Susan B. Sloane, BS, RPh, CDE, has been a registered pharmacist for more than 20 years and a Certified Diabetes Educator for more than 15 years. Her two sons were diagnosed with diabetes, and since then, she has been dedicated to promoting wellness and optimal outcomes as a patient advocate, information expert, educator, and corporate partner.

Omega 3 has gained a lot of attention lately because of the health benefits associated with it. One question I am often asked in the pharmacy is how much to take and who might benefit from taking omega 3. 

Most products for supplementation with omega 3 have names such as DHA  and ALA. First, let's analyze these components.

Docosahexanoic acid

DHA or docosahexanoic acid is the longest and most unsaturated fatty acids. It is one of the most abundant fatty acids found in brain tissue. You may remember learning that the brain is one of the main organs requiring fat for sustenance. But put down those French fries; that is not the kind of fat we’re talking about!

DHA can be consumed directly by eating certain kinds of fish, but some fish contain mercury, so eating an excess of fish may not be the answer to getting all the fish your body needs.

Alpha linolenic acid

Other omega 3 supplements contain ALA, or alpha linolenic acid. In the body ALA gets converted to EPA eicosapentaenoic acid, another omega 3.  Whatever form you choose to supplement omega 3 in, the dose that is currently recommended is from .5 to 1.8 grams daily. Generally if you do not have a heart condition, you can start at .5 grams daily; those with pre-existing heart conditions require more.

Currently there is even a prescription strength fish oil supplement called Lovaza®. This is used to help lower high triglycerides which people with diabetes tend to have. The lower dose vitamin products have been used to decrease blood vessel inflammation, often seen in patients with diabetes, and to help with circulatory problems as well. At lower doses, omega 3 does not appear to have a significant effect in lowering triglycerides, but can help with lowering cholesterol when used with a statin, for example.

Omega-3 supplements

Lately omega-3 supplements have been studied in patients with type 2 diabetes to see if they can help with insulin resistance. The results have been encouraging. 

There is also a word of caution here, however. These supplements are not for everyone, and should be taken only under the supervision of your healthcare team. As with all supplements, there can be drug interactions to watch out for, such as when omega 3’s are used with blood thinners like Coumadin®.  These supplements can cause an increase in bleeding time, so caution is advised. Other side effects of fish oil can include a fishy after-taste which can be minimized by freezing the capsules. These supplements can cause some indigestion, which can be helped by lowering the dose sometimes.

You may wonder why we supplement with omega 3 and not often omega 6 fatty acids. There is an imbalance that has occurred in this area due to the “American” diet of cheeseburgers, fries and processed foods which has resulted in most of us being overloaded with omega 6 and having far too little omega 3. This “fat imbalance” can lead to heart disease, cancer and other health maladies. As you can see, it’s not only blood sugars that have to stay balanced for a healthy lifestyle.

Stay healthy, and always consult your health care team before starting a new supplement!