VTE

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

Benefits of Omega-3

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

venous-thomboembolism

 When a blood clot ends up in your lungs, it can be deadly. But that blood clot didn’t start out in your lungs. It initially formed in your veins where it is referred to as a thrombus. Then it broke off and migrated to your lungs – a process called venous thromboembolism or VTE. Venous thromboembolism is the third most common form of cardiovascular disease, killing around 100,000 Americans each year.

What if something as simple as adding more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet could dramatically decrease your risk of VTE? That’s exactly what a recent study (Hansen-Krone et al, J. Nutr., 144: 861-867, 2014) has suggested. It claims that one of the benefits of omega-3 in your diet may be to help prevent venous thromboembolism.

What Is Venous Thromboembolism or VTE?

As described above, venous thromboembolism starts when a blood clot (also called a thrombis) forms in a vein. About 2/3 of the time, the blood clot forms in the deep veins in the leg (called deep vein thrombosis or DVT) and stays there before eventually dissolving. The symptoms of deep vein thrombosis or DVT are generally leg pain and swelling.

About 1/3 of the time, the clot breaks loose and travels to the lung where it blocks blood flow to a portion of the lung (a process called pulmonary embolism). The symptoms of pulmonary embolism are severe shortness of breath, chest pain when breathing or coughing, and death! While the first two symptoms are pretty frightening, it’s the last symptom (death) that we’d really like to avoid.

Why Might Omega-3s Prevent Venous Thromboembolism or VTE?

One of the benefits of Omega-3s is they have been shown to reduce inflammation and platelet aggregation, two of the most important risk factors for venous thromboembolism. So it is logical to think that omega-3s might help reduce the risk. However, good scientists don’t rely on logic alone. They test their hypotheses by doing clinical studies.

Unfortunately, the results of previous clinical studies have been mixed. One study showed a protective effect of omega-3s, but two other studies found no correlation between omega-3 fatty acid intake and VTE. However, these studies had some significant limitations:

benefits-of-fish-oil-pills

  • They were all performed with populations in the United States where fish consumption is relatively low and many of the fish have low omega-3 content. As a consequence omega-3 fatty acid intake was low and there wasn’t much of a range in intake.
  • Some of the studies did not ask about the use of omega-3 supplements. In a country where 37% of the population takes fish oil supplements, that is a huge omission.
  • They did not measure omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood to verify that their dietary surveys were accurate.

 

Do Omega-3s Prevent Venous Blood Clots or DVT?

pulmonary-embolism

The current study (Hansen-Krone et al, J. Nutr., 144: 861-867, 2014) followed 23,631 people aged 25-97 from Tromso, Norway for 16 years.

  • The participants filled out a comprehensive dietary survey at the time of enrollment where they indicated the number of times per week they ate fish and how often they used fish oil supplements.
  • The scientists in charge of the study verified the estimated omega-3 intake from the dietary analysis in a subgroup of the population by measuring omega-3 fatty acid levels in their blood.
  • Finally, they utilized Norway’s excellent health records to determine how many of the people in their trial experienced a venous thromboembolism – either fatal or non-fatal.

The results were pretty impressive:

  • Blood level measurements of omega-3 fatty acids verified the omega-3 intake estimates from the dietary survey. There was a direct correlation between estimated intake and blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Those participants who ate fish most often (≥3 times/week) were 22% less likely to experience a VTE than those who ate fish least often (1-2 times/week). That difference was borderline significant.
  • Those participants who ate fish most often and took fish oil supplements were 48% less likely to experience a venous thromboembolism than those who ate fish least often and took no fish oil supplements. That difference was highly significant.

 

Strengths & Weaknesses of the Study

Since not all of the previous clinical studies have reached the same conclusion, it is important to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the study compared to the previous studies.

Strengths of the Study:

  • Tromso is located on the northeast coast of Norway, so fish consumption is high and most of the local fish are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Consequently, omega-3 intake was relatively high, which significantly increases the chance of seeing an effect if one exists. Fish consumption in the US is generally lower and not all of the fish consumed are good sources of omega-3s.
  • The study also took into account the use of omega-3 supplements. Some of the US studies did not.
  • The estimates of omega-3 intake from the dietary survey were verified by blood analysis of omega-3 fatty acids.

Weaknesses of the Study:

  • The amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the supplements was not recorded, so it is unclear what level of omega-3 fatty acid intake was required to see a significant decrease in VTE risk. This will make it difficult for future investigators to repeat the study.
  • They did not measure other nutrients that might affect the venous thromboembolism risk.

 

The Bottom Line

1)     VTE is a serious condition with a high rate of mortality.

2)     A recent study suggests that a combination of high fish consumption and fish oil supplement use may significantly decrease the risk of venous thromboembolism.

3)     It is interesting to note that even three servings/week of omega-3 rich fish was not enough to cause a significant decrease in venous thromboembolism risk. It required additional omega-3s from fish oil supplements before the decreased risk was significant.

4)     Not all previous studies have come to the same conclusion. So while the most recent study had several improvements in design compared to previous studies, the case can’t be considered closed. More studies are clearly needed.

5)     This study suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent VTE from occurring. You should not consider them to be a treatment for the condition. If you are experiencing symptoms of venous thromboembolism (leg pain and swelling for deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or shortness of breath and pain when breathing for pulmonary embolism), don’t reach for your fish oil capsules. Call your doctor right away.

 

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 (2)

  • Joanne M. Cottrell

    |

    I enjoy reading Dr Cheney’s newsletters and appreciate his reference to the particular studies. There is just so much hype out there and the information that is being presented to the masses has no scientific basis. I like fish, however I don’t consume it three times a week. Walleye, whitefish, Cod, and many of the types that are mild in taste do not contain the Ogema 3’s. This article is making me realize that I do need to be consistent in finding and taking a high quality Omega 3 supplement. Thank You Dr. Chaney!

    Reply

  • Muriel Donaldson

    |

    Very interesting. Looking forward to your newsletters.
    Muriel

    Reply

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

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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