Fishy Findings: Is Your Omega-3 Intake Swimming with Prostate Cancer Risks?

A recent study supposedly showed that consuming more omega-3 fats, such as those found in fish oil, might increase the risk for prostate cancer. However, many experts disagree with that conclusion. The study was published in the highly respected Journal of the National Cancer Institute, stating that men with the highest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids had an increased risk of prostate cancer compared to men with the lowest levels. They found a 44 percent increased risk of low-grade prostate cancer and a 71 percent increased risk of high-grade prostate cancer. But let’s take a closer look at some of the study details and issues.

No Information About Omega-3 Source

First, no information was obtained on the source of the omega-3 fatty acids found in the blood. Was it from supplements? Fish? A combination? No dietary records, details about the source, quality or quantity of any fish oil supplements, frequency of consumption, or any data about concurrent use of other supplements, herbs, etc. In short, researchers didn’t know how the omega-3 levels were achieved.

Genetic Predisposition and Pre-existing Disease

Furthermore, when researchers at the Life Extension Foundation looked at the data independently, they found that men in the higher omega-3 group tended to have higher baseline PSA scores and positive family history of prostate cancer. So these men had a genetic predisposition and possibly higher rates of pre-existing disease than those with the lower omega-3 levels in their blood.

Only One Blood Test

Another relevant counterpoint is that only one blood test was used to determine omega-3 levels in each person. These levels can change quite dramatically with, for example, a single meal of salmon the night before. The differences seen between the highest and lowest groups were that close. Does this really reflect the long-term effects of fish oil supplements? Bill Faloon of Life Extension also points out that the plasma omega-3 levels found in both groups were quite low in terms of what’s considered normal in healthy people.

Mixed Results From Other Studies

What about other research? Prior studies have shown mixed results. A large study from Harvard Medical School in 2003 followed 47,882 men for 12 years, concluding that eating fish more than three times per week was associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer, with the strongest association for reduced risk of metastatic cancer. A number of additional studies support the use of omega-3 fish oils in reducing prostate cancer risk, while other studies still show no benefit.

Keeping the Conversation Going

In spite of the concerns raised about the validity of this particular study, it’s always important to keep the conversation going. These are questions that need to be kept alive with an open mind, further research and ongoing investigation. At the same time, studies need to be carefully designed to factor out false conclusions.

Is Fish Oil Healthy?

In general practice, whole foods are recommended as a source of the kinds of nutrients found in fish oil. In this case, whole fish high in omega-3s, such as wild salmon, is advised rather than fish oil supplements which are often low-quality and can go rancid easily.

Empower Yourself

Sorting through the published research to find answers can be a challenge, and the debate will probably continue. It’s a necessary and healthy activity in the fast-growing field of integrative medicine. Patients should be informed participants in their own healing journey, even if the issues are not always easy to sort out. This field is an art as well as a science, and luckily, there is a growing integrative medicine community on our side.