by Dr. Bill Rawls
Last Updated 11/01/16
Science is a wonderful tool, but it should be recognized that science is never absolute. There are several factors that come into play when understanding scientific research. Pieces of vital information are almost always missing, and we must combine both logic and intuition to interpret the results. However, two interpreters looking at the same scientific data may come away with entirely different opinions. Bias can lead an interpreter to select data that support his or her opinion and choose to ignore the rest. This results, of course, in skewed conclusions.
READING BETWEEN THE LINES
Selective science can be misleading. Even worse, broad conclusions made from limited or skewed data can even be downright irresponsible. This was the case with the recent Stanford University study on organic food, which concluded that eating organic offers no benefit over non-organic (a broad statement based upon very limited and selected data in the face a large amount of data suggesting countless health benefits of organic food). Not surprisingly, the study was sponsored by food companies that market non-organic food, and outlash from critics of the study’s claims has created a blemish on Stanford’s reputation as an academic institution.
We saw the same situation in a report about whether fish oil can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, aired by ABC news a few weeks ago. They cited a paper, published in the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association, insinuating that fish oil offered no protection against cardiovascular disease. The information offered was from a meta-analysis, which is not a study in itself, but an overview of other research studies. The conclusions of a meta-analysis are very dependent upon the studies chosen and therefore are ultimately dependent upon the decisions of the person(s) who select the batch of studies to be included. If well-done and unbiased, a meta-analysis can be quite valuable, but it can also be used to forward an opinion contrary to that supported by prevailing information. In this case, only twenty studies were chosen out of a literal sea of information and studies on the topic of fish oil and cardiovascular disease.
All twenty studies included were of very limited duration–an average of two years, which is not long enough to make any kind of meaningful determination. Although the doses of fish oil were stated, there is no mention of standardization of quality of the fish oil supplementation used. Because omega 3 levels from blood samples were not obtained, we have no way of knowing whether any of the patients actually took the fish oil or whether any of them ever reached therapeutic blood levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids. In fact, there was no mention of any type of blood work, not even a cholesterol panel. In addition, we do not know what the study participants’ diets consisted of beyond fish or fish oil capsules –essential information if you ask me. I’m not sure of the motives behind this study, but you could certainly make a case for purposeful inclusion of studies that only showed no positive results with use of fish oil supplementation.
OMEGA-3 RESEARCH, ELSEWHERE
The prevailing opinion that fish oil can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease is supported by a large body of evidence. Some of the best evidence comes from observing people who eat a lot of oily fish. In populations such as Arctic Inuit cultures and traditional Japanese cultures, risk of heart attack and stroke is extraordinarily low. This low risk of cardiovascular disease has been specifically tied to optimal omega-3 fatty acid concentrations measured by blood samples. In my opinion, gaining knowledge about the effects of human omega-3 consumption without actually measuring blood omega-3 levels is impossible. This key piece of information was not included in any of the studies in the scientific paper!
Through Health Diagnostics Labs, my practice has recently acquired the ability to measure omega-3 levels. Interestingly, my patients who were meeting the same amount of fish oil supplementation cited in the study (under-dosed, in my opinion) were all below therapeutic levels in their omega-3 lab results. Only a handful of patients, typically those following healthy diets and taking about twice the dose cited in the study, reached optimal omega-3 fatty acid levels. The optimal dose of fish oil supplementation appears to be at least 2000 mg of high quality fish oil per day. It is important to purchase a high grade of fish oil, as lower quality fish oil products may offer significantly reduced benefit and are associated with risk of spoilage and toxins.
ANOTHER FORM OF OMEGA-3
Many people are switching from fish oil supplementation to pacific krill oil. Krill oil is an equally effective way to achieve optimal blood omega 3 levels, but also offers some distinct health advantages over fish oil. Because the essential fatty acids occur in a different form than fish, the oils are better absorbed by the body. The oils are also more stable, and therefore the shelf-life is longer. Fishy taste is almost non-existent with krill oil; plus it is more concentrated, resulting in smaller capsules. Additionally, krill oil contains a natural potent antioxidant called astaxanthin which not only protects the oil, but also extends health benefits of the product.
No matter which option you choose for obtaining an optimal Omega-3 level, we stand by the data that supports fish and/or krill oil as being one of the most important everyday supplements for disease prevention.