January 30 2016

Supplements, Omega-3 fatty acid, Alzheimer’s dementia

New research is estimating that approximately 23,000 ER visits each year in the U.S. alone are from adverse effects from dietary supplements.  With the clean slate that a new year always offers us, it’s a great time to look into our medicine cabinets and re-think which supplements we truly need.  One commonly taken supplement to question is omega-3, usually offered over the counter as fish oil capsules, and this study investigated its effectiveness in the prevention of dementia. 

Here are my take-home points from the study:


  • Fish oil/omega-3 fatty acid supplement capsules top the list of dietary supplements used in the U.S. with almost 8% of adults taking them regularly.
  • Past studies have shown that omega-3 supplements do NOT reduce either the risk of death nor the risk of hospitalization from heart disease, however many people still take them due to the popularization of this supplement in the media.
  • Observational clinical studies HAVE suggested that if you eat a diet low in vegetables and high in saturated fat with low amounts of omega-3 fats from food, there is an associated increased risk of Alzheimer disease.
  •  This study wanted to test the effect of omega-3 supplements on mental function; in other words, does taking a pill of omega-3 fats help prevent or slow the progress of dementia?
  • To answer this question, the researches conducted a study following approximately 4,000 elderly people with age-related macular degeneration over 5 years, in which half of the patients were given omega-3 supplements and the other half were given placebo.
  •  During the course of the 5 years, the patients were given several mental functioning tests, and the results showed NO difference in mental function between those who received any supplements versus those on placebo!

Bottom line

Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids from pills has not been shown to improve mental functioning in the elderly! Science has shown that omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important for improving circulation, oxygen intake and cell membrane integrity in our bodies.  This study doesn’t disprove the above but it is yet another study highlighting the inferiority of getting one’s nutrients from a pill rather from their true source. And as a reminder, a few healthy whole-food sources of omega-3 include flaxseeds, chia seeds, leafy greens, beans,  and winter squashes. Pass the pill, and eat up instead. 

Some personal thoughts on the study:

In general, I am not a fan of supplements. I could write a short novella on why, but I will spare you that.  I will share with you, however, one main reason for my disenchantment with them, and that is that supplements can often make people lax about obtaining minerals and vitamins from their true sources (usually whole foods or in the case of Vitamin D, healthy sunlight exposure). And as this study shows, it is often a wrong assumption to believe that a nutrient ingested in the context of whole food, has the same positive effects when that same nutrient is chemically isolated and offered as a supplement.

Omega-3 supplements are usually not the culprits when it comes to dietary supplements sending people to the hospital with bad side effects (“energy” pills and weight loss supplements top the list for that). However, dietary supplements cost people hundreds to thousands of dollars a year and many take them believing that these pills are doing a more effective job in their bodies than they often are. I believe that for most people, that money would be far better spent on whole nutrient-dense foods which provide minerals and vitamins in quantities and ratios that our body can recognize, absorb, and assimilate in a manner that is often far superior to what happens when we simply pop a pill. 

Quick Quiz

Dance Link

This is a link to a poemdance called Shed The Head and it explores how we can release that which we don’t want to take forward with us. Wishing you a fantastic 2016. 

Choreography: Tumi Johnson
Dancer: Tumi Johnson
Music: Peter Barr ("Pan and Guitar")
Poem- "Shed the head" by Tumi Johnson

This was developed and filmed November-December 2011 in Dordogne, France through the Salignac Foundation. Special thanks to Fiona Alderman and Barry Patton for production. 

Please visit my website at http://www.tumijohnson.com.

You can also buy/listen to Peter Barr's wonderful song "Pan and Guitar" here: 

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