Clearing up Confusion on Omega-3s

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Researching the omega-3s EPA and DHA for the last 35 years has been very fulfilling. But 2018 was particularly satisfying given the positive outcomes from several high profile omega-3 studies. The most important takeaway from these studies is that retailers, consumers and health practitioners alike can all recommend omega-3s with great confidence to their customers, friends, family and patients.

It all started in March with the publication of data from the Framingham Heart Study in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology, where omega-3 blood levels (i.e., Omega-3 Index) were shown to be a better predictor of death than serum cholesterol. Results showed that the risk for death from any cause was reduced by about 33% when comparing participants with the lowest Omega-3 Index to those with the highest Omega-3 Index.

Then in June a study published in Hypertension found a direct link between the Omega-3 Index and blood pressure. The researchers concluded that a higher Omega-3 Index was associated with statistically significant, clinically relevant lower SBP and DBP levels in normotensive young and healthy individuals, and that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids — specifically EPA and DHA — might be a strategy for primary prevention of hypertension.

Finally, November witnessed the publication of three landmark studies on omega-3s – the REDUCE-IT and VITAL trials, as well as an updated Cochrane Review. REDUCE-IT was notable for being the highest dose omega-3 study looking at effects on risk for, in this case, cardiovascular disease, ever performed. VITAL stood out for being the largest and most ethnically diverse study with clinical endpoints. In short, REDUCE-IT found a 25% risk reduction in cardiovascular events, while VITAL found significant reductions in heart attacks (28%) and fatal heart attacks (50%).

The Cochrane Review looked at omega-3s and pregnancy and whether or not they represent an effective strategy for reducing risk for early preterm birth. The 70 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) the researchers analyzed in this updated review involved more than 20,000 women — showing that supplementation with omega-3s reduced the risk of having a baby before 37 weeks by 11% and before 34 weeks by 42%. The researchers went so far as to say that “more studies are not needed … to prove causality in relation to preterm birth.”

As we enter 2019, it is a great time for omega-3s EPA and DHA. And evidence will further build as we await publication of the STRENGTH trial, which is similar to REDUCE-IT in size and scale, but will include BOTH EPA and DHA omega-3s in its formulation. A new study of DHA supplementation in pregnancy is also expected soon from Australia.

Until then, it is important for retailers to remember that these studies are very specific to the omega-3s EPA and DHA and do not include ALA. It’s time to clear up the confusion between these omega-3s once and for all, and these latest studies should be used to help us do that.

William S. Harris, PhD, is the president of OmegaQuant, a fatty acid testing lab. He has been researching omega-3s EPA and DHA for the last 35 years. To date Dr. Harris has published more than 300 papers on fatty acids. He also created the Omega-3 Index test, which measures the amount of omega-3s EPA and DHA in the blood. He is also the author on two American Heart Association scientific statements on fatty acids: “Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease” (2002), and “Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease” (2009) both published in the journal Circulation. He can be reached at bill@omegaquant.com

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