Helpful or hurtful: Should you keep taking fish oil supplements?

(BPT) – Every day, millions of Americans take supplements to get the vitamins and nutrients their bodies need to stay healthy. Like many others, you might take a daily fish oil supplement to get the benefits of omega-3 essential fatty acids that can be difficult to obtain through food sources alone.

Thousands of studies show numerous positives of omega-3s, including benefits to the health of the heart, joints, brain, eyes, prostate and women’s reproductive systems. But a recent report is raising concerns for some people about possible negative consequences of fish oil.

Should one report cause you to change your daily routine? Experts agree no one should make health changes based on the results of a single study. A body of consistent evidence is required to draw a conclusion on any substance’s impact on long-term health – the very reason the FDA requires drug companies to conduct multiple trails before considering approving new drugs. Adopting a similar mindset when reading about studies that affect your health can help cut through the clutter and ease concerns.

The study, “Plasma Phospholipid Fatty Acids and Prostate Cancer Risk in the SELECT Trial” published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, reported an association between men who had high concentrations of marine omega-3 fatty acids in their blood and prostate cancer. With numerous reported benefits of omega-3s, people were understandably confused about the findings.

Upon closer review, many medical professionals are calling out the flaws of the study and questioning the assertions. Omega-3s are one of the most researched dietary supplements with more than 8,000 clinical studies to date. One study in particular found fish oil and omega-3s to benefit prostate health. “A Prospective Study of Intake of Fish and Marine Fatty Acids and Prostate Cancer” focused on a 12-year study of 47,882 men and found those with high consumption of fish and marine fatty acids had a lower risk of prostate cancer. 

How can one study show benefits for prostate health while another found risk for prostate cancer? Looking closer at the SELECT trial provides important insight.

The initial reason for the SELECT study was to learn selenium and vitamin E effects on prostate cancer. It was not to learn about a possible connection of marine omega-3 and prostate cancer. Researchers did not discuss diet or supplementation at the beginning, during or end of the study. Furthermore, the men who developed cancer had a first degree relative(s) who also had prostate cancer, which means they had genetic predisposition, a major factor in prostate cancer development no matter what a person’s diet or supplementation routine.

“The patients’ blood was drawn only once, at the study’s onset,” explains Dr. Jay Udani, a certified physician investigator for clinical trials who has designed and/or participated in more than 125 clinical trials.  “And the type of omega-3 levels measured in the blood told researchers only that the subject may have recently consumed fish oil or a meal containing fish. These levels don’t give an accurate indication of any long term use of fish oil supplements or a diet that includes regular servings of fish.  

“No clinical conclusion can be drawn from this paper as the analysis and results have not arisen from any intervention,” says Dr. Udani. “This is a statistical correlation, but there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the onset of prostate cancer and taking fish oil or eating fatty fish.”

Because of the risk of environmental toxins in fish, studies confirm that purified fish oil supplements are the safest source of the most important essential fatty acids – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The American Heart Association recommends 1 gram daily of combined EPA and DHA (in consultation with your doctor) for those with heart disease. The American Pregnancy Association advises pregnant women to take at least 500 milligrams combined EPA and DHA (the expert-recommended minimum), with at least 300 milligrams of that daily dose as DHA. These recommendations, and others by leading health organizations, have not changed in light of this recent study.

The profound and documented benefits of omega-3s, along with recommendations by credible and well-established health organizations, should ease your mind and help you to feel confident about continuing to take fish oil supplements.

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