William S. Harris, PhD, is one of the world’s foremost experts in omega-3s science. Harris is a professor at the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota as well as being a principal in the omega-3s testing firm OmegaQuant. Harris, along with a collaborator, is the inventor of the Omega-3 Index, which gives researchers, clinicians and consumers a handy, cost effective and minimally invasive way to measure omega-3 levels in the blood.
This has been one of the keys to omega-3 research in recent years, Harris said. The history of the dietary ingredient is a long one, and it has taken a long time for science to catch up. The effects of EPA and DHA have been observed for decades, but the science on the pharmacokinetics of the molecules has only recently started to catch up.
Intriguing epidemiological evidence
The significance of omega-3 fatty acids for human health was first appreciated via an epidemiological study published in the late 1970s on populations of native Greenlanders, some of whom remained in their homeland living a more traditional lifestyle that included eating lots of fish and other seafoods. Other Greenlanders had moved to Denmark. The latter group tended to eat what their Danish neighbors ate (more saturated fat, sugar, processed foods, etc.) and suffered cardiovascular did at about the same rate, whereas the Greenland group was much healthier in that regard.
Researchers Jorn Dyerberg and Hans Bang measured the levels of EPA and DHA in the blood of both the Greenland and Denmark groups and found that the Greenlanders had seven times as much EPA in their blood and four times as much DHA. And, in a significant note that was passed over in some later studies, the researchers found that the Greenlanders were consuming about 4 grams of omega-3s per day, far above what the health authorities currently recommend, which is 500 mg combined EPA and DHA a day.
The importance of dosage
Harris said this high dosage is what has enabled researchers to show significant effects in recent years, such as showing a reduction in overall mortally, benefits in eye health and more. Much of the research done at these levels has been done with the fish oil pharmaceuticals that are present in the market, so the results are of limited use in the marketing of omega-3s. Nevertheless, the effects these studies have found are effects for the molecules themselves, regardless of the provenance of the research.
“The simple truth is that if you stand back and just look at the chemistry, it is the same molecules used in the drugs as in the dietary supplements. That’s just the facts of the matter,” Harris told NutraIngredients-USA.
As well as being one of the oldest of dietary ingredients, omega-3s are often regarded as the most well researched. A meta analysis of omega-3s research published by the Global Organization of EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) in 2017 found that overall supplementation with omega-3s reduced risk of cardiac death by a statistically significant 8%. The meta-analysis showed even greater — 17% — risk reduction in groups who had elevated triglycerides or LDL cholesterol. The greatest reduction in cardiac death rates—an almost 30% risk reduction—was observed in trials that utilized dosages of more than 1 gram of EPA and DHA per day. GOED has announced a new meta analysis has been peer reviewed as is schedule for publication very soon.
Harris said now that the validity of the Omega-3 Index is well established, testing for blood levels has become de rigueur in omega-3s research. It should help to obviate in future studies some of the null results of past research that have arisen at least in part with not having a good handle on what the omega-3 levels were for the study populations to begin with.
An ingredient that can add years to lives
It all adds up to a powerful story for the efficacy and importance of omega-3s supplementation. Harris said this is one of the dietary ingredients that can actually help people live longer. Research has shown an Omega-3 Index level of 8% or higher is optimum to achieve these effects. Most Americans, despite years of advocacy, are still at around 3% to 5%.
“If you start taking 500 mg of EPA and DHA a day your are going to raise your omega-3 index 2 or 3 points. That is going to pop you up two or three steps in the category of lessened risk of cardiovascular disease and premature cardiac death. You are going to live longer, and potentially years longer, not just two or three months longer, like some of these cancer drugs advertise,” Harris said.
Yet, even with all of this good news, health authorities have been slow to recognize the importance of omega-3s. For instance, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health, gives only a grudging nod to omega-3s. The NCCIH says “Omega-3s in supplement form have not been shown to protect against heart disease. “
This conundrum is one of the things that a NutraIngredients-USA webinar later this month will delve into. Harris will join an all star panel of omega-3s experts that includes Dr Jeffrey Bland, ND, of the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute and Dr Philip Calder, PhD, of the University of Southampton in the UK. The panel will look at the latest research, where future research is headed, and how the industry might get health authorities more firmly on board with the story of the efficacy of these important ingredients. For more information and to register for this FREE event, scheduled for 11:30 AM Central time on Sept. 24, visit the event website.