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American Heart Association says fish oil helps after heart attack

Nearly 19 million adults take omega-3 fish oil supplements as part of their daily regimen, but how many of them actually experience a benefit?

A new American Heart Association statement says for people who have had a heart attack or heart failure, fish oil might help them live longer. But there isn’t enough research to support the average person taking the supplements for cardiovascular health.

“The American Heart Association says that for people with coronary heart disease (CHD), fish oil may offer a big benefit with little, if any, risk. Their research suggests that for people who have had a heart attack, modest fish oil consumption may help prevent the recurrence of another heart attack,” said Timothy Martindale, MD, Ascension Providence Family Medicine Clinic. Ascension Providence is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

Researchers reviewed findings from large randomized clinical trials involving fish oil supplements to prevent heart diseases and the relative effect on risks of death or hospitalization.

What are omega-3s?

Omega-3s, the key component in fish oil, are a group of fatty acids important for a lot of your body’s functions. They’re found in fatty fish like salmon and tuna, and shellfish, according to the National Institutes of Health. Another type of omega-3 is found in some vegetable oils.

We can’t tell if people with fish or shellfish allergies can safely take animal-based fish oil, so it’s important to talk with your doctor beforehand.

Fish oil became tied to health benefits in part because of the Mediterranean diet, which encourages plenty of fish and nuts, among other foods. The belief: If fish is good for you, then fish oil might be too — right?

Fish such as Atlantic herring, salmon, rainbow trout, striped bass, or canned anchovies are good sources of two common omega-3s, EPA and DHA. If you can’t get one to two servings of oily fish each week, an over-the-counter fish oil supplement could help, Martindale said.

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements don’t usually have extreme negative side effects. Common side effects of higher doses of fish oil are nausea, and often a fishy taste with increased belching, Martindale said.

Important to infant development

Pregnant women should consider omega-3 fatty acids for their potential benefit to their baby’s brain development before and after birth, according to The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Dietary guidelines from 2010 recommend at least 8 ounces of seafood each week for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, with the important distinction to avoid certain types of high-mercury seafood.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should aim to eat two to three weekly servings of a variety of fish to support optimal visual and cognitive development in their babies, Martindale said.

Seafood that is high in mercury, which is a toxin, can harm the nervous system of a fetus or young child. Fish high in mercury to avoid: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, bigeye tuna and tilefish.

What other benefits does fish oil have?

There has been substantial research on omega-3s in seafood and fish oil related to heart disease, but the findings have been inconsistent. Because the Food and Drug Administration does not have the authority to review dietary supplements like fish oil and its effectiveness before it’s marked, research about positive and negative effects is important.

Some evidence shows that omega-3s found in seafood and fish oil can help with relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, such as joint swelling and pain, according to NIH.

After a heart attack, many patients take aspirin and anti-platelet medications to prevent things like blood clotting. Supplements like fish oil can be used with these medications but shouldn’t serve as a replacement.

If you’re thinking about taking supplements, talk to your doctor first.

A growing body of research on fish oil

Other research has studied the effectiveness of omega-3s for diseases of the eye and brain, but there is not yet enough evidence to draw conclusions.

  • For example, some studies have shown that people who have a seafood-rich diet are less likely to develop an advanced stage of Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) — an eye disease that can cause vision loss in people age 50 and older. But other studies have shown that omega-3s do not slow the progression of AMD in people who were already at high risk to develop the disease. A 2015 study showed that taking omega-3s did not slow cognitive decline in older adults with AMD.
  • Omega-3s have been studied for preventing or treating other conditions like allergies, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, asthma, kidney disease and more. But no conclusions have been drawn about whether omega-3s help these conditions because of the lack of available evidence.

About Ascension Providence

In Texas, Ascension operates Ascension Providence and Seton Healthcare Family, which includes Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and another 120 related clinical facilities that together employ more than 13,000 employees. Across Texas, Ascension provided more than $910 million in community benefit and charity care in fiscal year 2015. Serving Texas for 114 years, Ascension is a faith-based health care organization committed to delivering compassionate, personalized care to all, with special attention to persons living in poverty and those most vulnerable. Ascension is the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system, operating 2,500 sites of care – including 141 hospitals and more than 30 senior living facilities – in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Visit www.providence.net.