Many people take fish oil supplements every day, for many different reasons. Supposedly, they can help control high blood pressure, lower “bad” cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, and help protect against heart disease. Personally, I started taking fish oil years ago when I heard it could be effective against mild depression.
I bought it in a giant bottle from Costco and even gave it to my kids (with their pediatrician’s blessing). Now, a new scientific analysis raises concerns about the safety of fish oil supplements, questioning whether they could play a role in the occurrence of irregular or rapid heartbeat, also known as atrial fibrillation.
The meta-analysis, published in the October 2021 issue of the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, reviewed studies that were done on more than 80,000 people between 2012 and 2020. Researchers from Geneva University Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital looked at the effects of marine-based omega 3 fatty acids (that is, fish oil) and found that there was an increased risk of atrial fibrillation among people who took these supplements — especially if they took more than one gram daily.
What is atrial fibrillation?
What is atrial fibrillation (AFib for short), and how worried should you be about it? First, let’s take a look at your heart. Like the legislature, it’s got upper chambers (the atria) and lower chambers (the ventricles). And just like Congress, the two chambers need to get along in order to function. When the upper chambers of your heart beat irregularly, falling out of sync with the lower chambers, it results in arrhythmia, which can lead to blood clots, stroke (especially ischemic stroke, according to recent research), and even heart failure.
Putting aside political metaphors (which can cause anyone’s heart to beat faster), how common is AFib? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that by 2030, more than 12 million people in the United States will have AFib. Besides causing a pounding heart, it can make you feel short of breath, weak, and lightheaded. (However, you can also have AFib and suffer from no symptoms at all.) Women are more likely to experience AFib — probably because they tend to live longer than men, and AFib is more common as you get older.
In 2019, AFib was the underlying cause of more than 26,000 deaths. In other words, you don’t want to mess around with it. If you have chest pain, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue, or other symptoms of AFib, get it checked out by your doctor. But does taking fish oil really increase your chance of developing this condition?
Are fish oil supplements safe to take?
It’s important to note that this meta-analysis only found that the increased risk of AFib was merely associated with taking marine omega-3 supplements. That doesn’t necessarily prove that fish oil causes heart problems. WebMD says that fish oil supplements are likely safe when taken in doses of three grams or less per day. However, if you regularly take fish oil, especially more than one gram per day, you may want to consult your doctor just to be safe.
Want to get your omega-3 fatty acids straight from the source, rather than taking supplements? Luckily, you’ve got plenty of options! Try eating more fish — especially cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines. Nuts are a great sources of omega-3s too, as are plant oils like flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil.
Omega-3 fatty acids have a slew of health benefits, including helping to reduce inflammation throughout your body, lowering blood pressure, and even keeping your eyes healthy. Whether you choose to take them as fish oil supplements (I still have my trusty family-sized bottle from Costco!) or consume them in food form, you definitely don’t want to cut them out of your diet.