Maybe you’ve seen the advertisements, in which fish oil is described as some sort of wonder supplement that will make you healthy as a horse – or perhaps a fish.
But before you run to the pharmacy for a bottle, it’s important to understand the benefits and limitations fish oil, or omega-3 fatty acids, offer your heart health.
The most obvious and direct benefit is the impact good fats, such as the omega-3 found in fish oil, have on triglycerides.
Triglycerides are a type of fat everyone has in their blood. They store unused energy and release them when your body thinks it “needs” them.
High levels of triglycerides are linked to overall heart health, largely because they can lead to high blood pressure – a risk factor for heart disease.
That means that in conjunction with losing weight and exercising, eating a diet higher in omega-3 can lower triglycerides.
“It’s usually given to patients with extremely high triglycerides who are at risk for complications like pancreatitis,” said Dr. John Yang, a Marshfield Clinic Health System cardiologist. “Studies have shown a strong connection between high levels of omega-3, or fish oil, and the lowering of triglycerides.”
The limits of fish oil
While it’s evident a low triglyceride level is good for your heart, it’s far less clear if high levels are an independent risk factor for whether someone will have a heart attack, Yang said.
That’s because many people with high levels of triglycerides also have diabetes. Yang said it’s been difficult for this reason to determine if it’s the triglycerides alone causing the heart condition. Several studies say it’s not an independent risk factor.
Fish oil and heart attacks
A common perception is that regularly eating fish oil reduces the number of heart attacks, stroke and death.
An Italian study made this initial observation, but since then other studies have shown there is no connection between fish oil and fewer heart attacks.
“If you want to decrease your chance of having a heart attack or stroke and death, then it’s best to talk to your doctor about statin therapy,” Yang said.
Of course, Yang added that a person can take fish oil, too, to further reduce triglyceride levels but it’s unclear if it is beneficial.