What's the Deal with Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Here’s the latest research on the correlation between heart health and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil.

Omega-3 fatty acids have all sorts of powerful health benefits, from boosting brainpower to taking care of your ticker to lowering anxiety. And that’s just for starters.

Now researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have found that high doses of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil taken for half a year after a heart attack can help patients recover by improving heart function and reducing scarring in the heart muscle.

The study, which appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of Circulation, involved 360 patients who received either four grams of omega-3 fatty acids three times daily or a placebo for six months after their heart attack. Researchers used MRI scans to evaluate heart structure and function of their hearts before and after treatment.

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Participants who took the omega-3 fatty acids showed a 6 percent improvement in heart function and a 5.6 percent reduction of scarring in the heart muscle in the area of the heart attack. However, patients who had the highest red blood cell levels of the supplement showed an even greater improvement of heart-pumping function, indicating a dose-response relationship.

Previous trials administering fish oil to heart attack survivors had yielded conflicting results. One study found that the supplements did reduce the risk of death shortly after a heart attack while the other found no benefit. Those trials administered one mg of the supplement per day.

“I think this an important study for two reasons,” says Kirk Garratt, M.D., associate director of the Center for Heart & Vascular Health at Christiana Care Health System. “First, although we’ve observed in past studies that people seem to do better when you give these supplements, this is the first study that I’m aware of that shows mechanically what is actually taking place. Second, this particular product—Lovaza—has undergone a very specific method of concentration which assures you’re getting the actual dosage of omega-3 fatty acid that you want and that it’s free of all the bad things that can be co-purified with the omega-3 fatty acids.”

Heart failure remains a problem following a heart attack despite all the therapies doctors currently have at their disposal. After a heart attack, the heart undergoes a process called remodeling, a term that refers to changes in the heart’s size and shape that occur in response to the damage it has sustained. In the early stages of a heart attack, some degree of remodeling can be beneficial. But if the remodeling continues to the point where changes in the size and shape of the heart become more exaggerated, heart failure occurs.

“What we’re talking about here is a substance that seems to tilt the balance in favor of a re-build that yields a good outcome,” says Garratt.

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What’s more, the supplement seems to be safe even for patients taking blood thinners and other medications.

“The nice thing about an omega-3 fatty acid is that it’s a natural sort of compound,” says Garratt. “The information available so far suggests that giving very high doses of a pure form of omega-3 fatty acids has very little in the way of untoward side effects or interactions with other medications.”

Experts caution that it would be virtually impossible to replicate the study’s results by eating more fatty fish or taking over-the-counter supplements.

“You’d have to take an awful lot of pills,” says Garratt. “And unlike the pharmaceutical compound, you’d have little in the way of (dosing) standardization. There’s also the concern about compounds like selenium, aluminum and mercury, things we really don’t want to have people taking.”

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