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2 omega-3 acids found in fish oils may work against each other, Utah researchers find

Viet Le, Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute principal investigator, speaks about a recent study regarding omega-3 acids on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

(Intermountain Healthcare, via Zoom)

SALT LAKE CITY — A new study from Utah researchers suggests that two common omega-3 compounds found in fish oils may counteract each other, blunting possible heart health benefits.

Researchers at Intermountain Healthcare's Heart Institute conducted the study with 987 participants to examine cardiovascular health.

Examining the subjects over 10 years, the research focused on two omega-3 fatty acids commonly found naturally in fish oil and in omega-3 supplements: eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA.

The study concluded that EPA is the component of fish oils that contains the most benefits, and DHA may actually "blunt" the effects of EPA, according to Viet Le, an Intermountain physician assistant who was the lead investigator for the study.

Le said even though the research suggests that there may be some issues with the two compounds conflicting, omega-3s are still helpful. But living a healthy lifestyle in addition to consuming omega-3s is the best thing you can do to improve your overall health, he added.

"I'm still hopeful with regards to omega-3s," he said during an Intermountain Healthcare news conference Wednesday. "If you're eating fish, really it's the healthy behaviors along with that choice."

Omega-3 acids are commonly taken as supplements and are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease, according to Mount Sinai Health. They can help reduce triglycerides, blood pressure, blood clots and artery plaque, as well as improve the health of arteries.

Intermountain researchers found patients for the study through Intermountain's INSPIRE registry, which started in 1993 and has collected about 35,000 blood samples from nearly 25,000 patients, according to a news release.

The study monitored the patients over a 10-year period, during which time researchers documented any adverse cardiac events such as heart attacks, strokes or heart failure.

Higher levels of EPA in the blood reduced the risk of those major cardiac events and death, the study found. But higher levels of DHA than EPA put patients at a higher risk for heart issues. In patients where the levels of the two acids were similar, researchers found that DHA negated the health benefits of EPA.

"The advice to take omega-3s for the good of your heart is pervasive, but previous studies have shown that science doesn't really back this up for every single omega-3," Le said in a news release. "Our findings show that not all omega-3s are alike, and that EPA and DHA combined together, as they often are in supplements, may void the benefits that patients and their doctors hope to achieve."

DHA is commonly used as a supplement for infants and is thought to improve cognitive development, Le said. But those cognitive benefits aren't seen as much in adults, he added.

Since the study suggested that EPA is the more beneficial component than DHA, Le encouraged people to seek out and consume types of fish that have a higher ratio of EPA to DHA.

With over-the-counter supplements, it's difficult to find a fish oil tablet that only contains EPA, Le said. Most EPA-only supplements require a prescription, he added.

And while they aren't strictly regulated, some supplements may include a breakdown of their EPA and DHA ratios on the label, he said.

Even though the results of the study might be foreboding, Le encouraged people to continue consuming fish that has higher EPA levels.

"Don't be afraid of fish," he said. "In the end, it comes down to lifestyle, so practice a good and healthy lifestyle."

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