Proponents claim that these products can lower blood pressure or cholesterol, stave off heart disease, and prevent heart attacks. If you’re concerned about your heart health, should you be taking them?
What the Science Says
Omega-3 (fish oil). It’s well-established that regularly consuming foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids (see “Ticker-Friendly Foods,” below) is a bonus for heart health. But the evidence on supplements has been scant.
However, a recent scientific advisory report from the American Heart Association, published in the journal Circulation, concluded that people who have already had a heart attack or been diagnosed with heart failure may benefit from a daily 1,000-mg fish-oil supplement. For that group only, according to the AHA, this practice could reduce the risk of dying from heart disease by 10 percent.
“The benefits shown in recent studies have been modest, but I think taking them is still reasonable,” says JoAnn Manson, M.D., chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Cause for Caution
With over-the-counter dietary supplements, you don’t always know what you’re getting.
“There’s a lack of regulation, which means the content, identity, and purity of the product is not guaranteed,” says Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser, Marvin M. Lipman, M.D.
Manson agrees. “There are some high-quality supplements, but it’s very much buyer beware,” she says.
There’s also a risk that some supplements may include unwanted ingredients, interact with medications you take, or cause side effects.
For example, red yeast rice supplements can contain a chemical that’s been linked to kidney damage. It can also magnify the effects of statin drugs. CoQ10 may reduce the effectiveness of blood thinners, which are often used to help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Fish-oil supplements can lead to bleeding problems when combined with prescription blood thinners.
Be sure to discuss any supplements you’re taking or considering with your physician. “You can run into serious problems with drug interactions if your doctor doesn’t know,” Manson warns.
Fish-oil supplements have shown mixed results in research, and most experts agree that the best way to get the heart benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is through food.
“There’s no doubt that diet plays a big role in heart disease,” Lipman says. “And if you have a good diet, you don’t need supplements.”
So fill your plate wisely with plenty of foods rich in omega-3s, such as fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines; flaxseed; chia seeds; and spinach.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the Consumer Reports on Health newsletter.
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