Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Prostate Cancer – A Closer Look

By: Dr. Richard Bevan-Thomas

Last week, several researchers published findings suggesting that ingestion of fish oil and Omega-3 fatty acids is now associated with prostate cancer.

Despite several very good studies prior to this explaining the benefits of fish oil, several of my patients have asked me if it's time to chuck the fish oil capsules. My response....

Not so fast.

Just because the media has grabbed a headline from a recent study doesn't mean you have to fall for it as well. Let's look at the facts here and make an educated decision.

What are fish oil and Omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, meaning that the human body can't make these fatty acids. Therefore, they must be consumed through one's diet since need them for our body to function optimally.  

There are 3 types of these fatty acids - EPA, DHA and ALA. DHA and EPA are the best for human cell function and these are found in fish and fish oil.

There have been numerous studies touting the benefits of fish oil, primarily in the realm of inflammation. Fish oil and Omega-3s have powerful anti-inflammatory properties that help with arthritis, joint pain, decreasing triglyceride levels, and they’ve even been found to help patients with early dementia.

In terms of prostate cancer, there have been several studies describing the benefits of eating fish or supplementing with fish oil. A UC San Francisco study asked men with a specific prostate cancer gene about dietary habits, and those who ate fish at least once per week had a roughly 2/3 reduced risk of developing prostate cancer.

In addition, several studies have described a 50% lower risk of dying from prostate cancer in those men who ate fish at least 5 times per week. 

Sounds pretty good, right?

Everyone was eating fish and many were taking supplements until last week when Dr. Brasky retrospectively reviewed patients in the SELECT trial, which was an earlier trial evaluating the potential benefits of Selenium and Vitamin E. While there were no benefits of Selenium and Vitamin E and prostate cancer prevention, the group decided to evaluate the blood concentrations of fatty acids and overall prostate cancer risk.

They found a 71% increased risk for high-grade prostate cancer, a 44% increase in low-grade prostate cancer and a 43% overall increase in prostate cancer.

Ironically, they also found a reduced risk in men with high Omega-6 fatty acids. This is completely opposite to previous research which has found that Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory and increase a man's risk for prostate cancer. 

So is it time to start putting margarine (loaded with Omega-6 fatty acids) on our food and eating twinkies again? I would suggest not.

One of the many flaws in this retrospective study was that it did not take into account the KNOWN RISK FACTORS for prostate cancer including PSA, digital rectal exam, race, age and body mass index. All of these are known factors and unless these are accounted for, it is difficult to look at a cause and effect relationship.

More importantly, we do not know when these men began taking fish oil. Was it before or after their diagnosis of prostate cancer? I have many patients that run to supplements after they have been diagnosed with prostate cancer hoping for a long-term benefit in a short amount of time. 

What should you do?

Don't throw out the Omega-3 supplements just yet. Currently this study is not conclusive and before everyone tries to become a vegan, let's wait for more studies to refute or support this finding.

There are many studies supporting the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids and fish consumption. Just remember when buying an Omega-3 supplement, it is important to make sure that the fish oil is pure and has a higher amount of the DHA and EPA compounds I mentioned. Check your labels to be sure.

Perhaps most importantly, don't take a fish oil capsule after your daily cheeseburger. If you are going to put the effort into buying a supplement or not, keep in mind that diet plays a major role in how our bodies function.

Eat healthy with wild fish, vegetables and fruits and lay off the twinkies and margarine. Your prostate will thank you in the long run.

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