What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

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When Organic & Natural Health Association initiated its omega-3 nutrient field trial two years ago, in collaboration with our research partner GrassrootsHealth, our primary objective was to engage the public in a study that would determine how omega-3 supplementation impacts health outcomes. The majority of our population is woefully deficient in omega-3 with levels at or below 4%. Experts assert that achieving an omega-3 index of 8% to 12% is required to reap the full health benefits of EPA and DHA. Approximately 1,200 people participated in this first phase, with roughly 500 submitting at least two blood spot tests to measure their levels. Study participants are also required to complete a lengthy survey with questions ranging from the dose consumed, foods eaten, health issues and health outcomes. The results are intriguing, for multiple reasons.  

Consumers have options when it comes to the omega-3s they purchase, and the study results prove that out. A total of 494 different omega-3 supplements were used by participants, representing 263 different brands. In addition, 17% of study enrollees took two or more omega-3 supplements and 2% took three or more. It seems clear that people shop around when it comes to omega-3 oils, though we can only speculate as to why. As for those who consume multiple types of omega-3, I suspect these are the savviest consumers of dietary supplements who clearly understand the science of EPA and DHA, electing to mix and match their krill oil, fish oil and fish oil concentrates. 

Additional variables are reflected in the daily dosages of study participants, which ranged from 155 mg per day to 4,000 per day. However, at the end of the study, only 19% achieved an omega-3 index of 8% or higher. More than 4 in 10 (44%) had an index level of 4-5.9%, and 8% were below the 4% level. So where does that leave the customer who 1) wants to know how much EPA/DHA to take on a daily basis; and 2) is taking omega-3s to improve their health status? At the risk of a well-worn cliché, we need more research.

Unlike vitamin D, we believe the variables in how omega-3 is metabolized, vis-à-vis the forms of omega-3 taken, along with the dosage and duration of consumption and the frequency of testing, have significant bearing on achieving an omega-3 index level of 8%. The study does indicate health outcomes improve as omega-3 levels increase. However, sufficient data is only available on the power of omega-3 to reduce the number of colds. Those with levels of 8% or higher had 38% fewer colds than study participants with levels at, or below, 4%. Like with vitamin D, GrassrootsHealth will be able to determine what is required to achieve effective omega-3 levels and the associated health benefits with more enrollees over the course of a longer time frame.  

Over the next two years, we will be actively recruiting participants in our nutrient trial. With an enrollment of 5,000, we expect to better understand how achieving optimal omega-3 and vitamin D levels affects the heart and brain, and the diseases jeopardizing public health. Our first step is to create a dose response curve that identifies the supplemental intake amount needed for study participants to achieve that elusive omega-3 index of 8%. To do that we are launching a pilot for 500 participants who will take either krill oil, salmon oil or a combination of the two. Enrollees will test at the beginning, and end, of a three-month period for both omega-3 and vitamin D. Participants will determine their intake using a dose-response chart derived from the original study data. The outcome will have significant impact on dose recommendations, and enormous impact on establishing the science of supplementation and nutrient interaction.  

This work is primarily crowd sourced and paid for by individuals. We need more partners to underwrite the costs to consumers, and pursue scientific documentation of health status as it relates to nutrient consumption. We have solid data on the impact of vitamin D on preterm birth, breast cancer and Type I diabetes. Imagine what 5,000 people can determine when it comes to omega-3 and heart health. Next on our list? Magnesium. We can’t afford to not do this work. This is how we will redefine the standard of care for a host of diseases.  

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Karen Howard, CEO and Executive Director of Organic & Natural Health Association is a visionary and results-focused leader who has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures and healthcare organizations to develop innovative healthcare policy and programs. She has held a variety of executive positions, including serving as professional staff for a Congressional committee, and has policy expertise in the diverse areas of integrative and complementary medicine, managed care, healthcare technology and mental health. An advocate at heart, she has worked to strategically advance the mission and vision of organizations through effective advocacy and strong collaboration. Prior to Organic & Natural Health, Howard served as executive director for both the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Schools. During her nearly 10-year tenure at AANP, she built a sustainable infrastructure, significantly improved financial performance, established a strong federal presence and supported multiple state association advocacy efforts for licensure. Also during this time, the naturopathic medicine profession established itself as a key component of comprehensive healthcare for the future. www.organicandnatural.org