Omega-3s associated with a reduced risk of bleeding in surgery, according to a new study

Fish oils are one of the most popular natural supplements for better heart health. However, they are believed to cause blood thinning, which may pose a risk to heart surgery patients. Therefore, taking fish oil before surgery is discouraged as it may lead to uncontrolled, fatal bleeding — but a new study published in the journal Circulation says otherwise. Rather than causing bleeding, omega-3s are linked to a reduced risk of bleeding in surgery. The new study was a secondary analysis of data from the Omega-3 Fatty Acids for the Prevention of Post-Operative Atrial Fibrillation (OPERA) study to determine whether omega-3 supplementation affects the risk of bleeding in surgery patients.

The OPERA study is a large-scale study that involved 1,516 participants scheduled for heart surgery. The participants were randomly divided into two groups: a placebo group and an omega-3 group. Those in the omega-3 group took large, acute doses of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for two to five days before surgery, then took 1.7 g of omega-3s on the morning of the surgery. The participants continued taking their assigned supplements until they were discharged. The primary result of the study showed no effect on post-operative atrial fibrillation.

From this study, Dr. William S. Harris, of the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, and his team analyzed that data and applied the criteria for bleeding based on the Bleeding Academic Research Consortium (BARC). In addition, Harris and his team measured the number of blood units needed for transfusion as a secondary target.

According to the BARC criteria, higher levels of EPA and DHA on the morning of the surgery were associated with lower bleeding risk. In addition, there was a substantial decline in the number of units of blood need for transfusions. The exact mechanism behind this effect is still not well understood, but Harris suggested that the anti-inflammatory activity of omega-3s might be contributing to this. (Related: The Powerful Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Preventing Diseases of Inflammation: The Experts Speak.)

“So we don’t really understand why we saw this effect. But what we can say is, look, surgeons, there is no need to take patients off of omega-3s. And there are a lot of good reasons for these patients to continue to take these products,” Harris concluded.

Where can you get omega-3s and how much do you need?

Fish is the best food source of omega-3 fatty acids. You can get high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from cold-water wild varieties of fish, such as herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, and tuna. For people who do not eat fish, you can get these fatty acids from plant sources, such as chia seeds, Brussels sprouts, algal oil, hemp seed, walnuts, flaxseeds, and perilla oil.

For people without a history of heart disease, the American Heart Association suggests eating at least two servings or six to eight ounces of fish every week. For people with heart disease, you may need to take one gram of EPA and DHA each day. If you find it hard to get this amount through food alone, you should consider taking a fish oil supplement. Lastly, for those who have high triglyceride levels, you may need to eat more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids or take a fish oil supplement. People in this population are generally advised to take two to four grams of EPA and DHA daily. This amount could result in a 25 to 35 percent reduction in triglyceride levels.

Read more news stories and studies on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on health by reading

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