Vitamins & Supplements: Omega-3 Supplements


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Omega-3 fatty acids, a form of polyunsaturated fatty acids, are considered essential nutrients for health. The body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids on its own, however; therefore, they must be obtained from food sources or supplements. Primary sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish and shellfish. Two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Moreover, some plants also contain omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for a number of important body functions, including blood clotting, muscle activity, digestion, fertility, and cell division and growth. In addition, DHA is key for brain development and function.

Uses of Omega 3-Fatty Acid Supplements

Although research has provided the strongest evidence for the use of omega-3 fatty acid in heart disease, omega-3 fatty acids are also useful in other conditions:

  • High cholesterol
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Certain cancers
  • Eczema
  • Asthma
  • Lupus

How Much Omega-3 Do I Need?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that all individuals consume omega-3 fatty acids from fish and plant sources at least twice a week because of the role these acids play in cardiovascular protection. According to the AHA, patients with documented heart disease may not consume enough of the nutrient via diet alone; these individuals should discuss the use of omega-3 supplements with their doctor. In addition, the AHA suggests that individuals with elevated triglyceride levels may require a high intake of omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

Research has shown that taking more than 3 g of omega-3 fatty acids from capsules should only be done under a physician’s care, however, because high intake may cause excessive bleeding in some people or worsen heart rhythm in individuals with arrhythmias. Your doctor will recommend a proper dosage for you based on your medical and medication history.

Common Omega-3 Supplements

Commonly used omega-3 dietary supplements are formulated with fish oil, which provides EPA and DHA, and flaxseed oil, which provides ALA. Algae oils are a vegetarian source of DHA. These supplements are available in a variety of formulations, including capsules, liquids, and gummies. Some foods are even fortified with omega-3 fatty acids.

What Are the Adverse Effects Associated with Omega-3 Supplements?

Common adverse effects associated with the use of omega-3 supplements include acid reflux/heartburn/indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, and increased incidence of burping. Gastrointestinal side effects can be minimized if fish oil supplements are taken with meals and if doses are started low and increased gradually.

Potential Drug Interactions and Safety Considerations

The use of omega-3 supplements has been associated with various drug interactions, including with aspirin, anticoagulants, antiplatelet agents, and some herbal supplements. In addition, the use of fish oil supplements may cause a slight increase in fasting blood glucose levels in some diabetic patients, so you should discuss this issue with your doctor. Omega-3 supplements may cause hypotension in some people as well. Before taking omega-3 or any dietary supplement, you should discuss their use with your doctor or pharmacist to prevent possible interactions or contraindications.

Considerations Before Using an Omega-3 Supplement

  • Discuss taking the supplement with your doctor or pharmacist, especially if you are currently taking prescription or nonprescription medications, have a preexisting medical condition, or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Only take these supplements as directed, and contact your primary health care provider about any concerns.
  • Avoid the use of these supplements if you have any allergies or hypersensitivities to any of the ingredients in them.
  • Prolonged use of fish oil supplements may cause vitamin E deficiency; therefore, vitamin E is added to many commercial fish oil products. Regular use of vitamin E—enriched products may lead to elevated levels of this fat-soluble vitamin, so your doctor should monitor you routinely.

Resources for Patients

  • Medline Plus
  • Mayo Clinic; Omega-3-Acid Ethyl Esters
  • American Heart Association

Resources for Health Care Professionals

  • Office of Dietary Supplements for Healthcare Professionals
  • American Heart Association
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
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