At Cooper Clinic, we have been monitoring the blood level of vitamin D in our patients since 2013 (a sampling of 45,827 people). And we have seen that vitamin D deficiency plays a significant role in COVID-19 infections, particularly in people of color. But another important level we have measured even longer is blood levels of omega-3 (71,600 people).
Speaking of the importance of omega-3 and fish consumption in our diets, remember how the disciples answered Jesus regarding the feeding of the 5,000 in Luke 9:13: “‘But we have only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered.” … And you know the rest of the story.
Was this just coincidental, or was Jesus promoting the consumption of fish? I admit that I’d like to think the latter. We know that omega-3 has some unusual characteristics. It is an analgesic (helps control pain), anti-inflammatory (reduces infection), anticoagulant (reduces blood clotting) and has been approved by the FDA as a means of lowering triglycerides (one of the bad fats in our blood). Other potential benefits are that it fights depression and anxiety, improves eye health and also promotes brain health during pregnancy and early life. Of obese mothers who enter pregnancy with a deficiency of omega-3, up to 10% will develop gestational diabetes—and if they do, their offspring are at future risk for obesity and diabetes. A clinical trial is just starting at my alma mater, the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, looking to see whether omega-3 fatty acids can correct this problem. But still, the primary driver for contracting gestational diabetes is obesity, accounting for greater than 80% of cases.
The medical literature shows that China has the highest consumption of fish per capita of any country in the world. The United States consumption is considerably less. And, in China, the death rate for cardiovascular disease is 128/100,000 per year versus 161/100,000 per year in the U.S. That is highly significant, considering the differences in health care quality in the two countries.
Omega-3 also can improve risk factors for heart disease, including lowering blood pressure levels and, as I stated, lowering triglycerides, which may increase the good, or HDL, cholesterol levels.
Another important benefit is that omega-3 can improve mental disorders, including mood swings and relapses in people with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It has been documented that people with mental disorders often have low blood levels of omega-3. It may be a factor in reducing mental decline in Alzheimer’s and may even prevent deaths from cancer. In one study published in SciTech Daily on June 11, it was discovered that one important component of omega-3 is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). In this study, it appears that DHA may act like a poison on tumor cells. “The greater the amount of unsaturated fatty acids in the cell, the greater the risk” of tumor cell death. This Universite’ catholique de Louvain study recommends 250 mg of DHA per day. Studies show our diet provides, on average, between 50-100 mg of DHA per day so supplementation is necessary. Omega-3 may even improve sleep, which is of great importance to achieving optimum health, particularly in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
I take two (1,400 mg) advanced omega-3 softgels twice a day—two at breakfast and two with dinner (which provides a total of 1,440 mg EPA [eicosapentaenoic acid] and 960 DHA). This keeps my omega-3 blood level around 10 or 11%. I also eat fish several times a week, preferably salmon. Another reason I take omega-3 is because of its analgesic property. After fracturing my leg in 2004 while snow skiing, I find I have pain if I don’t take this level of omega-3 daily.
A study from Harvard Medical School (VITAL trial) followed 25,871 healthy adults who were racially diverse and chosen to be representative of the general population, according to the author Dr. JoAnn Manson. Although a 1-gram daily omega-3 supplement did not significantly reduce major cardiovascular events overall, there was a 28% reduction in heart attacks and promising signs for other heart-related endpoints. While the supplement did not seem to protect most healthy people against further heart problems, certain groups did appear to benefit, particularly people who ate less than 1.5 servings of fish per week or no fish consumption at all. For these people, there was a significant 19% reduction in the primary endpoint of major cardiovascular events, with a 40% reduction in heart attacks, says Dr. Manson.
We know the desired blood level of omega-3 is 8%, and preferably higher, and for the majority of first-time Cooper Clinic patients, the average is only 6.5%. Follow-up studies have shown some slight improvement. For me, my higher blood level of omega-3 is probably a factor in keeping my triglycerides at an excellent level of 32.
Equally as interesting is work coming from Dr. William Harris at the University of South Dakota’s Sanford School of Medicine. In 2021, he published a paper on omega-3 and all-cause mortality showing that a high omega-3 index is at least associated with a lower risk of death from a pooled analysis of 17 prospective cohort studies in which they examined the association between blood level of omega-3 fatty acids and risk for all-cause mortality. Over a median of 15 years follow-up, 15,720 deaths occurred among 42,416 individuals. After adjustment for relative risk factors, risk of death from all-cause was significantly lower (by 15-18%) in the highest versus the lowest quintile, suggesting that higher levels of marine omega-3 may be associated with a lower risk of premature death.
Another small pilot study from Dr. Harris published this year looked at omega-3 blood levels and deaths from COVID-19. Although not meeting the classical criteria for statistical significance, this strong trend suggests that a relationship may indeed exist, but additional larger studies are clearly needed.
Our recent study at The Cooper Institute completely disproved that omega-3 might actually increase the risk of prostate cancer, which was being discussed in the medical literature. In fact, it may be protective against not only prostate cancer but also colon and breast cancer (although not all studies show the same results).
One final observation is that omega-3 is a proven way to lower the harmful effects of chronic inflammation, which is the cause of myriad chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which I will discuss in a future issue of Decision.
Christ’s example of feeding fish to the 5,000 could have begun the strong recommendation we have now for eating fish and/or taking omega-3 supplements for their multiple health benefits! ©2021 Kenneth H. Cooper