Fish Oil for Depression, Anxiety and Heart Health
How Helpful are Omega-3 Supplements?
For more than 20 years, supplement companies have been promoting fish oil (omega-3) supplements to help with various conditions. They're supposed to reduce depression, lessen anxiety and lower cardiovascular risk for anyone who took them.
People taking fish oil for anxiety and depression got bad news in 2019. Small studies seemed to show benefit, but the data was limited. So researchers did a study of studies, also known as a meta-analysis. The requirements were simple. The trials had to be done on adults, they had to be randomized to increased omega-3, omega-6 or total polyunsaturated fat, and they had to run for at least 24 weeks.
The final result included 31 trials and more than 41,470 participants. The results were surprising. The researchers concluded, “Long-chain omega-3 supplementation probably has little or no effect in preventing depression or anxiety symptoms.” Eating oily fish can be part of a balanced diet. But taking fish oil supplements for depression or anxiety was a waste of money.
Just a year earlier, in 2018, researchers had started to poke holes in the idea that omega-3 supplements could help the heart. 15,480 patients with diabetes were randomly assigned an omega-3 supplement or a placebo. They were followed up for an average of 7.4 years.
Researchers found “no significant difference in the risk of serious vascular events” between people who got the omega-3 supplement and those that were given a placebo.
More bad news came out in November of 2020. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association followed 13,078 patients for over 2.5 years. The focus was on patients treated with statins that had high cardiovascular risk, high triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol levels. (Those at-risk people are the ones who should benefit most from a heart helping supplement.)
The results were bad. Researchers found that a high dose of omega-3 fatty acids resulted in “no significant difference in a composite outcome of major adverse cardiovascular events.” In other words, omega-3 supplements didn't appear to help the heart.
It gets worse. About 67 percent of the participants taking fish oil supplements experienced an irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation). Rather than helping, supplements with both EPA and DHA fatty acids may be harmful to at-risk people. The researchers concluded that high-risk patients should NOT use omega-3 supplements to reduce cardiovascular events.
November of 2020 had even more bad news. Researchers wanted to see if vitamin D, omega-3 or a strength-training exercise program could help with six different health outcomes for people who were 70 years or older. They were looking at improvements in “systolic or diastolic blood pressure, nonvertebral fractures, physical performance, infection rate, or cognition.”
The 3-year program tracked 2,157 adults. They found that none of the treatments, vitamin D, omega-3 or strength training, helped improve the six different health conditions.
Keep in mind; cardio exercises are designed and proven to help with blood pressure and cognition. So it's not surprising that strength training didn't help improve those conditions.
That leaves us with four studies involving more than 72,000 people, all giving us the same answers. Taking fish oil supplements isn't a shortcut to health or happiness; it could be just the opposite. According to the Mayo Clinic, taking too much omega-3 can increase your bleeding risk and might suppress your immune response.
Dr. Katherine Deane, from UEA's School of Health Sciences, said: “Considering the environmental concerns about industrial fishing and the impact it is having on fish stocks and plastic pollution in the oceans, it seems unhelpful to continue to swallow fish oil tablets that give no benefit.”
If you're looking to improve your health and your mood, there are three things to do. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and lean meats. Do cardio exercises to help your heart and strength-training exercises to build muscle and bone. Avoid taking supplements unless your doctor has given you a specific prescription because of a medical diagnosis.
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