Although omega-3 fatty acid supplements are commonly recommended for individuals at high risk of cardiovascular events, the findings of a new study suggest that they may not actually help avoid heart attacks, strokes or severe chest pains.
In findings published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers suggest that omega-3 supplements may provide little-to-no-benefit reducing major heart risks.
Researchers conducted a double-blind, randomized, multi-center clinical trial known as the STRENGTH study, which included more than 13,000 patients randomized at 675 academic and community hospitals in 22 countries in North America, Europe, South America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
In 2017, the American Heart Association issued an advisory that indicated omega-3 fish oil prescribed by doctors may help prevent death from heart disease among those who recently had a heart attack, and may prevent death or hospitalization for patients with heart failure. However, the advisory did not recommend the supplements to the general population.
The new study included statin-treated patients with high cardiovascular risk, high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol levels. The research focused on examining if adding omega-3 fatty acids would improve cardiovascular outcomes.
Participants were randomized to receive an omega-3 carboxylic acid formulation of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), or corn oil, which was intended as a placebo. EPA and DHA are fatty acids found in cold water fish.
The findings suggested that there was no difference in major adverse cardiovascular events between daily supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids compared with corn oil. Researchers stopped the study early after 1,384 patients experienced no cardiovascular benefit from omega-3 supplementation.
“Among statin-treated patients at high cardiovascular risk, the addition of omega-3 CA, compared with corn oil, to usual background therapies resulted in no significant difference in a composite outcome of major adverse cardiovascular events,” researchers wrote. “These findings do not support use of this omega-3 fatty acid formulation to reduce major adverse cardiovascular events in patients with high cardiovascular risk.”
There was a greater rate of gastrointestinal side events in the omega-3 group. Roughly 25% of participants experienced stomach discomfort or pain. Only 15% of the corn oil group suffered gastrointestinal side effects.
The study showed no benefit in reducing heart problems when supplementing with the omega-3 combination. However, researchers speculate part of the problem may have been the ratio in which the two were given. Perhaps in a different ratio benefits may be seen, as other studies focusing only on either EPA or DHA showed positive benefits.