For the past few years, omega-3 supplements have been heavily promoted as an easy way to prevent or reduce the likelihood of having heart problems. Medical professions in tv shows, magazines, and commercials are continually explaining the importance of taking fish oil supplements if you aren’t able to consume the nutrients your body needs in the food you eat. But in September 2012, a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association stating that omega-3 supplements don’t reduce the risk of heart disease.
Societies that consume fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna regularly have decreased rates of heart disease. The omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants contained in fatty fish reduce the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Less plaque buildup makes it easier for blood to flow through the arteries. Omega-3 fatty acids also reduce the amount of triglycerides in the body. Triglycerides are a form of fat that gives us energy. If we have an excess of triglycerides, it is stored in our bodies and can increase the risk of getting heart disease. Previously, the medical community believed that if people didn’t increase their intake of fatty fish, taking omega-3 supplements was an alternative that provided the same health benefits.
Dr. Evangelos Rizos of the University Hospital of Ioannina in Greece and other scientists analyzed 20 clinical trials that took place from 1989 to 2012 to assess if omega-3 supplements improved people’s heart conditions. The clinical trials involved 68,680 volunteers who were directed to take 1.5 grams of omega-3 supplements or a placebo daily for two years. The scientists who performed the clinical studies monitored the condition of the patients and recorded incidences of heart attack, stroke, and death caused by heart disease.
An analysis of the 20 clinical trials revealed that the omega-3 supplement users had an 11% lower rate of getting a heart attack and a 9% lower rate of dying from heart disease compared to the people who took the placebos. The differences between the two groups were too small to be considered statistically significant.
A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in May 2012, also showed that there wasn’t a benefit in using omega-3 supplements. Scientists analyzed 14 clinical trials to find out if omega-3 supplements reduced the recurrence of heart disease. The clinical trials had 20,485 patients with a history of heart disease. The patients who took the omega-3 supplements had cardiovascular problems at about the same rate as the patients who didn’t take the supplements.
Studies focused on whether omega-3 supplements can prevent heart problems or reduce their recurrence have shown contradictory results. Some researchers believe people with heart conditions may have needed a higher dosage of omega-3 supplements for it to have a noticeable improvement in their health. The scientists were not able to assess how other heart disease medications the participants were taking could have influenced the clinical trial results. In some of the earlier clinical trials, the participants also knew that they were taking the omega-3 supplements. This could have made the results of the previous tests unreliable.
Scientists are usually cautious about not letting participants know if they are taking a particular supplement/drug or if they are taking a placebo. If a participant expects to get a specific result by taking the supplement, it could affect the results. A person’s body may respond to this expectation, and any improvement in health could be attributed to the body’s natural healing ability rather than the supplement.
Even though the cardiovascular benefits omega-3 supplements provide is in dispute, the American Heart Association still recommends that people eat 2 to 3 servings of fatty fish per week. The fatty acids and antioxidants people get from eating fish is yet shown to have a preventative effect on cardiovascular disease.
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