TUCSON, Ariz. — Every 38 seconds, a person dies from cardiovascular disease. To put that in perspective, that's 2,303 people every day. As awareness of cardiovascular disease and prevention grows, researchers are honing in on the far-reaching health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
According to a scientific advisory published by the American Heart Association, prescription omega-3 fatty acid medications are a safe and effective option for reducing high triglycerides.
"High triglycerides are becoming increasingly common because they often occur in people with insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar. Omega-3 fatty acids are effective and safe for reducing high triglycerides, but clinicians often use other medications," said Ann Skulas-Ray, first author of the advisory and an assistant professor in the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
What are Triglycerides?
When most people think of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure and cholesterol immediately come to mind, but triglycerides are another important part of the picture.
Triglycerides are a type of fat, or lipid, found in the blood. In fact, triglycerides are the most common type of fat in our bodies. One source of triglycerides is our food, but our liver also produces them. If our bodies produce or we consume too many triglycerides, they are stock piled within our fat cells.
Research has demonstrated that higher levels of triglycerides, above 200 ml/dL, can lead to damaging deposits in the arteries, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Very high triglyceride levels, above 500 ml/dL, can lead to additional issues, such as pancreatitis, or acute inflammation of the pancreas.
Prescription Omega-3 Fatty Acid Medication
By compiling and analyzing the results of 17 randomized, controlled clinical trials on high triglycerides levels, researchers noted that prescription omega-3 fatty acid medication reduced triglyceride levels by 20-30% among those receiving prescription treatment.
"We concluded that treatment with 4 grams daily of any of the available prescription choices is effective and can be used safely in conjunction with statin medicines that lower cholesterol," Skulas-Ray said.
Prescription omega-3 fatty acid medications come in two formulations, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) with and without DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). As there have been no clinical comparisons between the two different formulations, the scientific advisory panel does not make a specific recommendation of one over the other.
As part of the national panel, Skulas-Ray and her postdoctoral research associate Chesney Richter specifically sought to assess the efficacy of prescription omega-3 fatty acids. The advisory stresses that people with high triglyceride levels should not try to treat the condition themselves with over-the-counter fish oil supplements.
"Dietary supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids are not regulated by the FDA. They should not be used in place of prescription medication for the long-term management of high triglycerides," Skulas-Ray said.
What About Fish Oil Supplements?
As many as 18.8 million adults in the U.S. take fish oil supplements in hopes of decreasing their risk of developing heart disease. While there is a lack of scientific consensus regarding the use of fish oil supplements to prevent heart disease, recently completed clinical trials have been more promising, and a large body of research supports fish oil in maintaining general health.
Eating oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring and albacore tuna, at least two times per week is a good source of beneficial omega fatty acids. However, Skulas-Ray notes that most Americans consume very little dietary omega-3 fatty acids and, for those people who never eat oily fish, supplements could be very beneficial.
"Supplements can be a practical and inexpensive option for people interested in maintaining their health," Skulas-Ray said. "Omega-3 fatty acids are important to many aspects of human physiology."
Skulas-Ray's research on the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is ongoing. Most of her work in the UA Department of Nutritional Sciences focuses on clinical studies of dietary supplementation, whether that be with capsules providing omega-3 fatty acids or with foods such as strawberries.
With support from the Arizona Center on Aging, her lab is now beginning to study how certain omega-3 metabolites in the blood might be used to predict how older adults will recover from the physical stress of surgery.
"This builds on our ongoing research focus on omega-3 fatty acids and inflammation," Skulas-Ray said. "We get excited about opportunities to better understand the potential of omega-3 fatty acids to improve human health."