Omega-3, Fish and Fish Oil Supplements 

Dietary supplements are a hot button for me, and this month’s topic is, without question, a hot one: fish oil supplements and omega-3 fatty acids.

The Houston Chronicle just ran a story, Have fish oil supplements lost their luster? in which my colleagues and I commented.

Women, in particular, are self prescribing fish oil supplements for a garden variety of ailments: asthma, menstrual cramps, psoriasis, bipolar disorder, high blood pressure, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), pregnancy complications—and yes, heart disease.

Fish is good for hearts.

Fish is a good source of omega-3s that are known to benefit the hearts of healthy people as well as those at high risk of, or already suffering from, heart and vascular disease. Omega-3s have been shown to slow the growth rate of atherosclerotic plaques, to help lower blood pressure and to decrease our risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), which can lead to sudden cardiac death.

As adults, we can all protect our hearts by eating fatty fish at least twice a week. I routinely recommend the Mediterranean Diet (as discussed in the March Straight Talk) for my family and my patients because it encourages fish and foods high in omega-3s.

For the same reason, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that healthy adults eat a variety of oily fish, including salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and trout, at least twice a week. For postmenopausal women and middle-aged to older men, the benefits of fish consumption far outweigh the potential risks of mercury contaminations outlined by the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency.

Fish oil supplements—hook, line or sinker?

So you should get hooked on the benefits of omega-3s, but it is preferable that you get them from your diet rather than out of a pill bottle. And don’t bite on the idea that fish oil is a magic bullet for all ailments.

Pills are not a substitute for a good diet.

The exceptions are people with elevated artery-clogging triglycerides who are unable to sufficiently modify their diets and exercise. Fish oil supplements of 4 grams a day can help those people cut triglycerides by up to 40%. Fish oil and fish oil supplements can slightly lower high blood pressure, but the evidence does not support this as a substitute for blood pressure medicine that your doctor has prescribed for you. Take your medicine and follow doctor’s orders.

We are still studying the ways that fish oil reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and I expect we will revisit the topic again soon. In the meantime, hit the seafood aisle this Fourth of July.

Until next time!

Stephanie Coulter, MD

P.S. Read more from the Heart Information Center: Understanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids or “Fish Oil”.

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