What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Can Diet Douse The Flames?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

InflammationIf you have arthritis, colitis, bursitis, or any of the other “itis” diseases, you already know that inflammation is the enemy. Chronic, low level inflammation is also a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. Clearly, inflammation is a bad actor. It is something we want to avoid.

Obesity and diabetes are two of the biggest contributors to inflammation, but does diet also play a role? With all the anti-inflammation diets circulating on the internet, you would certainly think so. How good is the evidence that certain foods influence inflammation, and what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like?

The Science Behind Anti-Inflammatory Diets

ScientistLet me start by saying that the science behind anti-inflammatory diets is nowhere near as strong as it is for the effect of primarily plant-based diets on heart disease and diabetes. The studies on anti-inflammatory diets are mostly small, short duration studies. However, the biggest problem is that there is no standard way of measuring inflammation.

There are multiple markers of inflammation, and they do not change together. That means that in every study some markers of inflammation are altered, while others are not. There is no consistent pattern from one study to another.

In spite of these methodological difficulties, the studies generally point in the same direction. Let’s start with the strongest evidence and work our way down to the weakest evidence. 

Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory (I. Reinders et al, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 66: 736-741, 2011). The evidence is strongest for the long chain omega-3s found in fish and fish oil, but the shorter chain omega-3s found in foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil also appear to be anti-inflammatory. 

Inflammation is directly correlated with glycemic index (L. Qi and F.B. Lu, Current Opinion in Lipidology, 18: 3-8, 2007). This has a couple of important implications.

The most straightforward is that refined carbohydrates and sugars (sodas, pastries, and desserts), which have a high glycemic index, increase inflammation. In contrast, complex carbohydrates (whole grains, most fruits and vegetables) decrease inflammation. No surprise there. The second implication is that it is the glycemic index, not the sugar, that is driving the inflammatory response.

That means we need to look more closely at foods than at sugars. Sodas, pastries and desserts are likely to cause inflammation, but sugar-containing foods with a low glycemic index are unlikely to be inflammatory. 

Fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory. This has been shown in multiple studies. At this point most of the research is centered on identifying the nutrients and phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables that are responsible for the reduction in inflammation. I suspect the investigators are hoping to design an anti-inflammatory supplement and make lots of money. I will stick with the fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Saturated fats are inflammatory. At face value, the data on saturated fats appear to be contradictory. Some Fatty Foodsstudies say that saturated fats increase inflammation, while others say they do not. However, similar to my earlier discussion on saturated fats and heart disease), the outcome of the study depends on what the saturated fats are replaced with.

When saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates, sugar and highly processed foods (the standard American low-fat diet), inflammation doesn’t change. This doesn’t mean that a diet high in saturated fat is healthy. It just means that both diets are bad for you. Both are inflammatory.

However, when saturated fat is replaced with omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (J.A. Paniagua et al, Atherosclerosis, 218: 443-450, 2011) or monounsaturated fats (B. Vessby et al, Diabetologia, 44: 312-319, 2001), markers of inflammation decrease. Clearly, saturated fats are not the best fat choice if you wish to keep inflammation in check.

I would be remiss if I did not address the claims by the low-carb diet proponents that saturated fats do not increase inflammation in the context of a low-carb diet. I want to remind you of two things we have discussed previously:

  • The comparisons in those studies are generally with people consuming a diet high in simple carbohydrates and sugars.
  • These studies have mostly been done in the short-term when the participants are losing weight on the low-carb diets. Weight loss decreases inflammation, so the reduction in inflammation on the low-carb diet could be coming from the weight loss.

The one study (M. Miller et al, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109: 713-717, 2009) I have found that compares a low-carb diet (the Atkins diet) with a good diet (the Ornish diet, which is a low-fat, lacto-ovo vegetarian diet) during weight maintenance found that the meat based, low-carb Atkins diet caused greater inflammation than the healthy low-fat Ornish diet.

Red meat is probably pro-inflammatory. Most, but not all, studies suggest that red meat consumption is associated with increased inflammation. If it is pro-inflammatory, the inflammation is most likely associated with its saturated fat, its heme iron content, or the advanced glycation end products formed during cooking.

What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Colorful fruits and vegetablesAnti-inflammatory diets have become so mainstream that they now appear on many reputable health organization websites such as Harvard Health, WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and the Cleveland Clinic. Each have slightly different features, but there is a tremendous amount of agreement. 

Foods an anti-inflammatory diet includes: In a nutshell, an anti-inflammatory diet includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins (like beans and nuts), fatty fish, and fresh herbs and spices. Specifically, your diet should emphasize:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables. Not only do they help fight inflammation, but they are a great source of antioxidants and other nutrients important for your health.
  • Whole grains. They have a low glycemic index. They are also a good source of fiber, and fiber helps flush inflammatory toxins out of the body.
  • Beans and other legumes. They should be your primary source of protein. They are high in fiber and contain antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory nutrients.
  • Nuts, olive oil, and avocados. They are good sources of healthy monounsaturated fats, which fight inflammation.
  • Fatty fish. Salmon, tuna, and sardines are all great sources of long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are fish and fish oilincorporated into our cell membranes. Those long chain omega-3s in cell membranes are, in turn, used to create compounds that are powerful inflammation fighters.

Walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are good sources of short chain omega-3s. The efficiency of their conversion to long chain omega-3s that can be incorporated into cell membranes is only around 2-5%. If they fight inflammation, it is probably because they replace some of the saturated fats and omega-6 fats you might otherwise be eating.

  • Herbs and spices. They add antioxidants and other phytonutrients that fight inflammation.

Foods an anti-inflammatory diet excludes: In a nutshell, an anti-inflammatory diet should exclude highly processed, overly greasy, or super sweet foods, especially sodas and other sweet drinks. Specifically, your diet should exclude:

  • Refined carbohydrates, sodas and sugary foods. They have a high glycemic index, which is associated with inflammation. They can also lead to weight gain and high blood sugar, both of which cause inflammation.
  • Foods high in saturated fats. This includes fatty and processed meats, butter, and high fat dairy products.
  • Foods high in trans fats. This includes margarine, coffee creamers, and any processed food containing partly hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats are very pro-inflammatory.
  • French fries, fried chicken, and other fried foods. They used to be fried in saturated fat and/or trans fat. Nowadays, they are generally fried in omega-6 vegetable oils. A little omega-6 in the diet is OK, but Americans get too much omega-6 fatty acids in their diet. Most studies show that a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is pro-inflammatory.
  • Foods you are allergic or sensitive to. Eating any food that you are sensitive to can cause inflammation. This comes up most often with respect to gluten and dairy because so many people are sensitive to one or both. However, if you are not sensitive to them, there is no reason to exclude whole grain gluten-containing foods or low-fat dairy foods from your diet.

Can Diet Douse The Flames?

FlamesIn case you didn’t notice, the recommendations for an anti-inflammatory diet closely match the other healthy diets I have discussed previously. It should come as no surprise then that both the Mediterranean (L. Gallard, Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25: 634-640, 2010; L. Schwingshackl and G. Hoffmann, Nutrition Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 24: 929-939, 2014) and DASH (D.E. King et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 167: 502-506, 2007) diets are anti-inflammatory.

Vegan and vegetarian diets also appear to be anti-inflammatory as well. The anti-inflammatory nature of these diets undoubtedly contributes to their association with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

As for the low-carb diets, the jury is out. There are no long-term studies to support the claims of low-carb proponents that their diets reduce inflammation. The few long-term studies that are available suggest that low-carb diets are only likely to be anti-inflammatory if vegetable proteins and oils replace the animal proteins and fats that are currently recommended.

What does this mean for you if you have severe arthritis or other inflammatory diseases? An anti-inflammatory diet is unlikely to “cure” your symptoms by itself. However, it should definitely be a companion to everything else you are doing to reduce inflammation.

The Bottom Line 

If you have arthritis, colitis, bursitis, or any of the other “itis” diseases, you already know that inflammation is the enemy. Chronic, low level inflammation is also a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. Clearly, inflammation is a bad actor. It’s something we want to avoid.

Obesity and diabetes are two of the biggest contributors to inflammation, but does diet also play a role? With all the anti-inflammation diets circulating on the internet, you would certainly think so. In this article I review the evidence that certain foods influence inflammation and describe what an anti-inflammatory diet looks like.

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.

Do Omega-3s Oil Your Joints?

Fish Oil And Osteoarthritis

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Osteoarthritis is not just painful. It is one of the leading causes of disability in this country. And because the joint pain associated with osteoarthritis limits activity levels, it is linked to:

  • Obesity
  • The diseases associated with obesity (diabetes and heart disease).
    • Osteoarthritis increases the risk of heart disease by 50%.
  • Premature death associated with the increased prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
    • Osteoarthritis increases the risk of all-cause mortality by 55%.

If osteoarthritis were rare, these statistics would just be an interesting side note. But osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It affects more than 32 million Americans. And it is costly. It costs the American economy:

  • $65 billion in health care costs.
  • $17 billion in lost wages.
  • $136 billion in total costs.

Conventional therapy for osteoarthritis is treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs, but they have side effects. They may even increase the risk of premature death in some individuals.

What about natural anti-inflammatory nutrients and phytonutrients? Two that have received a lot of press in recent years are omega-3s (fish oil) and curcumin.

A recent meta-analysis (NK Senftleber et al, Nutrients, 9: 42, 2017) of 42 clinical studies on the effects of omega-3s on various types of arthritis found that:

  • There is moderate quality evidence that omega-3s reduce the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Basically, this means that there is strong, but not definitive, evidence that omega-3s reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Other general conclusions with respect to rheumatoid arthritis were:
    • The best results were obtained from fish oil preparations with an EPA/DHA ratio of >1.5, suggesting that EPA is more beneficial than DHA.
    • Early studies suggested that the optimal dose of omega-3s was ≥2.6 g/day for ≥12 weeks.
  • There was low quality evidence for an effect of omega-3s on osteoarthritis. Only 5 clinical trials have been published on the topic and the results of those studies are conflicting.

The data for an effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain are even more limited. There is some evidence it might be beneficial, but the studies are small and are conflicting.

In this week’s issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I discuss an exploratory study (JC Kuszewski et al, Rheumatology Advances In Practice 4: 1-9, 2020) on the effect of omega-3s and curcumin on osteoarthritis pain.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyYou are probably wondering, “What is an “exploratory study?” Let me start by providing you with a little perspective from my years of heading a cancer research laboratory at the University of North Carolina:

Clinical studies are expensive. And if you are trying to study an approach that has not already proven to be successful, the money needed to fund the study can be hard to come by. It is a “Catch 22” situation. You need to conduct an “exploratory study” to show your project is likely to succeed before the funding agency will give you money to fund your project.

But where do you get the money to fund your exploratory project? One way that investigators overcome that barrier is to use data from a previous study that was originally designed for a different purpose. The study I will describe today is an example of that approach.

The study utilized data collected from a clinical trial designed to measure the effect of omega-3s and curcumin on brain function in older adults. The study recruited 152 older adults (average age = 65) who were overweight to obese (average BMI = 31) and sedentary (˂55 min/week of physical activity) from New South Wales, New Australia.

The participants were randomly divided into 4 groups:

  • Placebo group. [Note: The fish oil placebo contained 20 mg of fish oil so it would match the odor of the fish oil supplement, and the curcumin placebo contained yellow food dye so it would match the color of the curcumin supplement.]
  • Fish oil group (2,000 mg DHA & 400 mg EPA per day).
  • Curcumin group (160 mg/day curcumin).
  • Fish oil + curcumin group.

Participants were followed for 16 weeks. At the beginning and end of the study participants filled out questionnaires assessing (among other things):

  • The severity of their chronic osteoarthritis pain.
  • Disabilities caused by osteoarthritis in the participant’s daily life (physical distress, sleep disturbances, psychological distress, loss of productivity, physical limitations, physical deconditioning due to reduction in physical activity, and financial hardship).
  • Their physical and mental wellbeing during the past 4 weeks.
  • Their mood during the past 7 days.

Do Omega-3s Oil Your Joints?

fish and fish oilThe results were as follows:

  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced chronic osteoarthritis pain by 42%.
  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced disability associated with osteoarthritis by 40%.
    • The reduction in pain and disability in participants supplemented with fish oil was greatest in those who reported the highest pain/disability at the beginning of the study.
    • The reduction in pain was associated with an improved perception of physical and mental wellbeing.
    • The reduction in pain was also associated with a decrease in depression and other mood disturbances.
  • Curcumin did not affect pain or osteoarthritis burden either alone or paired with omega-3s.

The authors concluded, “Our findings indicate potential for fish oil supplementation to reduce mild osteoarthritis pain and burden in sedentary overweight/obese older adults…,which was associated with improved wellbeing.”

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

pros and consPros:

The results for the effects of omega-3s on osteoarthritis were highly significant. In addition, the questionnaires used were well designed to capture the intensity and location of pain, mood, and feelings of wellbeing.

Cons:

This was an exploratory study using data collected from a study designed to measure the effect of omega-3s and curcumin on brain health in older adults. It was not ideally designed to measure the effect of omega-3s and curcumin on osteoarthritis.

If the original study had been intended for investigating the effect of these supplements on osteoarthritis, it would have been designed differently:

  • Participants would have been recruited into the study based on the presence and intensity of osteoarthritis pain.
  • The diagnosis of osteoarthritis would have been confirmed by X-rays.
  • Participants would have been admitted into the study only if they had moderate to severe osteoarthritis pain. Most of the participants in this study had only mild osteoarthritis pain. That may have limited the ability of this study to find an effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain.
  • The design of the omega-3 supplement would have been different.
    • Because the original study was designed to determine the effect of omega-3s on brain health, the omega-3 supplement chosen had more DHA than EPA.
    • Had the study been designed to determine the effect on omega-3s on an inflammatory disease like osteoarthritis, the omega-3 supplement would have had more EPA than DHA.
  • The curcumin supplement was also not ideally designed for this study. The curcumin supplement used in this study contained only 160 mg of curcumin and contained no other ingredients. Well-designed curcumin supplements usually contain around 500 mg curcumin standardized to 95% curcuminoids plus piperine to enhance the absorption of the curcumin.

In the words of the authors, “Further studies are warranted to evaluate the benefits of fish oil, alone or as an adjunct to pharmacotherapy, in patients diagnosed with osteoarthritis who suffer moderate-to-severe pain…” In other words, they now intend to use the data from this exploratory study to apply for funds to conduct a larger study specifically designed to measure the effects of omega-3s on osteoarthritis pain.

The study limitations described above, severely restricted the ability of the study to detect any beneficial effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain. The effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain is probably less than the effect of omega-3s, but it would be premature to conclude that it has no benefit. However, they obtained no data from their “exploratory study” to justify a follow-up study on the effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain.

Fish Oil And Osteoarthritis

omega-3 fish oil supplementThis study suggests that 2.4 grams/day of omega-3s may be equally effective at reducing osteoarthritis pain and the effects that osteoarthritis pain has on both physical health and psychological health. However, because this study has several limitations, the evidence cannot be considered definite.

If you have either rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, I recommend trying omega-3 supplementation. Based on the studies described above, you might want to aim for 2-3 g/day of omega-3s with an EPA/DHA ration of 1.5 or greater.

As with any natural approach, this will work better for some people that for others. However, don’t forget that omega-3s are also important for heart health, healthy blood pressure, brain health, and a healthy pregnancy (https://chaneyhealth.com/healthtips/omega-3s-during-pregnancy-are-healthy/). If they also happen to reduce your arthritis pain, that is an extra benefit.

As usual, I recommend a holistic approach. You should also:

  • Keep active.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Add antioxidant and polyphenol supplements.

These lifestyle changes should allow you to reduce or eliminate any pain medication you may be taking.

Finally, if you are on blood thinners, consult with your physician before adding omega-3 supplements to your diet. My preference is to incorporate omega-3s and reduce other medications, but that is a discussion you need to have with your doctor.

The Bottom Line

A recent meta-analysis has concluded there is moderate quality evidence that omega-3s reduce the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Basically, this means that there is strong, but not definitive, evidence that omega-3s reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Other general conclusions with respect to rheumatoid arthritis were:

  • The best results were obtained from fish oil preparations with an EPA/DHA ratio of >1.5, suggesting that EPA is more beneficial than DHA.
  • Earlier studies suggested that the optimal dose of omega-3s was ≥2.6 g/day for ≥12 weeks.

However, there have been few studies on the effect of omega-3s on osteoarthritis. A new exploratory study looked at the effect of 2.4 g/day of omega-3s for 16 weeks on the pain and disability associated with osteoarthritis. It found:

  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced chronic osteoarthritis pain by 42%.
  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced disability associated with osteoarthritis by 40%.
    • The reduction in pain and disability in participants supplemented with fish oil was greatest in those who reported the highest pain/disability at the beginning of the study.
    • The reduction in pain was associated with an improved perception of physical and mental wellbeing.
    • The reduction in pain was also associated with a decrease in depression and other mood disturbances.

The authors concluded, “Our findings indicate potential for fish oil supplementation to reduce mild osteoarthritis pain and burden in sedentary overweight/obese older adults. Further studies are warranted to evaluate the benefits of fish oil, alone or as an adjunct to pharmacotherapy, in patients diagnosed with osteoarthritis who suffer moderate-to-severe pain…”

If you have either rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, I recommend trying omega-3 supplementation. Based on the studies described above, you might want to aim for 2-3 g/day of omega-3s with an EPA/DHA ration of 1.5 or greater.

As with any natural approach, this will work better for some people that for others. However, don’t forget that omega-3s are also important for heart health, healthy blood pressure, brain health, and a healthy pregnancy. If they also happen to reduce your arthritis pain, that is an extra benefit.

As usual, I recommend a holistic approach. You should also:

  • Follow an anti-inflammatory diet.
  • Keep active.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Add antioxidant and polyphenol supplements.

These lifestyle changes should allow you to reduce or eliminate any pain medication you may be taking.

Finally, if you are on blood thinners, consult with your physician before adding omega-3 supplements to your diet. My preference is to incorporate omega-3s and reduce other medications, but that is a discussion you need to have with your doctor.

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.

Update On Omega-3 Supplementation And Heart Disease

How Much Omega-3s Do You Need?

Pendulum
Pendulum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Was The Study Done?

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

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

Update On Omega-3 Supplementation And Heart Disease

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

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

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

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

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

What Does This Study Mean For You?

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

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

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

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

The American Heart Association recommends:

Doctor With Patient

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

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

How Much Omega-3s Do You Need?

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Much DHA Is Needed To Prevent Alzheimer’s

What Are We Missing?

Cognitive-DeclineWe are an aging population. As such, issues like cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease are of increasing concern. After all, what is the good of reaching your “Golden Years” with a healthy body if you lose your mind?

The ability of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease is controversial. Some studies say yes. Others say no.

When studies are conflicting most experts simply conclude the treatment is unproven. I am sympathetic to that viewpoint, but I first like to ask the questions: “Why are the studies conflicting? What are we missing?”

I start by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the individual studies.

  • If the studies claiming the treatment works are weak, I am content to “join the chorus” and consider the treatment unproven.
  • If the studies claiming the treatment doesn’t work are weak, I am a strong advocate for more well-designed studies before we conclude that the treatment doesn’t work.
  • If both the “pro” and “con” studies are strong, I want to ask, “What are we missing?”

This is the situation with studies asking whether DHA reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of cognitive decline as we age.

  • Association studies show that greater intake and higher blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are associated with lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • However, most placebo-controlled clinical trials with either DHA alone or DHA + EPA have come up negative. Of course, one can always argue that most of the placebo-controlled clinical trials were too short or too small to show a statistically significant effect. But, my question remains, “What else are we missing?”

One recent study has provided an interesting clue. The authors of the study postulated that B vitamins were required to deliver omega-3 fatty acids to the brain, and their study showed that omega-3 fatty acids were only effective at decreasing the risk of cognitive decline in subjects who also had optimal B vitamin status.

In other words, this study suggested that studies on the effect of omega-3 supplementation and risk of developing Alzheimer’s are doomed to failure if a significant percentage of the subjects have sub-optimal B vitamin status.

The authors of the current study ( IC Arellanes et al, EBioMedicine, doi.org/10.1016/j.ebiom.2020.102883) proposed two additional hypotheses for the negative results of previous clinical trials and designed an experiment to test their hypotheses. Their hypotheses were:

  • Uptake of DHA and EPA by the brain is very inefficient, and previous studies have not used sufficient doses of DHA or DHA plus EPA to see a significant effect on cognitive impairment.
  • The APOE4 gene further decreases the uptake of DHA and EPA by the brain.

Before I describe how the study was done, I should probably provide some context by describing how DHA and EPA reach the brain and the role of the apoE protein in the process. It’s time for my favorite topic: “Biochemistry 101”.

Biochemistry 101: What Does The ApoE Protein Do?

ProfessorIf you have ever tried to mix oil and water, it should come as no surprise to you that fats, including DHA and EPA, and cholesterol are not water soluble. That leaves our bodies with a dilemma. How do they get the fat and cholesterol we eat to pass through our bloodstream and get to our cells, where they are needed?

Our body’s solution is to incorporate the fat and cholesterol into particles called lipoproteins. Lipoprotein particles sequester the fat and cholesterol in their interior and surround them with water soluble phospholipids and proteins. Lipoproteins allow our bodies to transport fat and cholesterol through our bloodstream to the tissues that need them.

The next question, of course, is how the lipoproteins know which cells need the fat and cholesterol. This is where apoproteins like apoE come into play. We can think of the apoE protein as a zip code that directs lipoproteins to cells with an apoE receptor.

Our nervous system contains lots of apoE receptors, and binding of the apoE protein to its receptor is instrumental in the delivery of DHA, EPA, and cholesterol to our nervous system.

DHA and cholesterol are both important for brain health. That is because they are major components of the myelin sheath that wraps around our neurons and protects them. EPA may also be important for brain health because its anti-inflammatory effects are thought to prevent the accumulation of the amyloid plaques that are the hallmark of late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

There are three major versions of the APOE gene, APOE2, APOE3, and APOE4. Each of them plays slightly different roles in our body. However, it is the APOE4 version that is of interest to us. About 25% of us have the APOE4 version of the APOE gene and it increases our risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease by a factor of two.

We do not know why this is, but one hypothesis is that lipoproteins with the apoE4 protein have more difficultly delivering much needed DHA, EPA, and cholesterol to the brain. This is one of the hypotheses that the authors set out to study.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThere are two things you should know about this study.

  • This was a pilot study designed to test the author’s hypotheses and allow them to choose the correct dose of DHA to use for a subsequent study designed to test whether high-dose DHA can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • This was a very small study. That’s because the only way to determine how much DHA and EPA reaches the nervous tissue is to perform a lumbar puncture and obtain cerebrospinal fluid at baseline and again at the end of the study. Lumbar punctures are both painful and a bit risky. They were lucky to find 26 individuals who consented to the lumbar punctures.

This was a double-blind, placebo controlled clinical study.

  • Half the subjects were given 2,152 mg/day of DHA for 6 months, and half were given a daily placebo consisting of corn and soybean oil for 6 months.
  • Because previous studies have suggested that B vitamins were important for DHA and EPA uptake by nervous tissue, all subjects received a B vitamin supplement.
  • Levels of DHA and EPA were measured in both plasma and cerebrospinal fluid at baseline and again at the end of 6 months. Note: The subjects were only supplemented with DHA. The investigators were relying on the body’s ability to convert DHA into EPA.
  • All subjects were screened for APOE4

Other important characteristics of the study subjects were:

  • Average age was 69. They were 80% female.
  • All of them had a close family member who had previously been diagnosed with dementia, but none of them had been diagnosed with cognitive impairment at the time of entry into the study.
  • Around 45% of them had the APOE4 version of the APOE.

In other words, none of them currently had dementia, but most were at high risk of developing dementia.

How Much DHA Is Needed To Prevent Alzheimer’s?

fish and fish oilAfter 6 months of supplementing with over 2,000 mg/day of DHA:

  • DHA levels in the blood had increased by 200%.
  • However, DHA levels in cerebrospinal fluid had increased by only 28%.
  • Moreover, DHA levels in cerebrospinal fluid were 40% lower in subjects who had the APOE4 gene compared to subjects with the APOE2 and APOE3

EPA levels in cerebrospinal fluid averaged about 15-fold lower than DHA levels. When they looked at the effect of DHA supplementation on EPA levels.

  • EPA levels in plasma had increased by 50%.
  • EPA levels in cerebrospinal fluid had increased by 43%.
  • EPA levels in cerebrospinal fluid were 3-fold lower in subjects who had the APOE4 gene compared to subjects with the APOE2 and APOE3

The authors concluded:

“We observed only a modest (28%) increase in cerebrospinal fluid DHA levels with 2152 mg per day of DHA supplementation. This finding has implications for past clinical trials that have used lower doses (e.g. 1 g daily of DHA supplements or less) and were overwhelmingly negative. Using lower doses of omega-3 supplements may have resulted in limited omega-3 brain delivery.”

“Another aspect affecting the response to DHA supplementation is APOE4 status. Subjects with the APOE4 gene showed lower DHA levels and significantly lower EPA levels than subjects with other APOE genes”.

“In summary, our study suggests that higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids (2 or more g of DHA) are needed to ensure adequate brain delivery, particularly in APOE4 carriers…Past low dose (1 g per day or less) omega-3 supplementation trials in dementia prevention may not have provided adequate brain levels to fully evaluate the efficacy of omega-3 supplementation on cognitive outcomes.”

Based on the results from this study the authors are currently testing the effect of B vitamins and high dose DHA supplementation on cerebrospinal fluid fatty acid levels, brain imaging, and cognitive outcomes in a larger ongoing clinical trial.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning ManThe ability of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease is confusing. Studies disagree.

In situations like this, most experts dismiss the hypothesis as “unproven”. However, I like to ask, “What are we missing?”

One recent study provided a clue. It suggested that omega-3s and B vitamins were interdependent. We need both to reduce cognitive decline. However, that might not be the complete answer.

This study gave both DHA and B vitamins to subjects and discovered another interesting clue. The study suggests we may not have been giving subjects enough omega-3s to see a significant effect on cognitive decline.

Let me start by saying this study did not test whether or not DHA supplementation prevents cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Nor does it tell us how much DHA is needed to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease, other than to show that anything less than 2 g per day is likely to be inadequate. 

However, the study did make two important advances:

#1: It showed just how difficult it is to deliver adequate amounts of DHA and EPA to the brain. This is important because it shows:

  • Most previous studies have not used high enough doses of DHA or DHA plus EPA to evaluate the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive decline. Those studies were not simply negative. They were doomed to failure. The studies were worthless.
  • That means we should stop saying that the ability of omega-3s to prevent cognitive decline and diseases like Alzheimer’s is unproven. Instead, we should say that hypothesis has not adequately been tested.
  • That also means future studies of the ability of DHA to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, dementia, and/or Alzheimer’s will need to use much higher doses or a better delivery system to get adequate amounts of DHA and EPA into the brain.

#2: It showed that the APOE4 gene significantly decreases the ability of the brain to accumulate DHA and EPA. This has several important implications.

  • Because both DHA and EPA are vital for brain health, this may explain why the APOE4 gene increases the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • It also means those at highest risk for Alzheimer’s Disease are the ones who are most likely to have difficulties accumulating DHA and EPA in their brain.
  • Once again, it means future studies of the ability of supplemental DHA to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease will need to use much higher doses of DHA.

The Bottom Line

We are an aging population. As such, issues like cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease are of increasing concern. After all, what is the good of reaching your “Golden Years” with a healthy body if you lose your mind?

The ability of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease is controversial.

  • Association studies show that greater intake and higher blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are associated with lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • However, most placebo-controlled clinical trials with either DHA alone or DHA + EPA have come up negative.

In situations like this, most experts dismiss the hypothesis as “unproven”. However, I like to ask, “What are we missing?”

One recent study provided a clue. It suggested that omega-3s and B vitamins were interdependent. We need optimal amounts of both to reduce dementia. However, that might not be the complete answer.

This study gave both DHA and B vitamins to participants and discovered another interesting clue. The study suggests we may not have been giving subjects enough omega-3s to see a significant effect on cognitive decline.

The authors of the study hypothesized:

  • Uptake of DHA and EPA by the brain is very inefficient, and previous studies have not used sufficient doses of DHA or DHA plus EPA to see a significant effect on cognitive impairment.
  • The APOE4 gene, which is known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, further decreases the uptake of DHA and EPA by the brain.

Their study confirmed their hypotheses and made two important advancements:

#1: It showed just how difficult it is to deliver adequate amounts of DHA and EPA to the brain. This is important because it shows:

  • Most previous studies have not used high enough doses of DHA or DHA plus EPA to evaluate the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive decline. Those studies were not simply negative. They were doomed to failure. The studies were worthless.
  • That means we should stop saying that the ability of omega-3s to prevent cognitive decline and diseases like Alzheimer’s is unproven. Instead, we should say that hypothesis has not adequately been tested.
  • That also means future studies of the ability of DHA to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, dementia, and/or Alzheimer’s will need to use much higher doses or a better delivery system to get adequate amounts of DHA and EPA into the brain.

#2: It showed that the APOE4 gene significantly decreases the ability of the brain to accumulate DHA and EPA. This has several important implications.

  • Because both DHA and EPA are vital for brain health, this may explain why the APOE4 gene increases the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • It also means those at highest risk for Alzheimer’s Disease are the ones who are most likely to have difficulties accumulating DHA and EPA in their brain.
  • Once again, it means future studies of the ability of supplemental DHA to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease will need to use much higher doses of DHA.

Based on the results from this study the authors are currently testing the effect of B vitamins and high dose DHA supplementation on DHA and EPA levels in the brain, brain imaging, and cognitive outcomes in a larger ongoing clinical trial.

For more details, read the article above. For a better understanding of the roles of DHA, EPA, and the APOE gene in brain health, you may want to read my “Biochemistry 101” section 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 3 Supplementation And Heart Disease Risk

How Can You Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease?

fish and fish oilI understand your confusion. One month the headlines say that omega 3 supplementation reduces the risk of heart disease. The next month headlines claim that omega 3 supplements are worthless. What is the truth about omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk?

Let me start by sharing the two of the most recent studies on the topic. They are both very large, well designed studies. However, the reason I selected these two studies is that they approached the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk in very different ways but came to the same conclusion.

The first study (Y Hu et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, Volume 8, Issue 19, 1 October 2019) was a meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled clinical studies looking at the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk.

The second study (Z-H Li et al, British Medical Journal, BMJ2020;368:m456) looked at the association between habitual omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk.

Each of these studies had strengths and weaknesses, but they complemented each other. The weaknesses of one study were the strengths of the other study.

How Were The Studies Done?

Clinical StudyStudy #1: The 13 studies included in the meta-analysis had a total of 127,477 participants (mean age 64, 60% male, mostly overweight) who were given either an omega-3 supplement or a placebo.

  • 40% of the participants had diabetes.
  • 72% of the participants were on cholesterol lowering drugs and a variety of other medications.
  • Participants were followed for between 3 and 7.4 years (average follow-up period was 5 years).
  • The dose of omega 3s ranged between 376 and 4,000 mg/day.

The major strengths of this study were:

  • All 13 studies included in the meta-analysis were randomized, placebo controlled clinical trials.
  • The meta-analysis had a very large number of participants (nearly 130,000), so it was possible to accurately measure even small effects of omega 3 supplementation on heart disease risk.

The major weaknesses of this study were:

  • Most of the participants were already on multiple drugs that provided many of the same benefits as omega 3s, so it was impossible to assess the full effect of omega 3 supplementation on heart disease risk.
  • The duration of the clinical trials included in this meta-analysis was short compared to the decades required for heart disease to develop.
  • Most of the participants already had heart disease or were at high risk of developing heart disease. The people in these studies were not representative of the general population.

Study #2: The data for this study were obtained from the UK Biobank study which enrolled 427,678 participants (mean age 56, 45% male) from 22 medical centers across England, Scotland, and Wales. None of the participants had been diagnosed with heart disease or cancer at the time of enrollment.

At enrollment the participants filled out a detailed online questionnaire concerning their lifestyle, diet, diseases, medications, and supplement use. Among the questions was whether they habitually used fish oil supplements (Yes or No).

  • The participants were enrolled between 2006 and 2010 and followed for an average of 9 years.
  • 31% of the participants were already taking omega 3 supplements on a regular basis at the time they enrolled in the study. This was the omega 3 supplementation group. The remaining 69% was the control group.
  • Only 10% of the participants were taking statin drugs or aspirin, probably because none of them had been diagnosed with heart disease.
  • Around 10% of the participants had high blood pressure and were taking blood pressure medications.
  • Most of the participants were slightly overweight but only 4% had diabetes.

The main strengths of this study were:

  • Very few of the participants were on medications. That means that medications did not interfere with the effect of omega 3 supplementation.
  • The participants were already using omega 3 supplements at the time of enrollment and were followed for an additional 9 years. That means that the duration of omega 3 supplement use was much longer than in the first study.
  • The participants were healthy and free of heart disease at the beginning of the study. That means that the results of this study focused more on prevention than on treatment. It also means the results are more applicable to the general population.

The main weakness of this study was:

  • It was an association study, which cannot prove cause and effect. In contrast, the first study was based on randomized, placebo controlled clinical trials, which can prove cause and effect.

In short, the weaknesses of the first study were strengths of the second study and vice-versa.

Omega 3 Supplementation And Heart Disease Risk

strong heartStudy #1: The results from the meta-analysis of randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials were that omega 3 supplementation:

  • Reduced heart attacks by 12%.
  • Reduced overall heart disease risk by 7%.
  • Reduced deaths from heart disease by 8%.
  • Because of the large number of participants included in the meta-analysis, all these reductions were highly significant.
  • The risk reduction was linearly related to the dose of omega-3s, but the study did not allow estimation of an optimal omega-3 dose.

The authors concluded: “Marine [fish oil] omega-3 supplementation lowers risk for heart attack, overall heart disease risk, and heart disease death…Risk reductions appear to be linearly related to marine omega-3 dose.”

Study #2: This study showed that regular use of omega-3 supplements:

  • Reduced deaths from all causes by 13%.
  • Reduced deaths from heart attacks by 20%.
  • Reduced deaths from all types of heart disease by 16%.
  • Because of the large number of participants, all these reductions were highly significant.
  • This study did not collect data on omega-3 dose, so the study did not allow estimation of an optimal omega-3 dose.

The authors concluded: “Habitual use of fish oil seems to be associated with a lower risk of all cause mortality and heart disease mortality…,supporting their use for the prevention of mortality from all causes and heart disease. Future studies are needed to examine the extent to which the dose of fish oil supplements influences the ability to achieve a clinically meaningful effect.”

While these studies did not provide information on the optimal omega 3 dose, a previous study concluded that an omega-3 intake of 835 mg/day or higher is needed to achieve clinically meaningful reductions in heart disease risk.

How Can You Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease?

Heart Healthy DietThese two studies support the value of omega 3 supplementation for reducing heart disease risk. However, while risk reductions were highly significant, the magnitude of risk reduction was relatively small. That means we should think of omega-3 supplementation as part of a holistic approach to reducing our health disease risk. It is just one piece of the puzzle.

With that in mind, here is what the American Heart Association recommends for reducing your risk of heart disease:

  • If you smoke, stop.
  • Choose good nutrition.
    • Choose a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, nontropical vegetable oils, and nuts.
    • Choose a diet that limits sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.
  • Reduce high blood cholesterol and triglycerides.
    • Reduce your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol and get moving.
    • If diet and physical activity don’t get those numbers under control, then medication may be the next step.
  • Lower High Blood Pressure.
  • Be physically active every day.Heart Healthy Exercise
    • Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Manage diabetes.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Limit alcohol.

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

The Bottom Line

Two major studies have recently been published on the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease. I felt it was important to evaluate these studies together because:

  • They are both very large, well designed studies.
  • They approached the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk in very different ways but came to the same conclusion.
  • They complemented each other. The weaknesses of one study were the strengths of the other study.

These studies showed that omega 3 supplementation:

  • Reduced heart attacks by 12-20%.
  • Reduced overall heart disease risk by 7%.
  • Reduced deaths from heart disease by 8-16%.
  • Reduced deaths from all causes by 13%

While these studies did not provide information on the optimal omega 3 dose, a previous study concluded that an omega-3 intake of 835 mg/day or higher is needed to achieve clinically meaningful reductions in heart disease risk.

For more details and the American Heart Association recommendations on what else you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease, 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.

What Supplements Help Mental Health?

Do Omega-3s Reduce Depression?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

depressionWe are in the midst of a mental health crisis. According to the latest statistics:

·       19% of adults in the United States have some form of mental illness.

·       16.5% of youth ages 6-17 have some form of mental illness.

·       The 5 most commonly diagnosed forms of mental illness are anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disease, and ADHD.

Even worse, mental illness appears to be increasing at an alarming rate among young people. For example:

·       Between 2005 and 2017 depression increased 52% among adolescents.

·       Between 2002 and 2017 depression increased 63% in young adults.

·       Between 1999 and 2014 suicides have increased 24% in young adults. In the past few years suicides have been increasing by 2% a year in this group.

Much has been written about the cause of this alarming increase in mental illness. The short answer is that we don’t really know. But the most pressing question is what do we do about it?

The medical profession relies on powerful drugs to treat the symptoms of mental illness. These drugs don’t cure drug side effectsthe illness. They simply keep the symptoms under control. Plus, if you have ever listened closely to the advertisements for these drugs on TV, you realize that they all have serious side effects that adversely affect your quality of life.

My “favorite” example is drugs for anxiety and depression. You are told that one of the side effects is “suicidal thoughts”. That means that the very drug someone could be prescribed to prevent suicides might actually increase their risk of suicide. Why would anyone take such a drug?

If drugs are so dangerous, what about supplements? Do they provide a safe, natural alternative for reducing the symptoms of mental illness? Some supplement companies claim their products cure mental illness. Are their claims true or are they just trying to empty your wallet?

How is a consumer to know which of these supplement claims are true and which are bogus? Fortunately, an international team of scientists has scoured the literature to find out which supplements have been proven to reduce mental health symptoms.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical-studyThis was a massive study (J. Firth et al, World Psychiatry, 18: 308-324, 2019.  It was a meta-review of 33 meta-analyses of randomized, placebo-controlled trials with a total of 10,951 subjects. The clinical trials included in this analysis analyzed the effect of 12 nutrients, either alone or in combination with standard drug treatment, on symptoms associated with 10 common mental disorders.

To help you understand the power of this meta-review, let me start by defining the term “meta-analysis”. A meta-analysis combines the data from multiple clinical studies to increase the statistical power of the data. Meta-analyses are considered to be the gold standard of evidence-based evidence.

However, not all meta-analyses are equally strong. They suffer from the “Garbage-In, Garbage-Out” phenomenon. Simply put, they are only as strong as the weakest clinical studies included in their analysis.

That is the strength of this meta-review. It did not simply combine the data from all 33 meta-analyses. It used stringent criteria to evaluate the quality of each meta-analysis and weighted the data appropriately.

What Supplements Help Mental Health?

omega-3 fish oil supplementThe strongest evidence was for omega-3 supplements. In the worlds of the authors:

·       “Across 13 independent randomized control clinical trials in 1,233 people with major depression, omega-3 supplements reduced depressive symptoms significantly.”

o   The average dose of omega-3s in these studies was 1,422 mg/day of EPA.

o   The effect was strongest for omega-3 supplements containing more EPA than DHA and for studies lasting longer than 12 weeks.

o   There was no evidence of publication bias in these studies. This is a very important consideration. Publication bias means that only studies with a positive effect were published while studies showing no effect were withheld from publication. That makes the effect look much more positive than it really is. The fact there was no evidence of publication bias strengthens this conclusion.

o   Omega-3 supplements were more effective when used in combination with antidepressant drugs, but there was some evidence of publication bias in those studies.

·       “Across 16 randomized control clinical trials reporting on ADHD symptom domains, significant benefits were observed for both hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention.”

·       Omega-3s had no significant effect on schizophrenia or bipolar disorder other than a mild reduction in depressive symptoms.

There was strong, but not definitive, evidence for folic acid and methylfolate supplements for depression.

·       When used in conjunction with antidepressants both folic acid and methylfolate supplements “…were associated with significantly greater reductions in depressive symptoms compared to placebo, although there was large heterogeneity between trials.”

·       The largest effects were observed with high dose methylfolate. In the words of the authors: “Two randomized control clinical trials examining a high dose (15 mg/day) of methylfolate administered in combination with antidepressants found moderate-to-large benefits for depressive symptoms.” However, to put this into perspective:

o   15 mg/day is 3,750% of the RDA. This is a pharmacological dose and should only be administered under the care of a physician.

o   A smaller dose of 7.5 mg/day is ineffective.

o   No comparison was made with folic acid at this dose, so we do not know whether folic acid would be equally effective.

·       The authors concluded that there is emerging evidence for positive effects of vitamin D (>1,500 vitamin d supplementationIU/day) for major depressive disorders and N-acetylcysteine (2-3 gm/day) in combination with drugs for mood disorders and schizophrenia. The term “emerging evidence” means there have been several recent studies reporting positive results, but more research is needed.

·       The authors did not find evidence supporting the use of other vitamin and mineral supplements (E, C, zinc, magnesium, and inositol) for treating mental health disorders.

·       The authors did not find enough high-quality studies to support claims about the effects of prebiotics or probiotics on mental health disorders.

Do Omega-3s Reduce Depression?

Happy WomanThe evidence supporting the effectiveness of omega-3s in reducing symptoms of depression is strong. In the words of the authors: “The nutritional intervention with the strongest evidentiary support is omega-3, in particular EPA. Multiple meta-analyses have demonstrated that it has significant effects in people with depression, including high-quality meta-analyses with good confidence in findings…”

However, before you throw away your antidepressants and replace them with an omega-3 supplement, let me put this study into perspective for you.

·       Depression can be a serious disease. If you just feel a little blue from time to time, try increasing your omega-3 intake. However, if you have major depression, don’t make changes to your treatment plan without consulting your physician.

·       The best results were obtained when omega-3s were used in combination with antidepressants. This should be your starting point.

·       Ideally, adding omega-3s to your treatment plan will allow your doctor to reduce or eliminate the drugs you are taking. That would have the benefit of reducing side effects associated with the drugs. However, I would like to re-emphasize this is a decision to take in consultation with your doctor. [My only caveat is if your doctor is unwilling to even consider natural approaches like omega-3 supplementation, it might be time to find a new doctor.]

·       Finally, omega-3 supplementation is only one aspect of a holistic approach to good mental health. A healthy diet, exercise, supplementation, and stress reduction techniques all work together to keep your mind in tip-top shape.

The Bottom Line

There are lots of supplements on the market promising to cure depression and other serious mental health issues. Are they effective or are the claims bogus? Fortunately, a recent meta-review of 33 meta-analyses of high-quality clinical trials has answered that question. Here is their conclusion:

·       The evidence is strongest for omega-3s and depression.

o   The average dose of omega-3s in these studies was 1,422 mg/day of EPA.

o   The effect was strongest for omega-3 supplements containing more EPA than DHA and for studies lasting longer than 12 weeks.

·       There is fairly strong evidence for folate/folic acid supplements and depression, although there was large heterogeneity between trials.

·       There is emerging evidence for vitamin D (>1,500 IU/day) and depression and N-acetylcysteine (2-3 gm/day) for depression and schizophrenia.

·       Evidence for other supplements is currently inconclusive.

However, before you throw away your antidepressants and replace them with an omega-3 supplement, let me put this study into perspective for you.

·       Depression can be a serious disease. If you just feel a little blue from time to time, try increasing your omega-3 intake. However, if you have major depression, don’t make changes to your treatment plan without consulting your physician.

·       The best results were obtained when omega-3s were used in combination with antidepressants. That should be your starting point.

·       Ideally, adding omega-3s to your treatment plan will allow your doctor to reduce or eliminate the drugs you are taking. That would have the benefit of reducing side effects associated with the drugs.

·       Finally, omega-3 supplementation is only one aspect of a holistic approach to good mental health. A healthy diet, exercise, supplementation, and stress reduction techniques all work together to keep your mind in tip-top shape.

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.

 

Do Omega-3 Supplements Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

Will The Omega-3 Controversy Continue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was designed to answer three questions:

1)    Does omega-3 supplementation reduce ADHD symptoms?

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

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

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

·       Including both children and adult subjects.

·       Including subjects with diagnosis other than ADHD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With these criteria there were:

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

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

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

Do Omega-3 Supplements Reduce ADHD Symptoms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will The Omega-3 Controversy Continue?

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

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

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

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

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

What Does This Study Mean For You?

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

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

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

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

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

·       There are other natural approaches that should be considered.

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Fish Oil Make Children Smarter?

When Do Omega-3 Supplements Make Sense?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

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

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

Can Fish Oil Make Children Smarter?

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

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

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

What Is the Significance of This Study?

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

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

 

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

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

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

What does all of this mean to you?

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

The Bottom Line:

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

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

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

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

 

Do Omega-3s Lower Blood Pressure?

The Good News About Fish Oil

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Was The Study Designed?

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

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

Do Omega-3s lower Blood Pressure?

Fish OilThe authors of the study reported that:

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

Does Fish Oil Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

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

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

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

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Healthy People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

Health Tips From The Professor