Should you take fish oil supplements?

Fish oil is used for a wide array of conditions ranging from lowering blood pressure and cholesterol to Alzheimer’s disease.  It is most commonly used for preventing heart disease—via lowering blood pressure and high triglycerides—or stroke.

Too much fish oil, however, can have negative consequences, such as increasing the risks of bleeding and stroke.  Regardless of these risks, Americans are taking more fish oil supplements than ever before—according to the Nutrition Business Journal, we spent $1.1 billion on fish oil supplements in 2011, up 5.4 percent from 2010.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to human health because the body cannot make them; rather, they must be obtained through food.  They can be found in fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut, as well as other seafood including algae and krill, some plants and nut oils.

Fish oil is primarily comprised of the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).  There is strong scientific evidence that these two compounds help reduce blood pressure and blood triglyceride levels, as well as the risks of non-fatal heart attacks, fatal heart attacks, sudden death and all-cause mortality.  With that said, one must temper these findings with the fact that many of these studies included patients who were also on conventional heart disease medications.

A new meta-analysis of 20 clinical trials found no statistically significant association between all deaths, cardiac-related deaths, sudden deaths, heart attacks and strokes among people taking fish oil supplements.  So this begs the question, should we even consume these supplements?

The answer may not be as clear as we might have hoped or what we may have wanted to hear.  Taking the recommended dosage of fish oil will not pose any health risks.  However, eating fish twice a week, combined with other healthy eating habits, may prove much more effective than taking supplements alone.

Furthermore, it is imperative to maintain a balance of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.  While omega-3’s are known to reduce inflammation, most omega-6’s tend to promote inflammation.  What is more unsettling is that the typical American diet contains 14-25 times as much omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids.

It is important to remember that supplements and medications are not the panacea for all illnesses.  Nothing is more important to overall health than physical activity and healthy eating.

Rather than relying solely on supplements, aim to consume more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.  As always, speak with your physician before beginning any supplement regimen, particularly with omega-3/fish oil supplements as they can interact with other medications.