Tips for Heart Health

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Whether obtained through diet or supplements, omega-3 fatty acids provide many benefits to cardiovascular health.

According to the results of a 2007 survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, omega-3 supplements were the most commonly used non-vitamin/non-mineral natural products among adults, and the second most common among children. Omega-3 fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential to several functions in the body, including relaxation and contraction of muscles, digestion, blood clotting, cell division, and movement of calcium and other substances in and out of cells.

[See Best Heart-Healthy Diets.]

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are two of the most important omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. Another omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found in plant sources. It is preferred that individuals consume omega-3 fatty acids through dietary means; however, many patients elect to take omega-3 dietary supplements due to their convenience, or because they're unable to ingest enough omega-3 fatty acids through diet alone. 

Benefits of Omega-3

Epidemiologic studies conducted more than three decades ago reported relatively low mortality related to cardiovascular disease among individuals in Eskimo populations who consumed a large amount of fish. Since these findings were published, several other observational and clinical trials have studied the effects of fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids on a number of conditions, one with evidence most promising for improving cardiovascular disease risk factors.

[See Best Plant-Based Diets.]

In addition, there is strong scientific evidence that intake of 800 to 1,500 milligrams per day of EPA/DHA reduces the risk of myocardial infarction and death due to arrhythmia in patients with preexisting coronary artery disease who are taking conventional medications. One study reported that increasing the intake of DHA and EPA by dietary consumption or by taking fish oil supplements resulted in lower triglyceride levels, slightly decreased blood pressure, slowing down of the progression of atherosclerosis, and a decreased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death among those with cardiovascular disease. 

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that all individuals consume omega-3 fatty acids from fish and plant sources at least twice a week because of their role in cardiovascular protection. It is also recommended that those with coronary heart disease (CHD) eat a variety of fish—preferably oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and trout—at least twice a week. Individuals with CHD are also advised to consume approximately 1 gram of EPA and DHA daily, preferably from oily fish, although EPA DHA supplements could be considered after consulting with a primary health care provider. The AHA also says that individuals who have elevated triglycerides may need as much as 2 to 4 grams of EPA and DHA per day in supplement form, but only under the care and monitoring of a physician.

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are available in different dosage forms and strengths, and as single-entity products or in combination with other dietary supplements. One of the newest products on the market is Pfizer's ProNutrients Omega-3 minigel capsules, which contain EPA and DHA. Another new product is Astamega 3 Cardio Support (Patent Health LLC), which contains krill oil.

[See Pharmacists' Top Recommended Vitamins and Supplements.]

Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 19, 2011 on It has been edited and republished by U.S. News.