Omega 3 – Friend or Foe (part 2)

By AltMed1-Peggy  


People take fish oil (omega 3) supplements for many reasons.  Most online and print sources I’ve seen including Fish oil, which is on the excellent MedlinePlus Herbs and Supplements website, that heart and cardiovascular health and prevention top the list. “The scientific evidence suggests that fish oil really does lower high triglycerides, and it also seems to help prevent heart disease and stroke when taken in the recommended amounts,” the report says. And that part about “in the recommended amounts” is important because the report also notes that taking too much can raise risk of stroke.


Other conditions people take fish oil for, according to MedlinePlus, include:

  • Depression
  • Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders that involve cognitive, or thinking, problems
  • Dry eyes
  • Glaucoma
  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
  • Menstrual pain
  • Breast pain
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

… and many others


With so many ways to use this product, it’s not surprising to read in a February 5, 2012, news release from that fish oil was the most popular supplement. Their survey of supplement users asked more than 10,000 supplement-savvy consumers what supplements they take every day. Fish oil topped the list – it was used by 80.8% of people who took 10 or more supplements daily. 


Does it work?


Yes, for some things. Research shows omega 3 is effective for reducing high triglycerides. It probably works to prevent heart disease or reduce your risk of dying from heart disease if you already have it. And it may do a better job of reducing heart disease death risk than statin drugs.


Maybe, for many things. There’s a long list of conditions that may be helped by omega 3 supplements, and an even longer list of things it may not help, but at this point there’s not enough evidence to give a firm yes or no answer. 


We do know that there are some risks, especially if daily intake is higher than 3 grams. Problems it can cause include:

  • Increase risk of bleeding (blood-thinner)
  • Increase risk of infection (inhibits immune system function)
  • Cause side effects affecting the digestive system (heartburn, nausea, loose stools), skin (rash), and others (nosebleeds, bad breath)
  • Interact with medicine and other supplements
  • Contamination risk


Bottom line


Articles about supplement use usually include a line that tells people they should check with their doctor or other health care professional to make sure it’s safe to take that supplement. We see that line so often that many of us have a tendency to think, “Yeah, yeah, same old, same old” and ignore the advice. But in this case, it’s not just a cover-yourself-against-lawsuit line; it really is important.


If someone I knew asked whether I thought he or she should try omega 3 supplements, I’d say “maybe.”  I’d tell that person there is good evidence showing omega 3s can be wonderful for some conditions but there’s also evidence showing they can be risky too, so I would not start taking them without informed guidance from a health professional who is knowledgeable in this field.


If the person asking this question doesn’t know a health professional who is informed enough to consult, or doesn’t trust them, I’d suggest that person invest some time in becoming informed himself or herself. 


See our guide to starting any new supplement, “Before You Start Taking That Supplement.” 


It’s coming up next.



© 2012, all rights reserved.


  1. Posted May 8, 2012 at 6:05 am | Permalink | Reply

    I’m vegetarian, so I’ve been taking a spoonful of flaxseed oil every morning. Between that and a switch to Cheerios for breakfast, my blood chemistry numbers were the best they’ve been in years, so I’m sticking with it!

    I can’t say that I feel any different, though.

    • (not the famous one)
      Posted May 8, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Annie, experts I interviewed recently recommended flaxseed for vegetarians and others who were unable to use omega 3 fatty acid supplements. They contain ALA, a form of the same fatty acids that’s a little less well absorbed but it still works. One expert said choose the whole seed if you need the fiber but if you’re getting enough fiber from other sources like cereal, oil is easier to manage for a bunch of reasons. Sounds like you’re on the right track.

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