Fish oil supplements have come under fire, but don’t flush them down the toilet just yet.
“Fish Oil Claims Not Supported By Research”—that was the surprising headline of a recent New York Times article. The article went on to explain that, while fish oil is the third most widely used dietary supplement in the U.S., the majority of clinical trials involving fish oil haven’t found evidence that it lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The Times cited several studies that found no link between fish oil consumption and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, but they also noted that recent research of fish oil and cardiovascular health was conducted on patients who had a history of heart disease or strong risk factors for developing it — though that important nuance is buried deep beneath a very broad headline.
Fish oil has been a popular supplement for years, largely due to its two omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Those omega-3s have been linked to a large range of health benefits, from a lowered risk of heart disease to increased fetal brain development.
So what’s the real story? According to the experts, you shouldn’t throw out your fish oil supplements just yet.
“If you don’t eat a lot of fish, it’s probably a good idea to take a fish oil supplement,” says Robert C. Block, MD, an associate professor of cardiology at the University of Rochester who conducts research on the effects of fish oil. “You don’t have to worry about taking fish oil — it’s very safe. There are no adverse effects.”
Block tells Yahoo Health that while there seems to be a clear reduction of cardiovascular disease when people consume fish, researchers can’t currently guarantee that fish oil is beneficial for cardiovascular health. On the other hand, they can’t guarantee that it’s not beneficial for cardiovascular health.
He notes, however, that there appears to be a link between fish oil and the effectiveness of other drugs, including those used to reduce the risk of heart disease. His research has indicated that moderate levels of fish oil in the blood may enhance aspirin’s ability to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular confusion aside, research has shown that taking fish oil has other perks. “There seems to be some benefits with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and clearly with people who have depression,” says Block.
Research has found a clear link between fish oil and brain health. Scientists from Rhode Island Hospital released a study in 2014 that found adults taking fish oil who had not yet developed Alzheimer’s disease or dementia had significantly less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage over time than those who did not take fish oil. A large Norwegian study of 22,000 people found that those who took fish oil were roughly 30 percent less likely to have symptoms of depression than those who didn’t, and the longer participants took fish oil, the less likely they were to experience symptoms of depression.
The benefits of fish oil have also been linked to better eye health. One study co-founded by the National Eye Institutediscovered that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil reduced the abnormal blood vessel growth that can lead to eye disease. Studies have also connected fish oil to areduction in painful periods and sperm health.