Fish Oil Supplements May Increase Risk of Stroke, Heart Disease

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New research finds that fish oil supplements may increase the risks of heart disease and stroke in healthy people. Pranithan Chorruangsak/Getty Images
  • A study has found that fish oil supplements are linked to an increased risk of CVD for the first time.
  • However, they were beneficial for those already suffering from CVD.
  • It appears that the risks of fish oil supplements outweigh the benefits in healthy people.
  • Experts advise against using fish oil supplements if you are currently healthy.
  • It may be best to eat a heart-healthy diet that contains sources of omega-3s, such as fatty fish.

Fish oil derived from fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and trout is often recommended for its anti-inflammatory effects, especially in people with cardiovascular disease (CVD), high blood pressure, abnormal lipids, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Fatty fish are a great source of two omega-3 fatty acids that the human body needs but cannot produce itself: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

However, while it might seem like a good idea for healthy people to also supplement with fish oil to help prevent disease, results from a large long-term study published May 21, 2024 in the journal BMJ Medicine, indicate that this may not be the case.

Researchers found that regular use of fish oil could actually increase the risk of healthy people developing heart disease and stroke for the first time.

However, regular use helped slow the progression of existing CVD. It also helped reduce their risk of death.

The researchers included 415,737 people from the UK Biobank study.

More than half (55%) of the participants were women and their ages ranged from 40 to 69 years.

Information collected on the individuals included their use of fish oil supplements and their dietary intake of fatty and non-fatty fish.

People’s health was followed until their death or the end of the study in March 2021.

About a third of people said they used fish oil supplements regularly, and the majority were older, white and female.

Among those who had no known cardiovascular disease at the start of the study, regular use of fish oil supplements was associated with a 13% increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation and a 5% increased risk of having a stroke.

However, regular fish oil users who had cardiovascular disease at the start of the study had a 15% lower risk of progressing from atrial fibrillation to heart attack and a 9% lower risk of progressing from heart failure to heart attack. death.

Dr. Michael O. McKinney, a family physician at Healthy Outlook in Jacksonville, Florida, explained that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil supplements have been extensively studied and found to have anti-inflammatory and lipid reducers.

“In individuals with established CVD, these properties can stabilize atherosclerotic plaques, reduce serum triglyceride levels and improve endothelial function, thereby reducing cardiovascular adverse events,” he said.

McKinney noted, however, that the situation is not so simple when people are in good health.

“Their potential benefits at high doses of omega-3s could increase the risk of bleeding because their anticoagulant effects outweigh the benefits in people who lack significant risks of cardiovascular disease,” he said.

Taking fish oil supplements when healthy could also lead to fatty acid imbalances, perhaps inadvertently increasing a person’s risk of heart disease, according to McKinney.

Dr. Sarah Bonza, a board-certified family physician and founder of Bonza Health in Columbus, Ohio, said another factor to consider is that some research has He suggested that fish oil could increase the risk of atrial fibrillation in healthy people, a heart rhythm disturbance linked to an increased risk of stroke.

“However, for people with poor pre-existing cardiovascular health, omega-3s have anti-inflammatory and plaque-stabilizing effects,” he added, “which helps slow the progression of cardiovascular disease and reduce the chance of death from related causes.” with the heart”. events.

“Therefore, these advantages may outweigh the risks in patients with weakened cardiovascular systems,” Bonza said.

“If you are healthy and want to use fish oil capsules to prevent heart disease, you had better think about your decision,” Bonza said.

He further stated that the American Heart Association does not recommend taking omega-3 supplements if you are at low risk for cardiovascular disease because the effects are “much greater” in those with the disease.

Instead, Bonza suggests eating a heart-healthy diet with plenty of natural sources of omega-3s, such as fish.

In their opinion, this will be more beneficial for your health.

“On the other hand, personal health condition factors differ, so it is important to speak with a healthcare provider first before deciding to modify supplement consumption,” he added. “Talk to your doctor first to be sure.”

Bonza said she would recommend supplementing with flaxseed oil or chia seeds instead of fish oil due to their high alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content. It is an omega-3 fatty acid of plant origin, he explained.

She suggests increasing your diet with this type of fatty acid because it may have anti-inflammatory properties that may benefit your cardiovascular health, but it is not associated at risk of atrial fibrillation.

“In addition, diet containing omega-3s in the form of nuts, soy products and fortified foods will provide the same benefits without high-dose supplements,” he added.

McKinney also suggests supplementing with other heart-supporting supplements, such as coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and fiber supplements, such as psyllium husk.

“In addition, everyone needs to consult their health care provider so that each patient adjusts their supplementation options based on their health problems and peculiarities,” he concluded.

A new study has found that fish oil supplementation is associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke in healthy people.

However, people with existing CVD experienced protective effects against further progression of their disease.

This was an observational study. It does not prove causality.

Experts say the difference in how fish oil affects people’s risk could be due to the fact that in healthy people, the risks associated with fish oil supplementation (such as bleeding, fatty acid imbalance, or atrial fibrillation) could outweigh any potential benefits.

For healthy people, it may be best to get omega-3 fatty acids from foods such as fatty fish.

Flaxseed oil, chia seeds, foods enriched with omega-3 fatty acids, CoQ10, and psyllium husk may be safer supplements for cardiovascular health.