Fish oil supplements have come under fire, but don’t flush them down the toilet just yet. (Photo: Corbis)
“Fish Oil Claims Not Supported By Research”—that was the surprising headline of a recent New York Times article. The article went on to explain that, while fish oil is the third most widely used dietary supplement in the U.S., the majority of clinical trials involving fish oil haven’t found evidence that it lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The Times cited several studies that found no link between fish oil consumption and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, but they also noted that recent research of fish oil and cardiovascular health was conducted on patients who had a history of heart disease or strong risk factors for developing it — though that important nuance is buried deep beneath a very broad headline.
Fish oil has been a popular supplement for years, largely due to its two omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Those omega-3s have been linked to a large range of health benefits, from a lowered risk of heart disease to increased fetal brain development.
So what’s the real story? According to the experts, you shouldn’t throw out your fish oil supplements just yet.
“If you don’t eat a lot of fish, it’s probably a good idea to take a fish oil supplement,” says Robert C. Block, MD, an associate professor of cardiology at the University of Rochester who conducts research on the effects of fish oil. “You don’t have to worry about taking fish oil — it’s very safe. There are no adverse effects.”
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Block tells Yahoo Health that while there seems to be a clear reduction of cardiovascular disease when people consume fish, researchers can’t currently guarantee that fish oil is beneficial for cardiovascular health. On the other hand, they can’t guarantee that it’s not beneficial for cardiovascular health.
He notes, however, that there appears to be a link between fish oil and the effectiveness of other drugs, including those used to reduce the risk of heart disease. His research has indicated that moderate levels of fish oil in the blood may enhance aspirin’s ability to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular confusion aside, research has shown that taking fish oil has other perks. “There seems to be some benefits with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and clearly with people who have depression,” says Block.
Research has found a clear link between fish oil and brain health. Scientists from Rhode Island Hospital released a study in 2014 that found adults taking fish oil who had not yet developed Alzheimer’s disease or dementia had significantly less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage over time than those who did not take fish oil. A large Norwegian study of 22,000 people found that those who took fish oil were roughly 30 percent less likely to have symptoms of depression than those who didn’t, and the longer participants took fish oil, the less likely they were to experience symptoms of depression.
The benefits of fish oil have also been linked to better eye health. One study co-founded by the National Eye Institute discovered that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil reduced the abnormal blood vessel growth that can lead to eye disease. Studies have also connected fish oil to a reduction in painful periods and sperm health.
Women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, acknowledges that the research on certain aspects of fish oil’s health benefits is “mixed.” “Fatty acids in fish definitely are definitely beneficial,” she tells Yahoo Health. “The question in some of these studies is if the fish oil in the supplements confer the same benefits. Several of these new studies say no.”
Wider cites several recent studies that question the link between fish oil consumption during pregnancy and improved cognitive function in babies. One Australian study found that women who took fish oil capsules during the last trimester of their pregnancies did not have children with better cognitive and language skills in early childhood or a reduced risk of developing post-partum depression compared to women who took vegetable oil capsules during the same time. Another review of six clinical trials involving fish oil pill supplementation during breastfeeding found no significant difference in a child’s neurodevelopment, while there was slight evidence in one study that it may boost language development.
However, there appears to be a positive link between fish oil consumption and the overall health of fetuses and babies. One 2013 study from the University of Western Australia found that fish oil may reduce inflammation of the placenta in pregnant women, thereby reducing the odds that a pregnant woman will suffer a miscarriage. Another study from Emory University discovered that babies of mothers who took fish oil supplements during their pregnancy were sick less often and for shorter periods of time than babies whose mothers did not take fish oil.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders also found that fish oil may help children with ADHD. Researchers discovered that ADHD medication was more effective when taken with fish oil, reducing the dose of medication children needed, as well as the possible side effects of the medication.
Confused yet? You’re not alone. While Block says it’s probably safer to take a fish oil supplement than not, he admits that there’s still more work to be done: “There are a lot of fascinating scientific questions that still need to be explored.”
But in the meantime, keep taking that supplement. It can’t hurt.
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