Americans already have sufficient blood levels of folic acid. For example, one study reported that 70% of the subjects in their study had optimal levels of folates in their blood. And that study also reported:

  • Subjects with adequate levels of folates in their blood received no additional benefit from folic acid supplementation.
  • However, for subjects with inadequate blood folate levels, folic acid supplementation decreased their risk of heart disease by ~15%.

We see this pattern over and over in supplement studies. Supplement opponents interpret these studies as showing that supplements are worthless. But a better interpretation is that supplements benefit those who need them.

The problem is that we don’t know our blood levels of essential nutrients. We don’t know which nutrients we need, and which we don’t. That’s why I like to think of supplements as “insurance” against the effects of an imperfect diet.

Vitamins E and D:

The situation with vitamins E and D is similar. This meta-analysis found no heart health benefit of either vitamin E or D. That is because the clinical studies included in the meta-analysis asked whether vitamin E or vitamin D improved heart health for everyone in the study.

Previous studies focusing on patients with low blood levels of these nutrients and/or at high risk of heart disease have shown some benefits of both vitamins at reducing heart disease risk.

So, for folic acid, vitamin E, and vitamin D (and possibly vitamin C) the take-home message should be:

  • Ignore all the Dr. Strangeloves telling you that these vitamins are “magic bullets” that will dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease.
  • Ignore the naysayers who tell you they are worthless.
  • Use supplementation wisely to make sure you have the recommended intake of these and other essential nutrients.

β-carotene:

This meta-analysis reported that β-carotene increased the risk of heart disease. This is not a new finding. Multiple previous studies have come to the same conclusion.

And we know why this is. There are many naturally occurring carotenoids, and they each have unique heart health benefits. A high dose β-carotene supplement interferes with the absorption of the other carotenoids. You are creating a deficiency of other heart-healthy carotenoids.

If you are not getting lots of colorful fruits and vegetables from your diet, my recommendation is to choose a supplement with all the naturally occurring carotenoids in balance – not a pure β-carotene supplement.

The Bottom Line 

The Dr. Strangeloves in the nutrition space all have their favorite heart health supplements. They claim their supplements will single-handedly abolish heart disease (and help you leap tall buildings in a single bound).

On the other hand, many doctors will tell you these supplements are a waste of money. They don’t work. They just drain your wallet.

It’s so confusing. Who should you believe? Fortunately, a recent study has separated the hype from the hope and tells us which “heart-healthy” supplements work, and which don’t.

This study was a meta-analysis of 884 clinical studies with 883,627 participants. It reported:

  • Omega-3 supplementation deceased risk of heart attacks by 15% and all cardiovascular deaths by 7%.
  • Folic acid supplementation decreased stroke risk by 16%.
  • Coenzyme Q10 supplementation decreased the risk of all-cause mortality in patients with heart failure by 32%.
  • Vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D did not appear to affect heart disease outcomes.
  • β-carotene increased the risk of stroke, CVD mortality, and all-cause mortality.

For more details on this study and what it 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.

500th Issue Celebration

Nutrition Breakthroughs Over The Last Two Years

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

celebrationIn the nearly ten years that I have been publishing “Health Tips From The Professor”, I have tried to go behind the headlines to provide you with accurate, unbiased health information that you can trust and apply to your everyday life.

The 500th issue of any publication is a major cause for celebration and reflection – and “Health Tips From The Professor” is no different.

I am dedicating this issue to reviewing some of the major stories I have covered in the past 100 issues. There are lots of topics I could have covered, but I have chosen to focus on three types of articles:

  • Articles that have debunked long-standing myths about nutrition and health.
  • Articles that have corrected some of the misinformation that seems to show up on the internet on an almost daily basis.
  • Articles about the issues that most directly affect your health.

Best Ways To Lose Weight

weight lossSince it is almost January, let’s start with a couple of articles about diet and weight loss (or weight gain). I have covered the effectiveness of the Paleo, Keto, Mediterranean, DASH, vegetarian, and Vegan diets for both short and long-term weight loss in my book Slaying The Food Myths, so I won’t repeat that information here. Instead, I will share a few updates from the past 100 issues.

My Tips On The Best Approach For Losing Weight: Every health guru has a favorite diet they like to promote. I am different. My book, Slaying the Food Myths, is probably the first “anti-diet” diet book ever written. Based on my years of research I can tell you that we are all different. There is no single diet that is best for everyone. In this article I have summarized my tips for selecting the weight loss diet that is best for you.

The US News & World Report’s Recommendation For the Best Diets: Each year US News & World Report assembles some of the top nutrition experts in the country and asks them to review popular diets and rank them for effectiveness and safety. In this article I summarize their ratings for 2022.

Does Intermittent Fasting Have A Downside? In previous articles in “Health Tips From the Professor” I have reported on studies showing that intermittent fasting is no more effective for weight loss than any other diet that restricts calories to the same extent. But does intermittent fasting have a downside? In this article I reported on a study that suggests it does.

Can A Healthy Diet Help You Lose Weight? Most investigators simply compare their favorite diet to the standard American diet. And any diet looks good compared to the standard American diet. In this article I reported on a study that compared two whole food diets that restricted calories by 25% to the standard American diet. One calorie-restricted diet was more plant-based and the other more meat-based. You may be surprised at the results.

Omega-3s

Omega-3s continue to be an active area of research. Here are just a few of the top studies over the past two years.omega3s

Do Omega-3s Oil Your Joints? In this article I reviewed the latest information on omega-3s and arthritis.

Do Omega-3s Add Years To Your Life? In this article I discussed a study that looks at the effect of omega-3s on longevity.

The Omega-3 Pendulum: In this article I discuss why omega-3 studies are so confusing. One day the headlines say they are miracle cures. A few weeks later the headlines say they are worthless. I discuss the flaws in many omega-3 studies and how to identify the high-quality omega-3 studies you can believe.

Do Omega-3s Reduce Congestive Heart Failure? In this article I review a recent study on omega-3s and congestive heart failure and discuss who is most likely to benefit from omega-3 supplementation.

Plant-Based Diets

Vegan FoodsWill Plant-Based Proteins Help You Live Longer? In this article  I review a study that looks at the effect of swapping plant proteins for animal proteins on longevity.

Can Diet Add Years To Your Life? In this article  I review a study that takes a broader view and asks which foods add years to your life.

Is A Vegan Diet The Secret To Weight Loss? This is an update of my previous articles on vegan diets. This article asked whether simply changing from a typical American diet to a vegan diet could influence weight loss and health parameters in as little as 16 weeks. The answer may surprise you.

Is A Vegan Diet Bad For Your Bones? No diet is perfect. This article looks at one of the possible downsides to a vegan diet. I also discuss how you can follow a vegan diet AND have strong bones. It’s not that difficult.

Anti-Inflammatory Diets

What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet? In this article  I discuss the science behind anti-inflammatory diets Inflammationand what an anti-inflammatory diet looks like.

Can Diet Cause You To Lose Your Mind? In this article  I discuss a study looking at the effect of an inflammatory diet on dementia. The study also looks at which foods protect your mind and which ones attack your mind.

Do Whole Grains Reduce Inflammation? You have been told that grains cause inflammation. Refined grains might, but this study shows that whole grains reduce inflammation.

Nutrition And Pregnancy

pregnant women taking vitaminsHere are the latest advances in nutrition for a healthy pregnancy.

The Perils Of Iodine Deficiency For Women. In this article I reviewed the latest data showing that iodine is essential for a healthy pregnancy and discuss where you can get the iodine you need.

Do Omega-3s Reduce The Risk Of Pre-Term Births? You seldom hear experts saying that the data are so definitive that no further studies are needed. In this article I reviewed a study that said just that about omega-3s and pre-term births.

Does Maternal Vitamin D Affect ADHD? In this article I reviewed the evidence that adequate vitamin D status during pregnancy may reduce the risk of ADHD in the offspring.

How Much DHA Should You Take During Pregnancy? In this article I reviewed current guidelines for DHA intake during pregnancy and a recent study suggesting even higher levels might be optimal.

Is Your Prenatal Supplement Adequate? In this article I reviewed two studies that found most prenatal supplements on the market are not adequate for pregnant women or their unborn babies.

Children’s Nutrition

Here are the latest insights into children’s nutrition.Obese Child

Are We Killing Our Children With Kindness? In this article I reviewed a recent study documenting the increase in ultra-processed food consumption by American children and the effect it is having on their health. I then ask, is it really kindness when we let our children eat all the sugar and ultra-processed food they want?

Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children? In this article I reviewed a study documenting the dramatic increase in diabetes among American children and its relationship to ultra-processed food consumption and lack of exercise.

How Much Omega-3s Do Children Need? In this article I reviewed an study that attempts to define how much omega-3s are optimal for cognition (ability to learn) in our children.

Diabetes

diabetesHere are some insights into nutrition and diabetes that may cause you to rethink your diet.

Does An Apple A Day Keep Diabetes Away? You may have been told to avoid fruits if you are diabetic. In this article I reviewed a study showing that fruit consumption actually decreases your risk of diabetes. Of course, we are all different. If you have diabetes you need to figure out which fruits are your friends and which are your foes.

Do Whole Grains Keep Diabetes Away? You may have also been told to avoid grains if you are diabetic. In this article I reviewed a study showing that whole grain consumption actually decreases your risk of diabetes. Once again, we are all different. If you have diabetes you need to figure out which grains are your friends and which are your foes.

Heart Disease

Here is an interesting insight into nutrition and heart disease that may cause you to rethink your diet.

Is Dairy Bad For Your Heart? You have been told that dairy is bad for your heart AND that it is good for your heart. Which is correct? In this article I discuss some recent studies on the topic and conclude the answer is, “It depends”. It depends on your overall diet, your weight, your lifestyle, and your overall health.

Breast Cancer

Here are some facts about breast cancer every woman should know.breast cancer

The Best Way To Reduce Your Risk Of Breast Cancer In this article I review two major studies and the American Cancer Guidelines to give you 6 tips for reducing your risk of breast cancer.

The Truth About Soy And Breast Cancer You have been told that soy causes breast cancer, and you should avoid it. In this article I review the science and tell you the truth about soy and breast cancer.

Supplementation

Vitamin SupplementsSome “experts” claim everyone should take almost every supplement on the market. Others claim supplementation is worthless. What is the truth about supplementation?

What Do The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines Say About Supplements? Every 5 years the USDA updates their Dietary Guidelines for foods and supplements. In this article I discuss what the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines say about supplements. Yes, the USDA does recommend supplements for some people.

Who Benefits Most From Supplementation? Not everyone benefits equally from supplementation. In this article I discuss who benefits the most from supplementation.

Should Cancer Patients Take Supplements? Doctors routinely tell their cancer patients not to take supplements. Is that the best advice? In this article I review a study that answers that question.

Can You Trust Supplements Marketed on Amazon? Amazon’s business model is to sell products at the lowest possible price. But do they check the quality of the products marketed on their site? In this article  I review a study that answers that question.

Is Your Prenatal Supplement Adequate? In this article I reviewed two studies that found most prenatal supplements on the market are not adequate for pregnant women or their unborn babies.

The Bottom Line 

I have just touched on a few of my most popular articles above. You may want to scroll through these articles to find ones of interest to you that you might have missed over the last two years. If you don’t see topics that you are looking for, just go to https://chaneyhealth.com/healthtips/ and type the appropriate term in the search box.

In the coming years, you can look for more articles debunking myths, exposing lies and providing balance to the debate about the health topics that affect you directly. As always, I pledge to provide you with scientifically accurate, balanced information that you can trust. I will continue to do my best to present this information in a clear and concise manner so that you can understand it and apply it to your life.

Final Comment: You may wish to share the valuable resources in this article with others. If you do, then copy the link at the top and bottom of this page into your email. If you just forward this email and the recipient unsubscribes, it will unsubscribe you as well.

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 Diet Protect Your Mind?

Which Diet Is Best?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

can diet prevent alzheimer'sAlzheimer’s is a scary disease. There is so much to look forward to in our golden years. We want to enjoy the fruits of our years of hard work. We want to enjoy our grandkids and perhaps even our great grandkids. More importantly, we want to be able to pass on our accumulated experiences and wisdom to future generations.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have the potential to rob us of everything that makes life worth living. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia don’t happen overnight. The first symptoms of cognitive decline are things like forgetting names, where you left things, what you did last week. For most people it just keeps getting worse.

Can diet protect your mind? Recent studies have given us a ray of hope. For example, several meta-analyses have shown that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 25-48% lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

However, there were several limitations to the studies included in these meta-analyses. For example:

  • For most of the studies the diet was assessed only at the beginning of the study. We have no idea whether the participants followed the same diet throughout the study. This means, we cannot answer questions like:
    • What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet?
    • Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet?
  • These studies focused primarily on the Mediterranean diet. This leaves the question:
    • What about other healthy diets? Is there something unique about the Mediterranean diet, or do other healthy diets also reduce the risk of cognitive decline?

This study (C Yuan et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 115: 232-243, 2022) was designed to answer those questions.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyThe investigators utilized data from The Nurse’s Health Study. They followed 49,493 female nurses for 30 years from 1984 to 2014. The average age of the nurses in 1984 was 48 years, and none of them had symptoms of cognitive decline at the beginning of the study.

The nurse’s diets were analyzed in 1984, 1986, and every 4 years afterwards until 2006. Diets were not analyzed during the last 8 years of the study to eliminate something called “reverse causation”. Simply put, the investigators were trying to eliminate the possibility that participants in the study might change their diet because they were starting to notice symptoms of cognitive decline.

The data from the dietary analyses were used to calculate adherence to 3 different healthy diets:

  • The Mediterranean diet.
  • The DASH diet. The DASH diet was designed to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. But you can think of it as an Americanized version of the Mediterranean diet.
  • The diet recommended by the USDA. Adherence to this diet is evaluated by something called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index or AHEI.

Adherence to each diet was calculated by giving a positive score to foods that were recommended for the diet and a negative score for foods that were not recommended for the diet. For more details, read the article.

In 2012 and 2014 the nurses were asked to fill out questionnaires self-assessing the early stages of cognitive decline. They were asked if they had more trouble than usual:

  • Remembering recent events or remembering a short list of items like a grocery list (measuring memory).
  • Understanding things, following spoken instructions, following a group conversation, or following a plot in a TV program (measuring executive function).
  • Remembering things from one second to the next (measuring attention).
  • Finding ways around familiar streets (measuring visuospatial skills).

The extent of cognitive decline was calculated based on the number of yes answers to these questions.

Can Diet Protect Your Mind?

Vegan FoodsHere is what the investigators found when they analyzed the data:

At the beginning of the study in 1984 there were 49,493 female nurses with an average age of 48. None of them had symptoms of cognitive decline.

  • By 2012-2014 (average age = 76-78) 46.9% of them had cognitive decline and 12.3% of them had severe cognitive decline.

Using the data on dietary intake and the rating systems specific to each of the diets studied, the investigators divided the participants into thirds based on their adherence to each diet. The investigators then used these data to answer two important questions that no previous study had answered:

#1: What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet? To answer this question the investigators averaged the dietary data obtained every 4 years between 1984 and 2006 to obtain cumulative average scores for adherence to each diet. When the investigators compared participants with the highest adherence to various healthy diets for 30 years to participants with the lowest adherence to those diets, the risk of developing severe cognitive decline was decreased by:

  • 40% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 32% for the DASH diet.
  • 20% for the USDA-recommended healthy diet (as measured by the AHEI score).

#2: Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet? To answer this question, the investigators looked at participants who started with the lowest adherence to each diet and improved to the highest adherence by the end of the study. This study showed that improving from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet over 30 years decreased the risk of developing severe cognitive decline by:

  • 20% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 25% for the DASH diet.

There were a few other significant observations from this study.

  • The inverse association between healthy diets and risk of cognitive decline was greater for nurses who had high blood pressure.
    • This is an important finding because high blood pressure increases the risk of cognitive decline.
  • The inverse association between healthy diets and risk of cognitive decline was also greater for nurses who did not have the APOE-ɛ4 gene.
    • This illustrates the interaction of diet and genetics. The APOE-ɛ4 gene increases the risk of cognitive decline. Healthy diets reduced the risk of cognitive decline in nurse with the APOE-ɛ4 gene but not to the same extent as for nurses without the gene.

This study did not investigate the mechanism by which healthy diets reduced the risk of cognitive decline, but the investigators speculated it might be because these diets:

  • Were anti-inflammatory.
  • Supported the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

The investigators concluded, “Our findings support the beneficial roles of long-term adherence to the [Mediterranean, DASH, and USDA] dietary patterns for maintaining cognition in women…Further, among those with initially relatively low-quality diets, improvement in diet quality was associated with a lower likelihood of developing severe cognitive decline. These findings indicate that improvements in diet quality in midlife and later may have a role in maintenance of cognitive function among women.”

Which Diet Is Best?

Mediterranean Diet FoodsIn a sense this is a trick question. That’s because this study did not put the participants on different diets. It simply analyzed the diets the women were eating in different ways. And while the algorithms they were using were diet-specific, there was tremendous overlap between them. For more specifics on the algorithms used to estimate adherence to each diet, read the article.

That is why the investigators concluded that all three diets they analyzed reduced the risk of cognitive decline rather than highlighting a specific diet. However, based on this and numerous previous studies the evidence is strongest for the Mediterranean and DASH diets.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the MIND diet. While it was not included in this study, the MIND diet:

  • Was specifically designed to reduce cognitive decline.
  • Can be thought of as a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Includes data from studies on the mind-benefits of individual foods. For example, it recommends berries rather than all fruits.

The MIND diet has not been as extensively studied as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, but there is some evidence that it may be more effective at reducing cognitive decline than either the Mediterranean or DASH diets alone.

Which Foods Are Best?

AwardThe authors of this study felt it was more important to focus on foods rather than diets. This is a better approach because we eat foods rather than diets. With that in mind they analyzed their data to identify the foods that prevented cognitive decline and the foods increased cognitive decline. This is what they found:

  • Fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) reduced the risk of cognitive decline.
  • Red and processed meats, omega-6 fatty acids (most vegetable oils), and trans fats increased the risk of cognitive decline.

While this study did not specifically look at the effect of processed foods on cognitive decline, diets high in the mind-healthy foods listed above are generally low in sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Question MarkThe question, “Can diet protect your mind”, is not a new one. Several previous studies have suggested that healthy diets reduce the risk of cognitive decline, but this study breaks new ground. It shows for the first time that:

  • Long-term adherence to a healthy diet can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by up to 40%.
    • This was a 30-year study, so we aren’t talking about “diet” in the traditional sense. We aren’t talking about short-term diets to drop a few pounds. We are talking about a life-long change in the foods we eat.
  • If you currently have a lousy diet, it’s not too late to change. You can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by switching to a healthier diet.
    • This is perhaps the best news to come out of this study.

Based on current evidence, the best diets for protecting against cognitive decline appear to be the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

And if you don’t like restrictive diets, my advice is to:

  • Eat more fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil).
  • Eat less red and processed meats, omega-6 fatty acids (most vegetable oils), and trans fats.
  • Eat more plant foods and less animal foods.
  • Eat more whole foods and less sodas, sweets, and processed foods.

And, of course, a holistic approach is always best. Other lifestyle factors that help reduce your risk of cognitive decline include:

  • Regular exercise.
  • Weight control.
  • Socialization.
  • Memory training (mental exercises).

The Bottom Line 

Alzheimer’s is a scary disease. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

A recent study looked at the effect of diet on cognitive decline in women. The study started with middle-aged women (average age = 48) and followed them for 30 years. The investigators then used these data to answer two important questions that no previous study had answered:

#1: What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet? When the investigators compared participants with the highest adherence to various healthy diets for 30 years to participants with the lowest adherence to those diets, the risk of developing severe cognitive decline was decreased by:

  • 40% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 32% for the DASH diet.
  • 20% for the USDA recommendations for a healthy diet.

#2: Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet? This study showed that improving from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet over 30 years decreased the risk of developing severe cognitive decline by:

  • 20% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 25% for the DASH diet.

The investigators concluded, “Our findings support the beneficial roles of long-term adherence to the [Mediterranean, DASH, and USDA] dietary patterns for maintaining cognition in women…Further, among those with initially relatively low-quality diets, improvement in diet quality was associated with a lower likelihood of developing severe cognitive decline. These findings indicate that improvements in diet quality in midlife and later may have a role in maintenance of cognitive function among women.”

For more details on the study, which diets, and which foods are best for protecting your mind, and 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.

How Much Omega-3s Do Children Need?

What Does This Study Mean For Your Children?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

It is back to school time again. If you have children, you are probably rushing around to make sure they are ready.

  • Backpack…Check.
  • Books…Check
  • School supplies…Check
  • Omega-3s…???

Every parent wants their child to do their best in school. But do they need omega-3s to do their best? I don’t need to tell you that question is controversial.

Some experts claim that omega-3 supplementation in children improves their cognition. [Note: Cognition is defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. In layman’s terms that means your child’s ability to learn.]

Other experts point out that studies in this area disagree. Some studies support these claims. Others don’t. Because the studies disagree these experts conclude there is no good evidence to support omega-3 supplementation in children.

The authors of this study (ISM van der Wurff et al, Nutrients, 12: 3115, 2020) took a different approach. They asked why these studies disagreed. They hypothesized that previous studies disagreed because there is a minimal dose of omega-3s needed to achieve cognitive benefits in children. In short, they were asking how much omega-3s do children need.

They based their hypothesis on recent studies showing that a minimum dose of omega-3s is required to show heart health benefits in adults.

What Have We Learned From Studies on Omega-3s And Heart Health?

Omega-3s And Heart DiseaseThe breakthrough in omega-3/heart health studies came with the development of something called the omega-3 index. Simply put, omega-3s accumulate in our cell membranes. The omega-3 index is the percent omega-3s in red blood cell membranes and is a good measure of our omega-3 status.

Once investigators began measuring the omega-3 index in their studies and correlating it with heart health, it became clear that:

  • An omega-3 index of ≤4% correlated with a high risk of heart disease.
  • An omega-3 index of ≥8% correlated with a low risk of heart disease.
  • Most Americans have an omega-3 index in the 4-6% range.
  • Clinical studies in which participants’ omega-3 index started in the low range and increased to ~8% through supplementation generally showed a positive effect of omega-3s on reducing heart disease risk. [I say generally because there are other factors in study design that can obscure the effect of omega-3s.]

This is the model that the authors adopted for their study. They asked how much omega-3s do children need to show a positive effect of omega-3s on their cognition (ability to learn).

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe authors included 21 studies in their analysis that met the following criteria:

  • All studies were placebo controlled randomized clinical trials.
  • The participants were 4-25 years old and had not been diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Supplementation was with the long-chain omega-3s DHA and/or EPA.
  • The trial assessed the effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition.

I do not want to underestimate the difficulties the authors faced in their quest. The individual studies differed in:

  • The dose of omega-3s.
    • The relative amount of DHA and EPA.
    • Whether omega-3 index was measured. Only some of the studies measured fatty acid levels in the blood. The authors were able to calculate the omega-3 index in these studies.
  • How cognition (ability to learn) was measured.
  • The age of the children.
    • 20 of the studies were done with children (4-12 years old) or late adolescents (20-25 years old).
    • Only one study was done on early to middle adolescents (12-20 years old).
  • All these variables influence the outcome and could obscure the effect of omega-3s on cognition.

In short, determining the omega-3 dose-response for an effect on cognition was a monumental task. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack. These authors did a remarkable job.

How Much Omega-3s Do Children Need?

Child Raising HandHere is what the scientists found when they analyzed the data:

  • 60% of the studies in which an omega-3 index of ≥6% was achieved showed a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) compared to 20% of the studies that did not achieve an omega-3 index of 6%.
    • That is a 3-fold difference in effectiveness once a threshold of 6% omega-3 index was reached.
  • 50% of the studies in which a dose of ≥ 450 mg/day of DHA + EPA was used showed a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) compared to 25% of the studies that used <450 mg/day DHA + EPA.
    • That is a 2-fold difference in effectiveness once a threshold of 450 mg/day DHA + EPA was given.

The authors concluded, “Daily supplementation of ≥450 mg/day DHA and/or EPA and an increase in the omega-3 index to >6% makes it more likely to show efficacy [of omega-3s] on cognition (ability to learn) in children and adolescents.”

What Does This Study Tell Us?

Question MarkIt is important to understand what this study does and does not tell us.

This study does not:

  • Prove that omega-3 supplementation can improve cognition (ability to learn) in children and adolescents.
  • Define optimal levels of DHA + EPA.
  • Tell us whether DHA, EPA, or a mixture is better.

It was not designed to do any of these things. It was designed to give us a roadmap for future studies. It tells us how to design studies that can provide definitive answers to these questions.

This study does:

  • Define a threshold dose of DHA + EPA for future studies (450 mg/day).
  • Tells us how to best use the omega-3 index in future studies. To obtain meaningful results:
    • Participants should start with an omega-3 index of 4% or less.
    • Participants should end with an omega-3 index of 6% or greater.
  • In my opinion, future studies would also be much more effective if scientists in this area of research could agree on a single set of cognitive measures to be used in all subsequent studies.

In short, this study provides critical information that can be used to design future studies that will be able to provide definitive conclusions about omega-3s and cognition in children.

What Does This Study Mean For Your Children?

child geniusAs a parent or grandparent, you probably aren’t interested in optimizing the design of future clinical studies. You want answers now.

Blood tests for omega-3 index are available, but they are not widely used. And your insurance may not cover them.

So, for you the most important finding from this study is that 450 mg/day DHA + EPA appears to be the threshold for improving a child’s cognition (their ability to learn).

  • 450 mg/day is not an excessive amount. The NIH defines adequate intakes for omega-3s as follows:
  • 4-8 years: 800 mg/day
  • 9-13 years: 1 gm/day for females, 1.2 gm/day for males
  • 14-18 years: 1.1 gm/day for females and 1.6 gm/day for males.
  • With at least 10% of that coming from DHA + EPA

Other organizations around the world recommend between 100 mg/day and 500 mg/day DHA + EPA depending on the age and weight of the child and the organization.

  • Most children need supplementation to reach adequate omega-3 intake. The NIH estimates the average child only gets around 40 mg/day omega-3s from their diet. No matter which recommendation you follow, it is clear that most children are not getting the recommended amount of DHA + EPA in their diet.
  • Genetics.
  • Diet.
  • Environment.
  • The value placed on learning by parents and peers.

Supplementation is just one factor in your child’s ability to learn. But it is one you can easily control. . And if your child is like most, he or she is probably not getting enough omega-3s in their diet.

The Bottom Line 

It is back to school time again. Every parent wants their child to do their best in school. But do they need omega-3s to do their best? I don’t need to tell you that question is controversial.

Some studies support these claims, but others don’t. Because the studies disagree some experts conclude there is no good evidence to support omega-3 supplementation in children.

The authors of a recent study took a different approach. They asked why these studies disagreed. They hypothesized that previous studies disagreed because there was a minimal dose of omega-3s needed to achieve cognitive benefits in children. They asked how much omega-3s children need.

They analyzed the data from 21 previous studies looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) in children and adolescents. Their analysis showed:

  • 60% of the studies in which an omega-3 index of ≥6% was achieved showed a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) compared to 20% of the studies that did not achieve an omega-3 index of 6%.
    • That is a 3-fold difference in effectiveness once a threshold of 6% omega-3 index was reached.
  • 50% of the studies in which a dose of ≥ 450 mg/day of DHA + EPA was used showed a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) compared to 25% of the studies that used <450 mg/day DHA + EPA.
    • That is a 2-fold difference in effectiveness once a threshold dose of 450 mg/day DHA + EPA was given.

The authors concluded, “Daily supplementation of ≥450 mg/day DHA + EPA and an increase in the omega-3 index to >6% makes it more likely to show efficacy [of omega-3s] on cognition (ability to learn) in children and adolescents.”

For more details on the study and what it means for your children and grandchildren, 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.

Omega-3s Reduce Preterm Births

Do Omega-3s Make For A Healthy Pregnancy?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

omega-3s during pregnancy is healthyThe role of omega-3s on a healthy pregnancy has been in the news for some time. Claims have been made that omega-3s reduce preterm births, postnatal depression, and improve cognition, IQ, vision, mental focus, language, and behavior in the newborn as they grow.

The problem is that almost all these claims have been called into question by other studies. If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, you don’t know what to believe.

  • Should you eat more fish?
  • Should you take omega-3 supplements?
  • Or should you just ignore the claims about omega-3s and a healthy pregnancy?

These are not trivial questions. Let’s consider preterm births as an example. The medical profession has made enormous advances in keeping premature babies alive. However, premature babies are still at higher risk of several health conditions including:

  • Visual impairment.
  • Developmental Delay.
  • Learning difficulties.

Plus, it is expensive to keep premature babies alive. One recent study estimated that increasing omega-3 intake during pregnancy could reduce health care costs by around $6 billion in the United Stated alone.

Unfortunately, it’s not just omega-3s and pregnancy. The same is true for almost all nutritional health claims. One day a study comes out claiming that nutrient “X” cures some disease or has some miraculous benefit. The bloggers and news media hype that study. Suddenly you see that health claim everywhere. It becomes so omnipresent that you are tempted to believe it must be true.

But wait. A few months later another study comes to opposite conclusion. Now the media is telling you that health claim is false. The months come and go, and new studies keep coming out. Some support the health claim. Others refute it.

Pretty soon the nutrition headlines just become “noise”. You don’t know what to believe. If you want the truth, “Who ya gonna call?”

Who Ya Gonna Call?

ghost bustersIt’s not Ghostbusters. It not Dr. Strangelove’s health blog. It’s a group called the Cochrane Collaboration.

The Cochrane Collaboration consists of 30,000 volunteer scientific experts from across the globe whose sole mission is to analyze the scientific literature and publish reviews of health claims so that health professionals, patients, and policy makers can make evidence-based choices about health interventions.

The Cochrane Collaboration reviews all the relevant studies on a topic, exclude those that are biased or weak, and make their recommendations based on only the strongest studies. Their reviews are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine.

If you are of a certain age, you may remember that TV commercial “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” It is the same with the Cochrane Collaboration. When they talk, health professionals listen.

This week we will examine the Cochrane Collaboration’s review titled “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Addition During Pregnancy”.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyFor this analysis the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed 70 randomized controlled trials which compared the effect of added omega-3s on pregnancy outcomes with either a placebo or a diet no added omega-3s. These trials included almost 19,927 pregnant women.

In one sense, Cochrane reviews are what is called a “meta-analysis”, in which data from numerous studies are grouped together so that a statistically significant conclusion can be reached. However, Cochrane Collaboration reviews differ from most meta-analyses found in the scientific literature in a very significant way.

Many published meta-analyses simply report “statistically significant” conclusions. However, statistics can be misleading. As Mark Twain said: “There are lies. There are damn lies. And then there are statistics”.

The problem is that the authors of most meta-analyses group studies together without considering the quality of studies included in their analysis. This creates a “Garbage In – Garbage Out” effect. If the quality of individual studies is low, the quality of the meta-analysis will also be low. Simply put, the conclusions from some published meta-analyses are not worth the paper they are written on.

The Cochrane Collaboration also reports statistically significant conclusions from their meta-analyses. However, they also carefully consider the quality of each individual study in their analysis. They look at possible sources of bias. They look at the design and size of the studies. Finally, they ask whether the conclusions are consistent from one study to the next. They clearly define the quality of evidence that backs up each of their conclusions as follows:

  • High-quality evidence. Further research is unlikely to change their conclusion. This is generally reserved for conclusions backed by multiple high-quality studies that have all come to the same conclusion. These are the recommendations that are most often adopted into medical practice.
  • Moderate-quality evidence. This conclusion is likely to be true, but further research could have an impact on it.
  • Low-quality evidence. Further research is needed and could alter the conclusion. They are not judging whether the conclusion is true or false. They are simply saying more research is needed to reach a definite conclusion.

Omega-3s Reduce Preterm Births

clinically provenHere are the conclusions that the Cochrane Collaboration said were supported by high-quality evidence:

  • Omega-3s reduce the risk of preterm births.
  • Omega-3s reduce the risk of low-birth-weight infants.

The authors concluded: “Omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy is an effective strategy for reducing the risk of preterm birth…More studies comparing omega-3s and placebo are not needed at this point.”

In other words, they are saying this conclusion is definite. Omega-3 supplementation should become part of the standard of medical care for pregnant women.

However, they did say that further studies were needed “…to establish if, and how, outcomes vary by different types of omega-3s, timing [stage of pregnancy], doses [of omega-3s], or by characteristics of women.”

That’s because these variables were not analyzed in the Cochrane study. Their review and meta-analysis included clinical trials:

  • Of women at low, moderate, and high risk of poor pregnancy outcomes.
  • With DHA alone, with EPA alone, and with a mixture of both.
  • Omega-3 doses that were low (˂ 500 mg/day), moderate (500-1,000 mg/day), and high (> 1,000 mg/day).

Do Omega-3s Make For A Healthy Pregnancy?

What about the effect of omega-3s on other pregnancy outcomes?

The conclusions the Cochrane Collaboration said were supported by moderate quality evidence included reductions in:

  • Perinatal death.
  • Admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit.

There was not enough high or moderate quality data to determine the effect of omega-3s on other pregnancy outcomes such as postnatal depression. More research is still needed in those areas. However, if you do receive any of these benefits from omega-3 supplementation, you can just consider them as side benefits.

What Does This Report Mean For You?

pregnant women taking omega-31) The proven effect of omega-3 supplementation on preterm births is significant because preterm births increase the risk of:

  • Visual impairment.
  • Developmental Delay.
  • Learning difficulties.

2) The likely effect of omega-3s on admission to neonatal intensive care units is significant because those units are very expensive.

3) The Cochrane study did not determine whether omega-3 supplementation was equally important for women at low, moderate, and high likelihood of poor pregnancy outcomes.

  • Therefore, omega-3 supplementation should be considered for all pregnant women.

4) The Cochrane study did not determine whether omega-3 supplementation was equally important during the first, second, or third trimester.

  • Therefore, omega-3 supplementation should be considered by all women of childbearing age who might become pregnant and throughout pregnancy.

5) The Cochrane study did not determine whether DHA, EPA, or a mixture of the two was most effective.

  • Therefore, your omega-3 supplement should probably contain both DHA and EPA. A group of experts recently recommended  that adults consume at least 650 mg/day of omega-3s with ≥ 220 mg of that coming from DHA and ≥ 220 mg/day coming from EPA.
  • Since most pregnant women in this country consume around 89 mg/day of DHA + EPA, omega-3 supplementation is warranted.

The Bottom Line 

The effect of omega-3s on pregnancy outcomes have been confusing. Some studies conclude that omega-3s are important for a healthy pregnancy. Other studies suggest they are ineffective. What are you to believe?

Fortunately, a group called the Cochrane Collaboration recently conducted a comprehensive review of this topic. This is significant because Cochrane Reviews are internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care. They influence the treatment protocols recommended by the medical community.

This Cochrane Review concluded that omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy:

  • Reduces preterm births and low birth weight infants.
  • Likely reduces perinatal death and admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit.

The authors of the review said: “Omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy is an effective strategy for reducing the risk of preterm birth…More studies comparing omega-3s and placebo are not needed at this point.”

In other words, they are saying this conclusion is definite. Omega-3 supplementation should become part of the standard of medical care for pregnant women.

For more details on the study and what it 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.

Omega-3s And Congestive Heart Failure

We Have Been Asking The Wrong Questions 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Confusion Clinical StudiesToday’s Health Tip is a follow-up to the article I published last month on omega-3s and heart disease risk. In that article I pointed out the reasons why studies of the effect of omega-3s and heart disease risk have been so confusing.

One of the reasons is that many of the studies have been asking the wrong questions.

  • They were asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of heart disease for everyone. Instead, they should have been asking who benefited from omega-3 supplementation.
  • They were asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of all forms of heart disease combined. Instead, they should have been asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of specific kinds of heart disease.

I also discussed a large clinical trial, the VITAL study, that was designed to answer those two questions.

The study I will describe today (L Djoussé et al, JACC Heart Failure, 10: 227-234, 2022) mined the data from the VITAL study to evaluate the effect of omega-3 supplementation on congestive heart failure, a form of heart disease that was not discussed in the VITAL study.

Everything You Need To Know About Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive Heart FailureCongestive heart failure is a killer. The term congestive heart failure simply means that your heart no longer pumps blood well. The initial symptoms are relatively non-specific and include things like.

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Fatigue and weakness.
  • Reduced ability to exercise.
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat.
  • Persistent cough or wheezing.

However, as it progresses, the symptoms get much worse. Fluid builds up in your tissues.

  • Fluid buildup in your legs, ankles, and feet can make it difficult to walk.
  • Fluid buildup in your lungs makes it difficult to breathe. In advanced stages it can feel like you are drowning in a room full of air.

According to the CDC:

  • 4 million Americans have congestive heart failure (CHF).
    • It leads to ~380,000 deaths/year.
  • 83% of patients diagnosed with CHF will be hospitalized at least once.
    • 67% will be hospitalized two or more times.
  • CHF costs >$30 billion per year in health care costs and lost wages.

The risk of congestive heart failure is not spread evenly across the American population. Black Americans and Americans with type 2 diabetes are at increased risk.

According to the Framingham Heart Study:

  • Type 2 diabetes increases the risk of CHF 2-fold in men and 5-fold in women. The reasons are not entirely clear. However:
    • High blood sugar is thought to either damage cells in heart muscle, weakening it, or damage small blood vessels within the heart, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood.
    • Some diabetes drugs that lower blood sugar also appear to increase the risk of congestive heart failure.

According to the CDC:

  • Black Americans are 2-fold more likely to develop CHF than White Americans. Again, the reasons are not clear. However:
    • Some experts feel it could be due to the higher incidence of untreated high blood pressure in Black Americans.

In summary:

  • Congestive heart failure is a serious disease. Its symptoms affect your quality of life, and it can lead to hospitalizations and death.
  • Black Americans and Americans with type 2 diabetes are at higher risk of developing congestive heart failure.

How Was The Study Done?

The VITAL study, from which these data were extracted, was a placebo-controlled clinical trial designed to measure the effects of 1,000 mg omega-3 supplementation on the risk of developing heart disease. It enrolled 25,871 Americans aged 55 years or older and followed them for an average of 5.3 years.

The participants enrolled in the VITAL study represented a cross-section of the American population. Most were at low risk of heart disease, but there were subsets of the study group who were at higher risk of heart disease. A strength of the VITAL study was that it was designed so the high-risk subgroups could be evaluated separately.

The current study utilized data from the VITAL study to look at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on hospitalizations due to congestive heart failure. It also evaluated the effect of type 2 diabetes and race on the risk of hospitalizations.

Omega-3s And Congestive Heart Failure

Omega-3s And Heart DiseaseWhen the investigators looked at the whole population, most of whom were at low-risk of congestive heart failure, they did not see any effect of omega-3 supplementation on the risk of hospitalizations due to congestive heart failure.

However, when they looked at high risk groups, the story was much different.

In patients with type-2 diabetes:

  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced the risk of the initial hospitalization for congestive heart failure by 31%
  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced the risk of multiple hospitalizations due to congestive heart failure by 47%.

The effect of omega-3 supplementation on hospitalizations was greatest for the Black participants in the study.

In the words of the authors, “Our data show beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplements on the incidence of heart failure hospitalizations in participants with type 2 diabetes but not in those without type 2 diabetes, and such benefit appeared to be stronger in Black participants with type 2 diabetes.”

We Are Asking The Wrong Questions

ScientistAs I said above, there is so much confusion about the effect of omega-3s on heart disease because we scientists have been asking the wrong questions:

  • We have been asking whether omega-3s reduce the risk of heart disease for everyone. Instead, we should have been asking who benefits from omega-3 supplementation.
  • We have been asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of all forms of heart disease combined. Instead, we should have been asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of specific kinds of heart disease.

In my “Health Tip” last month I discussed a large clinical study, the VITAL study, that was specifically designed to answer the right questions. Like so many other studies it found that omega-3 supplementation did not significantly reduce the risk of all kinds of heart disease for everyone.

However, what it did find was more important than what it did not find:

  • When they looked at the effect of omega-3s on heart disease risk in high-risk groups, they found that major cardiovascular events were reduced by:
    • 26% in African Americans.
    • 26% in patients with type 2 diabetes.
    • 17% in patients with a family history of heart disease.
    • 19% in patients with two or more risk factors of heart disease.
  • When they looked at the effect of omega-3s on heart disease risk in people with low omega-3 intake, they found that omega-3 supplementation reduced major cardiovascular events by:
    • 19% in patients with low fish intake.
  • When they looked at the effect of omega-3s on the risk of different forms of heart disease, they found that omega-3 supplementation reduced:
    • Heart attacks by 28% in the general population and by 70% for African Americans.
    • Deaths from heart attacks by 50%.
    • Deaths from coronary heart disease (primarily heart attacks and ischemic strokes (strokes caused by blood clots)) by 24%.

In other words, when they asked the wrong questions, they got the wrong answer. If they had just looked at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on all forms of heart disease for everyone (like most other omega-3 studies), they would have concluded that omega-3s are worthless.

However, when they asked the right questions, they found that omega-3s were very beneficial for high-risk populations and for certain types of heart disease.

The current study utilized the same data to analyze the effect of omega-3 supplementation on hospitalizations due to congestive heart failure. And the results were similar.

If they had asked the wrong question, “Does omega-3 supplementation reduce congestive heart failure hospitalizations for everyone?”, they would have concluded that omega-3 supplementation was worthless.

However, instead they asked, “Does omega-3 supplementation reduce congestive heart failure hospitalizations for certain high-risk groups” and were able to show that omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced congestive heart failure hospitalizations for people with type 2 diabetes and for Blacks.

We need to change the paradigm for clinical studies of supplements. The old paradigm asks the wrong questions. If we really want to know the role of supplementation for our health, we need to start asking the right questions.

The Bottom Line

There is perhaps nothing more confusing to the average person than the “truth” about omega-3 supplementation and heart disease risk. Much of the confusion is because we have been asking the wrong questions:

  • We have been asking whether omega-3 supplementation reduces the risk of heart disease for everyone. Instead, we should have been asking who benefits from omega-3 supplementation.
  • We have been asking whether omega-3 supplementation reduces the risk of all forms of heart disease combined. Instead, we should have been asking whether omega-3 supplementation reduces the risk of specific kinds of heart disease.

A recent study on the effect of omega-3 supplementation on hospitalizations due to heart disease is a perfect example.

If they had asked the wrong question, “Does omega-3 supplementation reduce congestive heart failure hospitalizations for everyone?”, they would have concluded that omega-3 supplementation was worthless.

However, instead they asked, “Does omega-3 supplementation reduce congestive heart failure hospitalizations for certain high-risk groups” and were able to show that omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced congestive heart failure hospitalizations for people with type 2 diabetes and for Blacks.

We need to change the paradigm for clinical studies of supplements. The old paradigm asks the wrong questions. If we really want to know the role of supplementation for our health, we need to start asking the right questions.

For more details 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.

Health Tips From The Professor