Heart Disease

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Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Omega-3 Supplements and Heart Health: Little Benefit for Those with Established Heart Disease

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Omega-3 products are the most commonly used supplements in America (excluding vitamins and minerals), according to a 2007 survey conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In fact, between 2002 and 2007, the sales of these supplements more than tripled as word got out about the potentially powerful benefits of fish oil, flaxseed oil, and algal oil.

Fish oil is the most biologically available form of omega-3, and accounts for the majority of the supplements sold. Research has found that people who eat omega-3-rich cold water fish, such as tuna and salmon, are less likely to develop heart disease. Fish oil capsules are a more efficient way to get these healthy fats, and are especially appealing to those who don’t eat much fish. At high doses (about 4000 mg daily), prescription fish oil capsules have been found to lower triglyceride levels. The supplements also appear to reduce the likelihood of blood clots and dangerous heart rhythm disturbances.

A large Italian study in 2002 reported a 41 percent reduction in expected mortality when heart attack patients took a 1000 mg of a highly purified fish oil product daily. Since then, however, other studies have found no such benefit in those people with heart disease who are treated with state-of-the-art medical therapy. Many have questioned the results of the Italian study due to the fact that there was no placebo used for comparison, and those who took the supplements, as well as their doctors, knew what they were getting.

To try to resolve the question, a group of Korean researchers painstakingly combed through 14 scientifically sound omega-3 trials, involving more than 20,000 patients who had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. The upshot? The effect of the supplements was absolutely neutral. It didn’t matter where the patients were from, what other medications they took, the dose of the supplement, or how long they took it.

The analysis does not address the potential benefit of omega-3 supplements for primary prevention, since all of the people in the studies reviewed already had established cardiovascular disease. (Click this link to read more about the difference between Primary and Secondary Prevention.)

If you are a heart patient and are wondering what to do now, check in with your doctor before stopping any supplement that has been recommended to you. There does not appear to be any harm in taking omega-3 supplements, but the greatest benefit may come from getting your omega-3 fix naturally, through the food you eat. Choose fish over red meat, and make walnuts your mid-day snack in place of processed foods.  If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that when it comes to matters of the heart, a healthy diet trumps supplements every time.

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Tags: Diet and Heart Health

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About the Author


MD, FACC

Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.

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