Are Fish Oils Good For You? Let's Look at The Research...
Omegasmart – Busting the Myths and Uncovering the Facts
Which Type of Omega Fat is Right for You?
You may have recently read about a study reported through major news channels that taking omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) to keep your heart healthy is nonsense. These types of sensationalist headlines are unhelpful for many reasons, not least because it’s been known for many decades just how important the right type and therapeutic ratio of EFAs is for many areas of our health. Let me take you behind the headlines so you can see just how important EFAs are to our health and to ensure you get the right product and ratio for your health requirements.
The BBC reporting of omega 3 EFAs not benefitting heart health was taken from one study published in June 2018 by the Cochrane Collaboration. This global independent network of researchers collates many different studies and summarises the evidence to produce different health-based reports. In this particular review, they produced a statistical conglomeration of any study of adults over the age of 18 years old that were given an omega 3 EFA supplement, fish, or simply given dietary advice to eat fish. This was therefore not a study to determine if taking omega 3 EFA supplements for those at risk of heart disease or older people, might help prevent a heart attack.
So, let’s take an objective look into the Cochrane study rather than relying on misleading headlines and quotes:
• Huge population studies involving thousands of people based on offering omega 3 EFA advice does not mean that people actually follow the advice, how can therapeutic effect be truly measured?
• Very few of the people across the studies reviewed were recommended 1000mg of omega 3 in the form of fish oils; every nutritional therapist knows to recommend 1000mg of omega 3 EFA in the form of fish or krill oil, as well as eating oily fish three times a week to those as risk of inflammatory disease including cardiovascular diseases.
• The length of the studies reviewed were mostly under one year including adults of all ages who were not deemed “at risk” – this is not nearly enough time to thoroughly explore and understand the therapeutic effect of any nutrient, including omega 3 EFAs.
• The review did not consider prescribed medications; for example, statins increase the metabolism of omega 6 EFAs, which in turn inhibits omega 3 EFA bioactivity. In trials, such as in those with arrhythmia, or in primary prevention in people not on statins, or separating out those in trials not taking statins, omega 3 fish oils show clear benefit.
• The Cochrane review also did not review the different types of omega 3 EFA forms and supplements and this can make a big difference in terms of bioavailability and bioactivity, if indeed the supplement is taken in the first place. More on this later…..
What is really astounding about the coverage of this review is that the studies into fish oils actually came out better than statin medications! The Cochrane researchers summarised the studies with the conclusions that combined omega-3 “slightly reduces risk of coronary heart disease events [by 13%] and cardiovascular disease events [by 11%], may slightly reduce risk of coronary heart disease death and having a stroke [by 9%].” Omega 3 EFAs also lowered cholesterol, triglycerides (fat) and weight. Any drug that could do this would be a best seller!
So why is omega 3 good for us?
There’s plenty of scientific and clinical evidence to support the health benefits of omega 3 EFAs. A study conducted over several years (a much more clinically appropriate length) compared the effects of giving patients with heart failure cholesterol-lowering statin drugs or omega 3 fish oil. This study concluded that the omega 3 fats cut the risk of death or hospitalisation, compared to placebo, while the statins didn’t. Those taking 1g a day of omega 3 fats cut their risk of mortality by 9% and risk of admission to hospital by 8% compared to placebo. Those taking statins had no reduction in risk.
Another study gave over 18,000 Japanese people with high cholesterol (above 6.5mmol/l) either high-dose fish oils (1.8g of EPA) or statins. After six years those on the EPA had reduced the risk of a major coronary event by 19% in those who had cardiovascular disease.3 There were also fewer non-fatal coronary events and angina problems in those who did have heart disease at the start of the study. Bear in mind that people in Japan have a much higher intake of omega 3 EFA to start with so an even greater benefit would be expected in British people. In fact, meta-analysis of 10 recent trials shows that if 100 people were given fish oils, around 7 wouldn’t have a heart attack a result, and 1 in 10 people would benefit from this supplement with reduced risk.
We’ve talked at length about omega 3 EFAs and heart disease but there are also numerous studies and reviews linking omega 3 EFAs to many other areas of health, due to these fats’ important actions at reducing systemic inflammation. For example, omega 3 fish oils are also effective for the treatment of depression. A ‘gold standard’ meta-analysis of 19 randomised controlled trials concluded “the use of omega 3 is effective in patients with diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD) and on depressive patients without diagnosis of MDD [minor depression]. Fish oils are also crucial for development and function of the brain and nervous system including in memory and cognitive processes.
Hopefully by now you get the idea that these headlines based on the recent Cochrane review are not only misleading but also factually incorrect. So, if omega 3 EFAs are important then how can you ensure you have the right product and ratio to support your long-term health?
Omega 6 EFAs & Health
As we discussed earlier, omega 6 EFAs are important to health but the ratio of these polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in our cells can affect the bioactivity of the crucial anti-inflammatory omega 3 EFA. We tend to eat more omega 6 EFAs in our diet due to their prevalence in the food chain but not all omega 6 EFAs are the same; arachidonic acid, a type of omega 6 EFA, is found in high levels in animal protein such as meat and egg yolks, and a high level of dietary intake is associated with increased inflammatory processes within the body.
However omega 6 EFAs from plant sources, including cold-pressed flaxseed oil, borage oil and olive oil, are not processed and contain omega 6 in forms such as gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), oleic acid (OA) and linoleic acid (LA), which positively influence inflammation, nerve pain, blood pressure, heart disease, premenstrual syndrome and even conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). , These different types of plant oils, also found in seeds and nuts, also contain other beneficial nutrients, such as omega 9 and oleocanthals found in extra virgin olive oil. Oleocanthals are types of polyphenols that can reduce inflammatory markers such as TNKa, IL-1 and IL-6 in the body.
It’s worth noting though that many plant oils, such as sunflower oil, are heavily processed and this damages the delicate omega 6 EFAs, which in turn can negatively impact our health. This is just one of the reasons why reducing processed foods in the diet is so important and taking omega 6 EFAs in the form of organic, cold-pressed oils instead.
If we need both omega 3 and 6 EFAs then what ratio is best?
Well, this depends on your EFA status within the cells to start with and also your dietary intake of good quality EFAs (i.e. wild oily fish and organic, cold-pressed plant oils such as olive and flaxseed oil). Estimates range in the ratio of between 4:1 to 2:1 omega 3:omega 6 , and because of the low levels of oily fish and quality cold-pressed oils consumed by the majority of the population, many people need a helping hand in the form of quality supplements containing a careful blend of omega 3 fish oils and omega 6 from sources such as organic cold-pressed flaxseed, borage and olive oil.
Boosting the bioactivity of your oils!
But finally, it’s not just the types of oils that we are eating that is important but also whether we can absorb the oils through the digestive tract in the first place. Digesting fats can be a lengthy process requiring the digestive enzyme lipase, as well as sufficient levels of bile acids including lecithin. Low energy and poor health can impact these pathways so a good quality supplement may include both lipase and lecithin to help digest the EFAs and other important fats improving their bioavailability and bioactivity in the body – this can only be a good thing!
Omega fat checklist
- Omega 3 fatty acids, found mainly in oily fish, are important in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as many other areas of health.
- The right types of undamaged omega 6 EFAs (e.g. GLA, LA and OA) are also important and are found in dietary sources such as cold-pressed oils, nuts and seeds.
- By manipulating the diet and increasing weekly intake of oily fish to around 3 portions and around 1 dessertspoon of cold-pressed oil (e.g. flaxseed oil) daily you can achieve a balance between the important EFAs.
- We can’t always get what we need from the diet, and chronic health conditions can require a little extra support so look for a EFA supplement that contains all the omega 3, 6 and 9 omega EFAs (including EPA, DHA, LA, OA and GLA) alongside lecithin and lipase fat digesting enzyme to support digestion and bioactivity.
For more in depth information about fish oils then please read the Nutrigold Education Article on Fish Oils by clicking on the link here.