Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues, Supplements and Health

Does Fish Oil Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fish OilOne of my readers recently sent me a video titled “Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?” and asked me to comment on it. The doctor who made the video claimed that the most recent studies had definitively shown that omega-3 fatty acids, whether from fish or fish oil, do not decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke or cardiovascular death. He went on to say that the case was closed. There was no point in even doing any more studies.

My reader, like many of you, was confused. Wasn’t it just a few years ago we were being told that clinical studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduce the risk of heart disease? Hadn’t major health organizations recommended omega-3 fatty acids as part of a heart health diet? What has changed?

The answer to the first two questions is a resounding YES, and “What has changed?” is THE story.  Let me explain.

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Healthy People

If we look at intervention studies in healthy people (what we scientists refer to as primary prevention studies) the results have been pretty uniform over the years. In a primary prevention setting, fish oil cannot be shown to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease (Rizos et al, JAMA, 308: 1024-1033, 2012).

That’s not unexpected because it is almost impossible to show that any intervention significantly reduces the risk of heart disease in healthy populations. For example, as I pointed out in recent Health Tips From the Professor (“Do Statins Really Work?” and “Can An Apple A Day Keep Statins Away?”) you can’t even show that statins significantly reduce heart attack risk in healthy populations.

If you can’t prove that statins reduce the risk of heart attacks in a healthy population, it should come as no surprise that you can’t prove that fish oil reduce heart attacks in a healthy population. To answer that question we need to look at whether fish oil reduces the risk of heart attacks in high risk populations.

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Sick People – The Early Studies

Most of the early  studies looking at the effect of fish oil in patients at high risk of cardiovascular disease (what we scientists refer to as secondary prevention studies) reported very positive results.

For example, the DART1 study (Burr et al, Lancet, 2: 757-761, 1989) and the US Physician’s Health Study (Albert et al, JAMA, 279: 23-28, 1998) reported a 29% decrease in total mortality and a 52% decrease in sudden deaths related to heart disease in patients consuming diets rich in omega-3 containing fish.

Even more striking was the GISSI-Prevenzione study (Marchioli et al, Lancet, 354: 447-455, 1999; Marchioli et al, Eur. Heart J, 21: 949-952, 2000; Marchioli et al, Circulation, 105: 1897-1903, 2002). This was a very robust and well designed study. It looked at the effect of a fish oil supplement providing 1 g/day of omega-3 fatty acids on the risk of a second heart attack in 11,323 patients who had survived a non-fatal heart attack within the last 3 months – a very high risk group.

The results were clear cut. Over the next 3.5 years supplementation with fish oil reduced overall death by 15% and sudden death due to heart disease by 30% compared to a placebo. And, if you looked at the first 4 months, when the risk of a second heart attack is highest, the fish oil supplement reduced the risk of overall death by 41% and sudden death by 53%.

The authors estimated that treating 1,000 heart attack patients with 1 g/day of fish oil would save 5.7 lives per year. That is almost identical to the 5.2 lives saved per 1,000 patients per year by the statin drug pravastatin in the LIPID trial (NEJM, 339: 1349-1357, 1998).

No wonder the American Heart Association said that patients “could consider fish oil supplementation for heart disease risk prevention.”

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Sick People – The Latest Studies

Heart Health StudyHowever, the most recent studies have been uniformly negative. For example, the ORIGIN trial (Bosch et al, NEJM, 367: 309-318, 2012) treated 12,536 patients who were considered at high risk of heart disease because of diabetes or pre-diabetes with either 1 g/day of fish oil or a placebo. This was also a robust, well designed study, and it found no effect of the fish oil supplement on either heart attacks or deaths due to heart disease.

Similarly, a recent meta-analysis looking at the combined effects of 14 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in patients at high risk of heart disease found no significant effect of fish oil supplements on overall deaths, sudden death due to heart disease, heart attacks, congestive heart failure or stroke (Kwak et al, Arch. Int. Med., 172: 686-694, 2012).

No wonder you are confused by all of the conflicting studies. You must be wondering: “Is the American Heart Association wrong?” “Are fish oil supplements useless for reducing heart disease risk?”

What Has Changed Between The Early Studies & The Latest Studies?

When a trained scientist sees the outcome of well designed clinical studies change over time, he or she asks: “What has changed in the studies?” It turns out that a lot has changed.

1)     In the first place the criteria for people considered at risk for heart attack and stoke have changed dramatically. Not only has the definition of high cholesterol” been dramatically lowered, but cardiologists now treat people for heart disease if they have inflammation, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, pre-diabetes or minor arrythmia.

For example, the GISSI-Prevenzione study recruited patients who had a heart attack within the past three months, while the ORIGIN study just looked at people who had diabetes or impaired blood sugar control. While both groups could be considered high risk, the patients in the earlier studies were at much higher risk for an imminent heart attack or stroke – thus making it much easier to detect a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation.

2)     Secondly, the standard of care for people considered at risk for heart disease has also changed dramatically. In the earlier studies patients were generally treated with one or two drugs – generally a beta-blockers and/or drug to lower blood pressure. In the more recent studies the patients generally receive at least 3 to 5 different medications – medications to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides, reduce inflammation, reduce arrhythmia, reduce blood clotting, and medications to reduce the side effects of those medications.

Since those medications perform many of the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids, it is perhaps no surprise that it is now very difficult to show any additional benefit of omega-3 fatty acids in patients on multiple medications.

The bottom line is that we are no longer asking the same question. The earlier studies were asking whether fish oil supplements reduce the risk of heart attacks or cardiovascular death in patients at high risk of heart disease. The more recent studies are asking whether fish oil supplements provide any additional benefits in a high risk population that is already on 3-5 medications to reduce their risk of heart disease.

However, the people who are writing the headlines you are reading (and the videos you are watching) are not making that distinction. They are pretending that nothing has changed in the way the studies are designed. They are telling you that the latest studies contradict the earlier studies when, in fact, they are measuring two different things.

Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

Was the doctor who made the video “Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?” correct in saying that omega-3 fatty acids are ineffective at reducing the risk of heart disease? The answer is yes and no.

If you take the medical viewpoint that the proper way to treat anyone at the slightest risk of heart disease is with 3-5 medications – with all of their side effects, the answer seems to be pretty clear cut that adding fish oil to your regimen provides little additional benefit.

However, that is not the question that interests me. I’d like to know whether I can reduce my risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death by taking omega-3 fatty acids in place of those drugs – as the original studies have shown.

I’m sure many of my readers feel the same way.

The Bottom Line

  • Studies performed prior to 2000 have generally shown that fish oil supplements reduce the risk of a second heart attack in patients who have previously had a heart attack. One study even suggested that they were as effective as statin drugs at reducing heart attack risk in this population.
  • Recent studies have called into question the beneficial effects of fish oil supplements at reducing the risk of heart disease. However, these studies were performed with lower risk patients and the patients were on 3-5 medications to reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • The recent studies are no longer evaluating whether fish oil supplements can reduce the risk of heart disease. They are asking whether they have any additional beneficial effects for people taking multiple medications. That’s a totally different question.
  • So ignore the headlines saying that fish oil is snake oil. If you are content taking multiple medications to reduce your risk of heart disease, it is probably correct to say that omega-3 fatty acids provide little additional benefit.
  • However, if you are interested in a more holistic, drug-free approach to reducing your risk of heart disease, I still recommend omega-3 fatty acids as part of a heart healthy diet, as does the American Heart Association.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (1)

  • Tonie Dalton

    |

    Well DOne !! People take comments like this from DR”S to heart (no pun intended) You really need to look at how the research was done. Laypersons will not know to do this . Thank you for educating us to know what to look for !

    Reply

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Latest Article

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

Posted July 10, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are You Just Wasting Your Money On Supplements?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

supplements for cardiovascular health wast moneyYou’ve seen the headlines. “Recent Study Finds Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.”  You are being told that supplements are of no benefit to you. They are a waste of money. You should follow a healthy diet instead. Is all of this true?

If I were like most bloggers, I would give you a simple yes or no answer that would be only partially correct. Instead, I am going to put the study behind these headlines into perspective. I am going to give you a deeper understanding of supplementation, so you can make better choices for your health.

 Should we use supplements for cardiovascular health?

In today’s article I will give you a brief overview of the subject. Here are the topics I will cover today:

  • Is this fake news?
  • Did the study ask the right questions?
  • Is this a question of “Garbage In – Garbage Out?
  • Reducing Heart Disease Risk. What you need to know.

All these topics are covered in much more detail (with references) in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, which will be published this fall.

 

How Was This Study Done?

supplements for cardiovascular healthThis study (D.J.A. Jenkins et al, Journal of the American College Of Cardiology, 71: 2540-2584, 2018 ) was a meta-analysis. Simply put, that means the authors combined the results of many previous studies into a single database to increase the statistical power of their conclusions. This study included 127 randomized control trials published between 2012 and December 2017. These were all studies that included supplementation and looked at cardiovascular end points, cancer end points or overall mortality.

Before looking at the results, it is instructive to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the study. Rather than giving you my interpretation, let me summarize what the authors said about strengths and weaknesses of their own study.

The strengths are obvious. Randomized control trials are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, but they have their weaknesses. Here is what the authors said about the limitations of their study:

  • “Randomized control trials are of shorter duration, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.”
  • “Dose-response data were not usually available [from the randomized control studies included in their analysis]. However, larger studies would allow the effect of dose to be assessed.”

There are some other limitations of this study, which I will point out below.

Is This Fake News?

supplements for cardiovascular health fake newsWhen I talk about “fake news” I am referring to the headlines, not to the study behind the headlines. The headlines were definitive: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” However, when you read the study the reality is quite different:

  • In contrast to the negative headlines, the study reported:
    • Folic acid supplementation decreased stroke risk by 20% and overall heart disease risk by 17%.
    • B complex supplements containing folic acid, B6, and B12 decreased stroke risk by 10%.
    • That’s a big deal, but somehow the headlines forgot to mention it.
  • The supplements that had no significant effect on heart disease risk (multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C) were ones that would not be expected to lower heart disease risk. There was little evidence from previous studies of decreased risk. Furthermore, there is no plausible mechanism for supposing they might decrease heart disease risk.
  • The study did not include vitamin E or omega-3 supplements, which are the ones most likely to prove effective in decreasing heart disease risk when the studies are done properly (see below).

Did The Study Ask The Right Question?

Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis were asking whether a supplement decreased heart disease risk or mortality for everyone. Simply put, the studies started with a group of generally healthy Americans and asked whether supplementation had a significant effect on disease risk for everyone in that population.

That is the wrong question. We should not expect supplementation to benefit everyone equally. Instead, we should be asking who is most likely to benefit from supplementation and design our clinical studies to test whether those people benefit from supplementation.

supplements for cardiovascular health diagramI have created the graphic on the right as a guide to help answer the question of “Who is most likely to benefit from supplementation?”. Let me summarize each of the points using folic acid as the example.

 

Poor Diet: It only makes sense that those people who are deficient in folate from foods are the most likely to benefit from folic acid supplementation. Think about it for a minute. Would you really expect people who are already getting plenty of folate from their diet to obtain additional benefits from folic acid supplementation?

The NIH estimates that around 20% of US women of childbearing age are deficient in folic acid. For other segments of our population, dietary folate insufficiency ranges from 5-10%. Yet, most studies of folic acid supplementation lump everyone together – even though 80-95% of the US population is already getting enough folate through foods, food fortification, and supplementation. It is no wonder most studies fail to find a beneficial effect of folic acid supplementation.

The authors of the meta-analysis I discussed above said that the beneficial effects of folic acid they saw might have been influenced by a very large Chinese study, because a much higher percentage of Chinese are deficient in folic acid. They went on to say that the Chinese study needed to be repeated in this country.

In fact, the US study has already been done. A large study called “The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE)” study reported that folic acid supplementation did not reduce heart disease risk in the whole population. However, when the study focused on the subgroup of subjects who were folate-deficient at the beginning of the study, folic acid supplementation significantly decreased their risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death.  This would seem to suggest using supplements for cardiovascular health is a good idea.

Increased Need: There are many factors that increase the need for certain nutrients. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s only focus on medications. Medications that interfere with folic acid metabolism include anticonvulsants, metformin (used to treat diabetes), methotrexate and sulfasalazine (used to treat severe inflammation), birth control pills, and some diuretics. Use of these medications is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine medication use with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial.

Genetic Predisposition: The best known genetic defect affecting folic acid metabolism is MTHFR. MTHFR deficiency does not mean you have a specific need for methylfolate. However, it does increase your need for folic acid. Again, this is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine MTHFR deficiency with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial. I cover this topic in great detail in my upcoming book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”. In the meantime, you might wish to view my video, “The Truth About Methyl Folate.”

Diseases: An underlying disease or predisposition to disease often increases the need for one or more nutrients that help reduce disease risk. The best examples of this are two major studies on the effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in women. Both studies found no effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in the whole population. However, one study reported that vitamin E reduced heart disease risk in the subgroup of women who were post-menopausal (when the risk of heart disease skyrockets). The other study found that vitamin E reduced heart attack risk in the subgroup of women who had pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study.

Finally, if you look at the diagram closely, you will notice a red circle in the middle. When two or three of these factors overlap, that is the “sweet spot” where supplementation is almost certain to make a difference and it may be a good idea to use supplements for cardiovascular health.

Is This A Question Of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”?

supplements for cardiovascular health garbage in outUnfortunately, most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” rather than the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question.

In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.

Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.

 

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

 

If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this meta-analysis is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but the analysis did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s.

However, if you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out that we know healthy diets can decrease heart disease risk. In the words of the authors: “The recent science-based report of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, also concerned with [heart disease] risk reduction, recommended 3 dietary patterns: 1) a healthy American diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and meat, but high in fruits and vegetables; 2) a Mediterranean diet; and 3) a vegetarian diet. These diets, with their accompanying recommendations, continue the move towards more plant-based diets…” I cover the effect of diet on heart disease risk in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”.

 

The Bottom Line

 

You have probably seen the recent headlines proclaiming: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” The study behind the headlines was a meta-analysis of 127 randomized control trials looking at the effect of supplementation on heart disease risk and mortality.

  • The headlines qualify as “fake news” because:
    • The study found that folic acid decreased stroke and heart disease risk, and B vitamins decreased stroke risk. Somehow the headlines forgot to mention that.
    • The study found that multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C had no effect on heart disease risk. These are nutrients that were unlikely to decrease heart disease risk to begin with.
    • The study did not include vitamin E and omega-3s. These are nutrients that are likely to decrease heart disease risk when the studies are done properly.
  • The authors of the study stated that a major weakness of their study was that that randomized control studies included in their analysis were short term, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.
  • The study behind the headlines is of little use for you as an individual because it asked the wrong question.
  • Most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” That is the wrong question. Instead we need more clinical studies focused on the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question. I discuss that question in more detail in the article above.
  • In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.
  • Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this study is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B-complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but they did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s in their analysis.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.
  • However, we do know that healthy, plant-based diets can decrease heart disease risk. I cover heart healthy diets in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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