SALT LAKE CITY – A new study from Utah researchers suggests that two common omega-3 compounds in fish oils can work against each other and negate potential heart health benefits.
Researchers at Intermountain Healthcare’s Heart Institute conducted the study of 987 participants to evaluate cardiovascular health.
When examining subjects for over 10 years, the research focused on two omega-3 fatty acids commonly found in fish oil and omega-3 supplements: eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA.
The study concluded that EPA is the most beneficial ingredient in fish oils, and DHA may actually “mitigate” the effects of EPA, according to Viet Le, an Intermountain medical assistant who was the lead investigator for the study .
Le said that although research suggests there might be some problems with the two compounds that contradict each other, omega-3s are still helpful. But leading a healthy lifestyle and consuming omega-3s in addition is the best you can do to improve your overall health, he added.
“I’m still hopeful about omega-3s,” he said during an Intermountain Healthcare press conference Wednesday. “When you eat fish, it really is the healthy behavior along with that choice.”
Omega-3 acids are commonly taken as dietary supplements and are believed to reduce the risk of heart disease, according to Mount Sinai Health. They can help lower triglycerides, blood pressure, blood clots, and arterial plaque, and improve arterial health.
Intermountain researchers found patients for the study through Intermountain’s INSPIRE registry, which began in 1993 and collected approximately 35,000 blood samples from nearly 25,000 patients, according to a press release.
The study monitored the patients for a period of 10 years. During this time, the researchers documented adverse cardiac events such as myocardial infarction, stroke, and heart failure.
Higher levels of EPA in the blood reduced the risk of these serious cardiac events and death, the study said. However, higher DHA levels than EPA put patients at a higher risk of heart problems. In patients with similar levels of the two acids, the researchers found that DHA negated EPA’s health benefits.
“The advice that you take omega-3s for the benefit of your heart is widespread, but previous studies have shown that science does not confirm this for every single omega-3 system,” Le said in a press release. “Our results show that not all omega-3s are created equal, and that EPA and DHA together, as often found in dietary supplements, can negate the benefits that patients and their doctors are hoping for.”
DHA is widely used as a supplement for infants and is believed to improve cognitive development, Le said. But these cognitive benefits aren’t seen as commonly in adults, he added.
Since the study indicated that EPA was the more beneficial component than DHA, Le encouraged people to seek out and consume fish species with higher ratios of EPA to DHA.
With over-the-counter supplements, it’s hard to find a fish oil tablet that only contains EPA, Le said. Most EPA supplements require a subscription, he added.
And while they’re not strictly regulated, some supplements might have a label breakdown of their EPA and DHA ratios, he said.
Although the study’s results may be foreshadowing, Le encouraged people to keep consuming fish with higher EPA levels.
“Don’t be afraid of fish,” he said. “In the end, it comes down to lifestyle, so practice a good and healthy lifestyle.”