The Potential Health Risks of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

In general, omega 3 fatty acids, which are present in many of our everyday foods, pose no hazard to human health. However, there are some potential risks for those individuals who choose to take high levels by consuming omega-3 supplements, and for some people whose particular underlying health concerns may be exacerbated by the effects of omega 3 due to the way these fatty acids work in the body.

Blood Thinning Effects

Omega-3 fatty acids have blood thinning properties, which means that anyone taking blood-thinning drugs such as warfarin and aspirin, or those suffering disorders involving bleeding should avoid supplementing their diet with additional omega-3s without first consulting their doctor. Taken in very large amounts, omega 3's can increase the risk of abnormal bleeding and hemorrhagic strokes (where an artery in the brain leaks or ruptures).

Blood Sugar Levels

There is some research that suggests that omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil may elevate blood sugar, and so anyone with diabetes should consult with their doctor before starting any course of fish oil supplements. However, it is interesting to note that opposing research has reported that fish oil can actually be helpful for this health condition.

Risks to Cardiac Health

Omega 3 fatty acids have been found to help stabilise heart rhythm, thus reducing the likelihood of irregular heartbeats and sudden cardiac death. Whilst this regulation is a positive factor for the majority of people, it can cause problems for patients suffering from congestive heart failure, chronic recurrent angina pectoris or any condition in which the heart receives insufficient blood flow. Omega 3 fatty acids regulate heart rhythm by preventing hyperexcitable heart cells from functioning; however, in patients suffering from the aforementioned conditions, this can cause the elimination of the remaining few pumping cells, meaning that the heart would not be able to pump enough blood to live, leading to an increased risk of cardiac death.

Anyone suffering from these conditions should therefore consult their doctor before taking omega 3 fatty acids.

Health Risks Connected With Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)

Whilst docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are linked to a decreased likelihood of developing age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), some studies have shown that alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) may actually increase the risk of developing this disorder.

Likewise, whilst DHA and EPA (typically found in oily fish or algae) are thought to reduce the risk of developing some cancers, studies have shown that consumption of ALA (found in botanial socurces, such as flaxseed) may promote growth in late stage colon cancer and increase the risk of prostate cancer.

Health Risks Connected With Oily Fish

There have been a number of recent concerns regarding the presence of heavy metals and fat-soluble pollutants such as dioxin and PCBs in fish. Although most medical professionals advise that the regular consumption of oily fish far outweigh any potential risks, certain groups (such as children or pregnant/lactating women) may prefer to eat fish that is lower in mercury, such as pollock, salmon and tuna.

The manufacturers of high quality fish oil supplements use molecular distillation to remove any possible contamination from pollutants and heavy metals. However, some cheaper supplements do not use this process, which means that the unwanted contaminants can build up in your body over time. It is therefore essential to make sure that you select a fish oil supplement that is purified and certified free of toxins and chemicals.

One other important issue to note is that farm-raised fish tend to have relatively low levels of omega 3 - look for oil that is produced from wild-caught fish.