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You most likely know that eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids is essential for brain function and also plays a role in reducing the risk of heart disease as well as cancer and arthritis. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) at least twice a week. Still, if you’re not a fish lover, you may not be getting the doses you need. Another way to get the omega-3s you need is by taking fish oil supplements. Should you take this supplement? Experts on the Cleveland Clinic Prescriptive Wellness Committee weigh in on the pros and cons:
On the Pro Side: Fish oil has many health benefits, points out Brenda Powell, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Not only does it reduce the risk of having a second heart attack, it also benefits people who have undergone angioplasty (stent placement). Fish oil consistently shows a significant reduction in the levels of triglycerides in the bloodstream. At the same time, HDL (good) cholesterol rises. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil (EPA and DHA) have anti-inflammatory properties, Dr. Powell adds. They have been used with good success as an addition to standard medical therapies for rheumatoid arthritis. And fish oils are generally well tolerated and have few side effects.
On the Con Side: Ocean fish are likely to contain contaminants, such as mercury, say others on the committee. They also may spoil. Therefore, it is important to obtain a supplement product that has been purified and tested. A simple way to check for spoilage is to smell it yourself: If it smells like it’s gone bad, it probably has!
Doctors warn that there are some side effects of taking fish oil, including fishy burps and, rarely, rashes. Obviously you should not take this product if you are allergic to fish. DHA from algae is a good (though more costly) alternative.
Another reason to opt for DHA from algae is if you’re worried about bleeding. Fish oil may decrease clotting cells in the blood (platelets), thereby increasing the tendency to bleed. If you take medications that affect blood clotting, such as warfarin (Coumadin) or aspirin, or if you are taking any blood-thinning medications, consult with your medical provider before taking fish oil supplements.
When it comes to heart health, doctors point out that we don’t yet know if taking fish oil will prevent coronary heart disease in those individuals who don’t already have it.
Committee Conclusion: Experts on the Cleveland Clinic Prescriptive Wellness Committee conclude that fish oil is a safe and effective supplement for decreasing the risk of subsequent heart attacks, decreasing triglyceride levels, and decreasing the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis.
If you use it, remember to include it in your list of medications when you visit your doctor and other health care providers. You’ll want to check the label for the concentration of omega-3s before you decide on an appropriate dose. Taking fish oils with meals in divided doses or keeping the capsules in the freezer can help prevent fishy burps.
Doses shown to have benefit:
• For coronary artery disease, take 1,000 mg of omega-3s (DHA and EPA) per day.
• For high triglycerides, take 2,000 to 4,000 mg of omega-3s per day.
• For rheumatoid arthritis, take 3,000 to 5,000 mg of omega-3s per day.
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