Globally, the demand for supplements continues to witness explosive growth, as more and more individuals turn health conscious. Lack of time for preparation of food, has also resulted in the need for supplements to improve health. Omega-3 fatty acids have earned the distinction of being among supplements that are preferred and popular globally. One of the reasons for the relative popularity of omega-3 fatty acids is the qualified health claim label attributed by the US FDA. This puts it above many other supplements that do have a similar status. The following sub-sections offer an in-depth look at the supplement, including possible omega 3 side effects to help users take suitable actions to mitigate or prevent undesirable effects.

Overview of Omega-3 fatty acids

Belonging to the category of naturally occurring polyunsaturated fatty acids, Omega-3 is classified into three different types – ALA (alpha linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The first type is typically available in plant oils (chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts), while the second and third types are available in fish oil (typically in cold water fish specie such as mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines). It is necessary to note that the fatty acids are actually present in microalgae, consumed by phytoplankton, which happen to be the diet of fish. The fatty acids are responsible for various cellular functions and metabolism.

How fatty acids deliver health benefits

The health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids are attributed to the mechanism of action and the properties that include significant anti-inflammatory effects.  Anti-inflammatory effects are outcomes of various actions, including elevated EPA/DHA levels, production of prostaglandins, thromboxane, and 5-series leukotrienes. Other effects result in a reduction of triglyceride levels, apart from multiple benefits in the liver.  Natural actions in the body include conversion of ALA into DHA and EPA, and the use of supplements helps in providing additional intake – at levels that offer significant health benefits. It is to be borne in mind, that the US FDA has granted the qualified health claim status to DHA and EPA. The average American is known to receive adequate levels of ALA through dietary intake, and this is known to help contribute to a small portion of required DHA and EPA levels.

Benefits of fatty acids

Supplements with omega-3 fatty acids are touted as extremely beneficial for health, offering multiple outcomes.  It is to be noted here that a major portion of studies were conducted on laboratory animals and therefore the findings of the studies require further substantiation. Benefits have been reported among individuals and users, but the scientific basis for these benefits are yet to be established or proven, apart from the studies conducted on laboratory animals. Anecdotal evidence clearly indicates that societies or individuals who consumed fish were at a relatively lower risk of illness or disease when compared with societies or individuals who did not consume fish. Benefits include:

#1 Impact on inflammation and conditions aggravated by inflammation

Studies have linked DHA and EPA to anti-inflammatory properties and this in turn is known to help individuals diagnosed with cardiovascular conditions. Studies conducted on laboratory animals have indicated these anti-inflammatory properties and benefits; however, the same is yet to conclusively established in humans. Control groups on fish oil/omega-3 fatty acid supplements were known to experience significant benefits, including relief from rheumatoid arthritis.

#2 Impact on cardiovascular conditions

By virtue of the properties as mentioned above, imega-3 fatty acids are known to have some impact on individuals at risk of suffering a heart attack. High risk category individuals are likely to benefit from a reduction in risk, and this is attributed to the reduction in triglyceride levels. Individuals with high levels of triglycerides are known to be at risk of cardiovascular conditions, including heart attack. Studies have also shown greater benefits from supplements among members of a specific race. For instance, individuals of African descent, were known to benefit from a significant reduction of risk levels, on taking supplements as participants in a study.

#3 Impact on weight management

While there have been claims of Omega-3 fatty acids helping individuals with obesity, it is important to understand a key difference. Supplements are known to help individuals control weight, by ensuring that weight lost or reduced is maintained. This differs from weight loss, which is essentially a reduction in weight. Therefore, it is safe to assume that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial in managing weight among individuals who have reduced weight through other means.

#4 Impact on health of the new-born

A practice that has been handed down generations is the intake of fish oil supplements by pregnant mothers, or women before pregnancy. Studies have indicated that new-born babies of mothers on fish oil/supplements are more less likely to end up with asthma. These findings are essentially the findings of studies with two groups of participants – one group with fish oil supplements intake, while the control group was put on a placebo.

Possible omega 3 side effects

While fatty acids, as mentioned above are natural ingredients, there is the possibility of undesirable effects from the fatty acids. This could be either due to excessive intake, or it could be the result of the body’s reaction to the mechanism of action. There is also the possibility of allergic reactions among a small section of users, and this is more likely to be a general adverse reaction to certain products or ingredients.

Commonly reported unwanted outcomes from omega-3 supplements consumption includes feelings of nausea and throbbing headaches. Most of the effects are typically mild in nature and may resolve naturally without the need for medical attention or intervention. Only a small number of cases or a small percentage of users experiencing side effects may require some medical attention or intervention. Mild effects include the possibility of odor in the breath, that is mainly due to the concentrated form of fish oil in the supplements. Similarly, users may also end up with foul smelling sweat, that may be difficult to mask with regular deodorants. There is also the possibility of individuals experiencing heartburn as a result of fatty acid supplements. Bouts of diarrhea are also another possible outcome, that may require some form of symptomatic attention.

Individuals on anticoagulants are advised to avoid omega-3 fatty acid supplements, as there is the possibility of bleeding complications. Though this is generally restricted to users who consume supplements in high levels, it is always a good option to avoid supplements that may trigger some kind of interaction. The outbreak of rashes could initially appear trivial, but there is every likelihood of the rashes aggravating, and hence it is necessary to attach due importance to rashes. It is necessary to treat it symptomatically and prevent the condition from turning serious in nature.

Other undesirable effects include gastrointestinal complications; in a large number of individuals this is mostly experienced during the initial stages of supplement intake. However, for some users, the effects may persist, and depending on the intensity or the duration, it may be necessary to seek medical intervention. For instance, belching may be experienced frequently, or the user may end up with indigestion as a result of intake.

Precautions to prevent side effects

Side effects from supplements are often due to excessive intake or due to impurities or substandard source of supplements. I tis therefore necessary to stick to the right dosage or amount of supplements, and to choose products from reputed manufactures who offer superior quality products. For instance, fish from certain geographical locations are known to contain high levels of pollutants, whereas fish from certain locations are known to be relatively better. It is therefore necessary to pick a reputed supplier.

Other issues that may be responsible for effects, is the high levels of vitamin A in cod liver oil products. This may end up as toxic for certain individuals depending on the levels. For some, high levels of vitamin A would not cause problems, but for many this could pose a problem. It is therefore necessary to check the specie source of the supplements, as this can help to pre-empt certain undesirable effects easily. A major problem of supplements is the lack of regulations or compliance, unlike pharmaceutical products that have stringent quality control measures. Nutraceuticals are not regulated by the FDA and hence there is every likelihood of individuals ending up with substandard or adulterated products.

Drug interactions of omega-3 fatty acids

As mentioned above, omega-3 fatty acids are relatively safe, however, interactions with other substances and medications are not ruled out. The following medications are known to interact with fatty acid supplements, and users are advised to exercise complete caution. This includes medications that belong to the category of anticoagulants and drugs that are known as antiplatelet formulations. In addition to the above, other herbs or supplements that have the same outcome, i.e., reduction of blood clotting, will also interact with the fatty acid supplements. The interaction is mainly elevated risk of bleeding when the supplements are taken along with the herbs, other formulations or medications for the condition.

Fatty acid supplements are also known to have an impact on medications for blood pressure, where the combination or interaction causes a reduction in blood pressure levels. This also applies to other herbal products or formulations that are intended to control or regulate blood pressure. The intake of certain medications is to be staggered in such a way so as to ensure a gap between supplement intake and medication intake. For instance, drugs that are intended to help with weight management will reduce the rate of absorption of fatty acids into the body. This may result in lesser than desired outcomes from the fatty acid supplements.

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