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Controversy: Are Omega-3s Really Linked To A Higher Cancer Risk?

As an integrative physician who has worked with hundreds of prostate cancer patient over the years, I find last week’s news on a new omega-3 study very thought provoking. The study supposedly showed that consuming more omega-3 fats, such as those found in fish oil, might increase your risk for prostate cancer. But many experts disagree with that conclusion.

I’d like to share with you some of the lessons that I think can be learned. I’m sure many of you have seen the news on this new study, linking aggressive prostate cancer with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood. What you may not have seen are a number of insightful commentaries by respected thought leaders and organizations, who took the time to look carefully into the research. The general consensus is that this new study contains a number of issues that throw the conclusions into question.

Before we review the study details, let’s talk first about this as a prime example of the way the media frequently covers medically related studies. In the rush to splash eye-catching headlines, media reporting often fails to look in depth at how a study was conducted and whether the conclusions are well substantiated. But many healthcare professionals and the general public take these sensationalized media reports at face value, leading to much confusion over what’s truly beneficial.

Fortunately, a more in-depth look at such studies is occurring in the integrative healthcare arena. People like you, reading this article, are interested in more information than an overhyped media blitz. In particular, I have appreciated reading the reviews by Bill Faloon and researchers at Life Extension Foundation, as well as commentary on this study from the Alliance for Natural Health.

What Was This Study All About?

The study was published in the highly respected Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Their conclusions stated 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 — startling and concerning findings for sure.

But let’s take a look at some of the study details.

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 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.

Furthermore, when researchers at the Life Extension Foundation looked at the data independently, they found that the 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.

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

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.

In spite of the concerns raised about the validity of this particular study, I feel 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 my practice, I generally recommend whole foods as a source of the kinds of nutrients found in fish oil. In this case, I certainly recommend whole fish high in omega-3s, such as wild salmon, 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 I’m sure this debate will continue. It’s actually a good thing — a necessary and healthy activity in the fast growing field of integrative medicine. I always encourage my patients to 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, but luckily we have a growing integrative medicine community on our side.