Omega-3s have long been touted for their heart-healthy benefits, but new research shows that certain types of supplements may not do anything about heart attacks and death.
The two most common elements in popular omega-3 supplements – EPA and DHA – could actually work against each other in the body, according to the latest findings from the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute.
“You can’t buy an off-the-shelf product and assume that it will be good for you,” said Viet T. Le, researcher and principal investigator on the study presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 2021 scientific session.
“We can still tell our patients to eat foods rich in omega-3s, but we shouldn’t recommend them in pill form as dietary supplements or even as combined products (EPA and DHA),” the nurse said.
The Utah-based study tracked blood samples from 987 patients from 1994 to 2012 to determine whether omega-3 fatty acids helped prevent stroke, heart attack, heart failure, and other fatal heart events. It was found that patients with the highest levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) had a reduction in life-threatening events, but docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) did not have the same effect and even weakened the protective effects of EPA. The two long-chain fatty acids are usually combined in additional omega-3 products.
Le said it was the EPA component “that really does benefit”.
After consulting a doctor to decipher the risks or benefits, patients should look for products with higher EPA levels.
“Our data reinforce the results of the recent REDUCE-IT (2018) study that EPA prescription products reduce cardiac events,” said Le.
Patients with the highest EPA levels were at a lower risk of serious cardiac events, but higher DHA levels worked against these patients and even resulted in a higher risk of heart problems, including heart disease that can lead to death.
Lifestyle changes and healthy behavior, Le said, continue to be the most beneficial for heart health.
“Don’t be afraid of fish. Aside from the concern for lead in our fish, behaviors are important when choosing diets that are fortified with fish, ”he said. “In the end, it comes down to lifestyle. If you have good and healthy habits, you need to think about fish and add it to your diet.”
Doctors have recommended omega-3 fatty acids to help patients lower their cholesterol levels and improve heart health. The fatty acids have also been shown to help with the aging process and other brain, nervous system and mental health disorders.
While omega-3s can come from oily fish like salmon, tuna, trout, and shellfish like crabs, clams, and oysters, they are more commonly ingested through fish oil supplements, which contain both EPA and DHA, among others.
The National Institutes of Health estimate that more than 8 million people in America regularly take omega-3 supplements, and the latest research from Intermountain shows that “science does not confirm this for every single omega-3 fat system,” Le said .
EPA and DHA, he said, are similar and could negate the heart health benefits that patients and their doctors are hoping for.