The Truth About Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Heart Health

salmon fish oils

It may seem like there’s a suggested supplement for just about every health issue these days. If you’re tired try increasing vitamin B12. If you bruise easily try iron supplements. Do you want healthier skin? Maybe vitamin E will help. It’s hard to know which supplements are actually helpful and which ones may not work the magic they claim.

For heart health, you may have heard a lot of talk about the benefits of fish oil supplements. While studies have shown that fish oil supplements may provide some benefits to some people with some heart health issues, the real source of these cardiovascular health benefits is from a family of polyunsaturated fats called omega-3 fatty acids. Here’s what you should know about fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and heart disease.

What Are Omega-3s? 

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in both marine and plant based foods and oils. There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA), found in plant oils like flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils. 
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), found in oily fish, like salmon and tuna
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), found in oily fish, like salmon and tuna

ALA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid meaning that your body can’t make it so you must get if from the diet.  EPA and DHA are not considered essential since they can be produced from ALA; however this process is not very efficient and therefore cannot be relied upon to produce significant amounts of EPA and DHA.

Omega-3s and Heart Health

fish oils and heart health

Lower Triglycerides

The most consistent evidence for omega-3s and heart health is their ability to lower triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood and are stored as body fat. High levels of triglycerides have been linked with fatty build-up in the artery walls, which increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.    

Reduced Risk of Arrhythmia

When your heart beats abnormally, it is referred to as an arrhythmia. Some arrhythmias are harmless but others, such as atrial fibrillation (AFib), can increase the risk of stroke or other serious heart issues. Some studies have shown a link between increased intake of omega-3s and reduced risk of arrhythmia, though this is not an effective medicine to treat heart rhythm problems

Slower Rate of Plaque Buildup

Plaque — made up mostly of fat, cholesterol, and calcium — can accumulate in your arteries, limiting the flow of oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. A diet rich in fish and seafood has been associated with a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.  Fish are low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fats. Omega-3s have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and may also improve the function of the endothelial cells that line blood vessels, so intake might have benefit for cardiovascular disease, but this has not been well-established in clinical trials yet.

Slightly Lower Blood Pressure

High blood pressure can lead to heart attack and stroke. The effects of omega-3s on blood pressure can be favorable. Systolic blood pressure (amount of pressure in your arteries during the contraction of your heart muscle) and diastolic blood pressure (amount of pressure in your arteries between beats) have both been shown to be reduced when individuals have been given higher doses of omega-3s.

Adding Omega-3s to Your Diet 

There are several ways to increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake, aside from taking dietary fish oil supplements. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least once a week. Some studies have shown greater benefit from getting omega-3s from food as opposed to supplements. 

If you’re a fish-lover — or just don’t feel like taking fish oil in pill form — that’s fine. Omega-3s are found naturally in many fish, especially: salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines.

If you’re not a fan of seafood — or the fishy aftertaste of fish oil supplements — there’s good news: omega-3s are also found in plant-based foods and oils such as:

  • Ground flaxseeds
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Canola oil
  • Soy oil
  • Soybeans
  • Tofu

Fortified foods, including some brands of eggs, yogurt, juices, milk, soy drinks, and infant formulas, may also have omega-3s.

The Bottom Line

To say that taking a fish oil pill will cure all of your ailments, or even cure all of your heart-related ailments, is a stretch. Preventive care — including regular check-ups, a healthy diet, and exercise— is your best bet.

But when it comes to dietary supplements, omega-3s have the potential to lower risk of heart disease, though supplementation has not yet been shown to do so in any population other than individuals who have had recent cardiovascular events. You should first talk to your physician before adding omega-3s to your diet to make sure they won’t interfere with any health conditions or medications you are currently taking. As with any supplement, you should also be aware that they are not regulated by the Food and Drug administration and may contain toxins such as mercury and unwanted ingredients such as saturated fatty acids.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.


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