Omega-3 pills slash triglycerides, but study warns against supplements

Part of maintaining a healthy heart and reducing one's risk of developing cardiovascular disease is keeping cholesterol and triglyceride levels in check. Triglycerides are a type of fat that can be found in the blood, high levels of which may increase the risk of heart troubles later in life. A new study has found that taking daily omega-3 fatty acid pills may substantially lower triglyceride levels, but it comes with a big warning.

The findings were recently detailed by a science advisory from the American Heart Association, which reports that taking four grams of prescribed omega-3 fatty acid every day may be a safe way to substantially lower triglyceride levels. The conclusion is based on a review of 17 controlled (and randomized) clinical trials involving high triglyceride levels.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to a number of health benefits and can be found in both animal and plant products, primarily fatty fish like salmon, brazil nuts, and chia/flax seeds. Though it is relatively easy to get omega-3 fatty acids in one's diet by incorporating these foods, the market is also full of supplements purporting to offer these acids.

The American Heart Association's new science advisory focused on prescription omega-3 fatty acid medications and warns against patients self-treating their high triglycerides using over-the-counter supplements because these products aren't regulated by the FDA. Due to that lack of regulation, these supplements may not contain the ingredients they claim to offer and they may not be pure, among other potential issues.

Prescription medication options come in two varieties, according to the American Heart Association: EPA + DHA omega-3 fatty acids combined and EPA on its own. Both of these options were found to lower triglycerides by 20- to 30-percent in patients who had levels between 200 to 499 mg/dL. The combo wasn't linked to an increase in 'bad' LDL cholesterol, though that may be a risk factor in patients with extremely high triglyceride levels (above 500 mg/dL).