In this country, more than 27 million people suffer from heart disease, and it kills 600,000 per year.
There are many reasons why heart disease is so common. Lifestyle is a top factor. Poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, excess stress, and other harmful habits set the stage for systemic inflammation—a known cause in the development of heart disease.
Historically, high cholesterol has been another factor that is thought to contribute to heart disease. When you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it has the potential to build up in your artery walls—a process called atherosclerosis. This causes the arteries to narrow and block blood flow to the heart.
Now, I know that this is a controversial issue. A lot of research does point to high cholesterol being a risk factor for heart disease, while other, more recent research has found cholesterol to not be as much of an issue as we once thought. Research into the role of cholesterol in heart disease is ongoing and I’m sure we’ll have more definitive answers sooner than later.
In the meantime, one thing is clear: Statins—a class of drugs used to lower cholesterol in the body, with the aim of reducing the risk of heart disease—are among the top prescribed medications in the country. By some estimates, more than 40 million Americans currently take a statin, and new government guidelines issued not too long ago could make that number soar to well over 50 million.
Because the role of cholesterol in heart disease being questioned, the widespread use of statins is becoming controversial. I’m not going to debate this because my job is to tell you what the science says. And right now, the science is not clear. Additionally, we must always keep in mind that all drugs and supplements have both benefits and side effects. And what works for some may not work for others. These decisions are best left to you and your physician.
What I do get excited about, however, is when research starts to show how pharmaceuticals and supplements can work together to create even greater benefits. You see, I’m not a one-or-the-other kind of health professional. I don’t believe prescription drugs are bad, and I don’t believe that nutritional supplements are the be-all-end-all. I believe that there are valid reasons to use traditional and complimentary approaches, and research that shows they can work symbiotically is really thrilling to me!
Statins and Omega-3s Working Together
A great example of this is a study dubbed “CHERRY.” The CHERRY study investigated whether adding a prescription strength formulation of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA to statin therapy could enhance the effects of the statin.1-2
About 200 Japanese patients with coronary heart disease were divided to receive either statins alone or statin/EPA combination therapy. They were followed for six to eight months.
At that time, the researchers found that the people using the combination treatment had a significant reduction in coronary plaque volume, lipid volume, and fibrous volume compared to the statin-only group. The statin/EPA group also experienced far greater reduction in plaque. The researchers concluded that adding omega-3s to statin therapy can improve the effects of statins.
What does this mean for you? Well, if you are on a statin right now because you have very high cholesterol or increased risk of heart disease, talk to your doctor about adding omega-3s to your regimen to enhance the effects of the statins.
Even if you aren’t on a statin, research shows that omega-3s alone can protect your heart and lower the risk of heart disease. A meta-analysis of 25 studies examined omega-3 and omega-6 content in tissue samples of heart disease patients. These researchers discovered that omega-3s were consistently and dramatically lower in patients experiencing heart-related events. They concluded that these findings support the idea that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are cardioprotective.3
To be honest, with few side effects to speak of and a multitude of heart and other benefits, I believe the scientific data supports making omega-3s part of your daily regimen. It may be one of the most important things you can do for your health, whether you’re on a statin on not.
You can easily find supplements with higher levels of EPA—the omega-3 used in the study. But I think the science supports the importance of balanced EPA and DHA (the other major omega-3 fatty acid) for heart and brain health, as well as inflammation. So I take a formulation that contains both.
- Watanabe T, et al. J Cardiol. 2014 Sep;64(3):236-9.
- Ando K, et al. Circulation. 2015;132:A12007.
- Harris WS, Poston WC, and Haddock CK. Atherosclerosis. 2007 Jul;193(1):1-10.