When Dr. Bill Harris began researching omega-3 in the early 1980s, he was looking for an impact on cholesterol with what would be considered a high dose by today's standards: around 25 effective grams per day of omega-3 from salmon. However, rather than finding an effect on cholesterol, they found a nearly 80% drop in triglycerides among patients with Fredrickson Type V hypertriglyceridemia.
While this dose is, no doubt, clinically excessive, the tolerability of even high doses used in the past provides context on just how hard it is to determine a true "tolerable upper intake level" when it comes to omega-3. Listen for discussion of bleeding risk, omega-6 to omega-3 ratios, how the FDA set the recommended dose of prescription omega-3, and more.
Dr. Harris: And so he said, "Well, let's see what high fish oil diet does to cholesterol levels." So he assigned me to design a metabolic ward feeding study where we had three groups, you know, saturated fat, control on polyunsaturated fat and fish oil. And that's when we were doing our very high dose, you know, drink a half a cup of salmon oil every day for our volunteers. So that was the idea. He said he wanted to know how it affected cholesterol, LDL cholesterol. And that's when we discovered that it lowered triglycerides because we weren't looking for that. We were looking for cholesterol effects, but that's how I got started.
Dr. Patrick: So this half a cup per day of salmon oil, I mean, that was like 25 grams or?
Dr. Harris: Yeah. Salmon oil's about 20% omega-3. So it's fairly low. As fish oils go, it's a fairly low omega-3 oil, but, you know, so we had to build this one to give it all the calories, all the fat in their diet was from salmon oil, either three salmon steaks a day, plus drink the oil, no other fat in the diet. He, and I mean, he went way beyond any Eskimo intake of omega-3.
Dr. Patrick: How long was this?
Dr. Harris: One month.
Dr. Patrick: One month. So they were eating three salmon steaks plus the...
Dr. Harris: Plus drinking salmon oil.
Dr. Patrick: Salmon oil, which is, you know, 25 or so grams of omega-3.
Dr. Harris: All the other...well, with the steak.
Dr. Patrick: Oh, with the steak. Okay.
Dr. Harris: Yeah, yeah. Twenty-five grams.
Dr. Patrick: And they were doing this for a month and no other fat sources? Just...
Dr. Harris: Yeah. They came to the metabolic ward and were fed.
Dr. Patrick: And this wasn't a... There was no dose, first one, there was like just one dose and that was it.
Dr. Harris: Yeah. We have backed off a bit since then.
Dr. Patrick: And so you found it lowered triglyceride, was it like a robust lowering of triglyceride or?
Dr. Harris: Well, I mean, these were normal, healthy volunteers so their average triglyceride level was 100, it went all the way down to 75. But it was statistically... I mean, it's a 25% reduction, but it's clinically meaningless reduction in triglycerides. But we just weren't expecting a lowering of triglycerides. And then we recruited hyperlipidemic people and did another study. And then we actually picked people with both we call Type 2b, with Fredrickson types, you know, high triglycerides, high LDL, and the group of people that had type 1 or excuse me, type 5 hyperlipidaemia, which has very high triglycerides. And we treated them and that's where we got huge, you know, 80% drops in triglycerides. When the trigs are very high, you get a big drop.
Dr. Patrick: Wow. And was it the same sort of protocol where they were getting [crosstalk 00:05:51].
Dr. Harris: Same protocol. Right. The same deal. And that's the paper that got in the "New England Journal" on the fateful day, May 9th, 1985, three papers back to back "New England Journal" on omega-3 and that really put omega-3 on the map.
Dr. Patrick: And what were your thoughts, like what were you thinking? That's a huge discovery.
Dr. Harris: This stuff is great for lowering triglycerides. It takes a huge dose to do it. But people were very excited. And by that time, this was again by the mid-'80s now and the work of the Danish investigators Dyerberg and Bang and Greenland Eskimos linking omega-3 with reduced atherosclerosis was becoming well known then. And so we were all kind of getting on this omega-3 bandwagon and the, you know, I've got a slide of a rollercoaster of omega-3 popularity over the last 40 years. And it does a lot of this, you know. Everybody's excited, things look great, then you do five trials and none of them work and it goes down and then somebody does a new trial, like REDUCE-IT and it comes back up again. So those are in the fun, beginning days when omega-3 was very popular. And supplement manufacturers were starting to make omega-3 and make claims that they lowered cholesterol levels because we did see a lowering of cholesterol in both the vegetable oil group and the salmon oil group. And so we thought it lowered cholesterol, but it actually, the trouble was, it was in comparison to the saturated fat group.
Dr. Patrick: Or was it also that they were not eating saturated fat because you had them on this strict diet and so taking out the saturated fat from their normal diet.
Dr. Harris: Exactly. In hindsight, that's what happened. We could have fed them cardboard and taken the saturated fat out and the cholesterol would have gone down. So there was no active cholesterol lowering from the omega-3s. It was just the absence of the saturated fat.
Dr. Patrick: I do want to talk about all the trial design and like you were saying, you know, people getting excited when we have a positive result and then this comes up, but before we get to all that...
Dr. Harris: Yeah, yeah. Okay. That's how it started.
Dr. Patrick: Just a couple more questions on this. It's just so like robust this type of, you know, design that you guys, experimental design, like such a...it's kind of what I've always wanted to see, super high dose, you know, take away all the other stuff and just see what do these like omega-3s do when you give them just an immense therapeutic dose. Did you guys look at any other inflammatory biomarkers or any other?
Dr. Harris: No. Inflammation was not a topic in those days. We looked at platelets. Platelet aggregation was a big topic because that's what Dyerberg proposed the mechanism of cardioprotection was in the Eskimos because they had published in '78 a paper saying EPA is what's causing the platelets to be not so sticky in the Eskimos and that's why they don't have... Because in those days atherothrombosis was the cause. Thrombotic events were causing the heart attacks. That's what it was thought and it's still true. So we studied platelets, we got a hematologist on board, Scott Goodnight, and we did all kinds of platelets studies and platelet aggregation was reduced by the omega-3. Bleeding time was reduced and they weren't outrageously reduced. I mean, it wasn't dangerous, but it was like that. Effect on bleeding time was sort of like taking an aspirin. So it wasn't... But it's still, you know, it's kind of unexpected that oil would do this. We had one patient, one normal guy who had a very big drop in platelet count and we had to stop him from. We don't know why. And it's platelet count, not platelet aggregation. It's a different question. And again, we're, like you said, we're feeding 20 to 25 grams of omega-3, which is just out of control high. There's no way to do that today. There's no need to do that today. But that's where we started. I guess you...
Dr. Patrick: But even at that high of a dose, for most people, it was pretty safe for most people except for that one.
Dr. Harris: Oh, yeah. Nobody had any problems tolerating it. GI.
Dr. Patrick: Now, is this where the origin, I mean, because you hear... For the most part, when you think about the safety of omega-3, it seems like, you know, is there an upper tolerable intake level? I mean, people are most concerned about the potential, you know, as they like to call it, "blood-thinning effect." And I don't know if that's accurate, but...
Dr. Harris: It's a reasonable concern. Certainly from where it came from, the history of it back to the Eskimos who did have long bleeding times. And there were anecdotal stories of Eskimos, you know, bleeding to death from a nosebleed, that kind of thing. Now, is that the omega-3s? Who knows what else? I mean, it's a very different environment. And we did see, again, a reduction in platelet aggregation and extended bleeding time. But, again, like aspirin, nobody's that scared of aspirin to a point, ulcers, you know, that's a problem. But yeah, the classic belief is that there's some concern about omega-3 and bleeding. And we've tried to rebut that many times, and I've published three or four studies looking at either past literature on this question. Or we did one big study where we were doing open-heart surgery on people trying to preload them with omega-3 before open-heart surgery.
This was a Dr. Mozaffarian OPERA study. And we're trying to prevent post-op AFib by giving them a big load of omega-3 ahead of time, because that was the theory at that time, that we could prevent atrial fibrillation in people by giving them omega-3 before surgery. And while it didn't work, it didn't make any difference. But we found that even if you give people for like 3 or 4 days 10 grams of omega-3 a day before surgery, they actually, when they checked how much bleeding, came on with the surgery, how much post-op bleeding was there was actually less post-op bleeding with the people that got the omega-3 than the placebo. Less need for transfusion, which was kind of cool. I mean, that is...not that we would advocate it for reducing risks for bleeding, but it's not increasing risk for bleeding.
Dr. Patrick: Interesting. Any speculation why you think that was?
Dr. Harris: Yeah. I mean, we always kind of back up into this nowadays anti-inflammatory effect and how that, which is sort of a black box, because how that relates to risk for bleeding is not at all clear why they would even be related. But so we don't really know why. But we do know that there's the concern about bleeding even if you're taking blood thinners, there's no... Even the FDA in their package insert for Lovaza and all the omega-3s for Vascepa, they say, does not cause clinically significant bleeding.
Dr. Patrick: So the Lovaza and the Vascepa for people that aren't aware, these are prescription available types of omega-3. There are some differences between the two, correct?
Dr. Harris: Right. Lovaza is the EPA plus DHA ethyl ester. Vascepa is an EPA-only ethyl ester.
Dr. Patrick: Do you know the ratio of EPA to DHA in Lovaza?
Dr. Harris: It's about two parts EPA to one part DHA, roughly or three to two.
Dr. Patrick: So that's interesting to know that the FDA says that it doesn't increase the bleeding risk because I know of several physicians and I think it's pretty standard practice now that when they prescribe a patient an, you know, anticoagulant, something that's going to be a, you know, blood thinner, as they call it, they say not to take...it's really precaution, I guess.
Dr. Harris: Yeah. And the FDA says if you're on blood thinners you should be monitored. Well, you monitor them anyway. And you're going to take omega-3, then it should be monitored. Well, okay, fine. They're already being monitored, so there really isn't any serious, significant increased risks, as they say, in clinically significant bleeding. You might cut yourself shaving and bleed longer than you're used to, but are you now becoming normal and you were abnormally... I mean, it's... Just a little anecdote, my son is a doctor. He was stationed at an Air Force base in Japan and one of the soldiers, one of the airmen on the base had a traffic accident, a bad one and they had to transport the kid to a Japanese hospital for orthopedic surgery. And after the surgery, he threw a blood clot to his lung.
And so Dr. Gabe said, "Was he on heparin?" I mean, normally you'd put them on heparin if you're going to do major surgery to prevent blood clots and they said, "We never put people on heparin." Japanese don't because maybe they're already anticoagulated enough with the omega-3, they don't need to do this. So it was a surprise, makes me think that when we say you're prolonging the bleeding time, maybe you're moving it toward normal or optimal and what's normal in America, it's like a normal cholesterol, nobody wants to have a normal cholesterol, and maybe you don't want to have a normal bleeding time either. Anyway, I digress.
Dr. Patrick: Very good. I think it is a very interesting point. And I'm sure you're aware of this, but there've been some studies on omega-3 playing a preventative role in pulmonary embolisms. That actually show it, you know?
Dr. Harris: Sure. So that would play that role too. Right. You know, that would suggest that they're beneficial in that regard. Yeah.
Dr. Patrick: Yeah. So maybe we could take just a step back for a moment and...because omega-3 fatty acids, there's three of them. And, you know, most of the time I'm focused, when I think about my enthusiasm for omega-3, I think about the marine sources of EPA and DHA, but there's another source, ALA. Do you mind just spending just a brief moment kind of talking about it?
Dr. Harris: Sure. Yeah. Right. And so we generally put them in two camps, there's the plant-based omega-3s and then the fish, seafood-based omega-3 and alpha-linolenic acid, ALA, 18 carbon omega-3, 18 carbons long omega-3 compared to the 20 or 22 carbon-long marine omega-3, EPA and DHA. And they are all in the same chemical family, as you said, they're classified as omega-3s because they have a certain chemical structure, but they're not...and it's like, you know, third and fourth cousins in my view. ALA has not got the cardio-protective benefits of EPA and DHA. I mean, there's some studies that have shown some benefit and it's good. I'm all for it, but people very often confuse those two sources. They'll list good sources of omega-3, they'll say salmon and sardines and they'll say chia seeds and black walnuts and just throw it all in together and it's very misleading because the plant-based omega-3s are not nearly as potent as the marine omega-3s.
Dr. Patrick: So the plant omega-3s, ALA...ALA gets converted into EPA in the body, correct?
Dr. Harris: It can be. Yes.
[Dr. Patrick]. And it can be. And this is one reason why when you look at the essential fatty acids, you see ALA on there and not EPA and DHA, correct?
Dr. Harris: Correct.
Dr. Patrick: Which irritates me, but...
[Dr. Harris]. Well, you're not alone.
Dr. Patrick: And so, you know, is there any...We can talk about the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA, there's huge inter-individual variation in terms of how well you could do this.
Dr. Harris: Huge might be a strong word for it. They're certainly inter-individual, but there's not like some people convert one-to-one and other people are, you know, one-tenth of a percent. It's not that big, but it's, you know, in the neighborhood of 2, 3, 4, 5 percent, you know, of ALA going to EPA. ALA going to DHA is less. I mean, for the EPA that's produced doesn't go onto DHA. So it's not a good source of DHA for sure.
Dr. Patrick: Do you think there's... Does the literature suggest there's any benefit of ALA that can be separated from its, you know, ability to be converted into DHA?
Dr. Harris: It could be. And there's some studies that could be interpreted that way. And there certainly are, I mean, ALA can be converted by, we'll talk about later, into a variety of what they call oxylipins. These are oxygenated fatty acids. Prostaglandins are the most common ones you think of, those are 20-carbon fatty acids, but there are metabolites of ALA that are made via these enzymes. We don't know what they do, but they're there. They're made for a purpose. So there may be benefits that come from them as well, independent of a conversion. So that's, I think, future research to figure that out.
Dr. Patrick: What do you think the best source of the omega-3s would be for someone who is a vegetarian or vegan?
Dr. Harris: A vegetarian or vegan would be an algal oil. So the original source of EPA and DHA in a fish is not that they make omega-3. They don't really make omega-3 any better than we do or make EPA and DHA. They eat preformed EPA and DHA and it comes from their food sources, which at the bottom of the food chain, is these micro single-cell micro-algae. And I'm not talking about seaweed, but these little organisms that convert sunlight into fatty acids, some of which are omega-3. And so different companies have identified which specific strains of algae, micro-algae will make DHA or EPA or both, and they've commercialized or industrialized it. And they harvest the oil. It's an expensive process at this point. What's exciting is that there's, I mean, if we can get over the GMO issue...there's a whole other question, but there are two or three groups that have found ways to put genes into plant or land plant and land plants that can be grown, you know, as long as you've got ground, you can grow them. Camelina is one, even soybean oil, which starts with ALA. You can get up to a fair amount of DHA, EPA and DHA with genetic engineering of these plants. So someday we could be to the point, if we will accept GMO-produced omega-3 and not be weird about it...
Dr. Patrick: It sounds more sustainable.
Dr. Harris: Totally sustainable. You don't have to kill any fish to get omega-3s out. And that's, I think, in the future. We're doing it now with the micro-algae, but that takes huge vats and lots of processing after the algae are grown. But if we could do it with something unscaled, soybean oil, God knows we could have huge amounts.
Dr. Patrick: That's very exciting because it's an important question that many people are asking, you know, the taking of the fish oil and we'll get to, you know, supplementing with fish oil, but how it's, you know, it's not sustainable and, you know, people are concerned and I think rightly so.
Dr. Harris: Yeah. Rightly so. I mean, sure. If we really attended to the recommendations that everybody gets, say, 500 milligrams a day, there's not enough fish in the ocean to do it. And aquaculture is not going to do it. So there has to be a new source of it. And there will be. Demand will drive it. And hopefully, well, again, you know, where the concern about it being a GMO product.
Dr. Patrick: Right. I mean, I'm certainly not concerned about it.
Dr. Harris: You and me both. No worries, the two of us.
Dr. Patrick: I want to discuss a seminal paper, what I think is a seminal paper of yours that you published back in 2004, you co-published with Dr. von Schacky about the omega-3 index and the omega-3 index being an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Can you explain to people what the omega-3 index is and let's get into why you thought and think it's a risk factor for cardiovascular disease?
Dr. Harris: Sure. Yeah. That's great. Just a little background on how Dr. von Schacky and I came up with this idea when we were together in 2002 in Chicago at the American Heart association meeting. And Dr. Christine Albert from Harvard had just presented her study where she'd looked at blood omega-3 levels in the physician's health study. And they had stored blood from when they recruited the men into this physician's health study. It was an observational study. And they had frozen blood samples, and after 17 years, they looked back and saw that they had a certain number of sudden cardiac death events in the physician's health study. And so the theory had already been out there from 10 years earlier that a high omega-3 would protect against sudden cardiac arrests. This is from animal studies and some human stuff. So the physician's health study said, "Well, let's go look at the blood that's in the freezer of these guys who died of sudden cardiac arrest and compare it to some controls who didn't die, you know, just case control study."
And they analyzed the blood and they found that those men who had the highest omega-3 levels at baseline when they started were like 90% less likely to be a case, experienced sudden cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death. So Clemens [von Schacky] and I were sitting after this talk having a beer, talking about it. And we said, "Look, this is...the omega-3 level in the blood means something." I mean, it really does predict. And this is a second study that's shown it. But this is the first one that had been prospective. It really is just like a risk factor like cholesterol, except this is one that you can modify easily, you know, without taking drugs, without going on extreme diets, without having to change your lifestyle completely, you can just eat more fish or take supplements and you can raise your omega-3 levels and reduce risk.
So we said, "There ought to be...doctors ought to be able to know their patient's omega-3 level so they can do something about it." If you don't measure it, you can't control it, right? Manage it. So we kind of said, "Well, we got to make up a test." We both had laboratories so we could say, well, we can do this. So, ultimately, over the next two years wrote this paper, brought the evidence together and explained why we think and what we thought a target omega-3 level ought to be. And we called it the omega-3 index. We didn't really know what to call it. Didn't want to call it a red blood cell or EPA plus DHA is too much. And we picked red blood cells because that had been used in past studies and it makes sense because it's a long-term marker of omega-3 status because the omega-3s are in the membrane of the red cell and in most other tissues in the body, all other tissues.
So it was a good reflection of other tissues. And so we again wrote this paper, published it in Preventive Medicine in 2004, and said, here's the omega-3 index. There are ought to be...people ought to start looking at this like a risk factor. And that's kind of what's happened. It's slowly...I mean, this is now what, 17 years later. It's not certainly recognized by the American Heart Association or the NIH or anybody as an official risk factor, but hopefully, someday it will be in the same sense that CRP took a long time to be kind of considered a risk factor. Omega-3, I think, definitely deserves it for a variety of not just heart disease, for a variety of reasons. But that was the genesis of it. He started a laboratory in Munich called Omega Metrics, which is still going, which...and we started a laboratory in the U.S. called OmegaQuant. We use identical methods. And this is a big problem with just the diagnostic field. It's what's the method you're using because you get a different answer for different methods. So that's a problem. Standardizing, it's a problem. But he and I both started doing studies independently of each other, exploring the omega-3 index as a risk factor and I think the evidence has grown quite well.
Dr. Patrick: What's the biggest difference between measuring EPA and DHA in red blood cells, the omega-3 index versus you mentioned, you know, they're in the membranes of the cell, which is, you know, indicative of many things and it's also long-term. But most of the time, if people are going to go get omega-3, most people don't ever get the omega-3 measures. It's very rare. But if they do, they often get plasma omega-3 or phospholipid omega-3. What are your thoughts on the differences there?
Dr. Harris: There are differences. First of all, in plasma, of course, there are lipoproteins. All the lipids in plasma are in lipoproteins and lipoproteins have a membrane and that membrane has got fatty acids in it. Lipoproteins also contain triglycerides and cholesterol esters which also have fatty acids attached to different patterns of fatty acids. So the plasma certainly has omega-3, and you can express the plasma omega-3 content as a percent of total plasma fatty acids. It's just that the number you get, like a normal might be 2% for plasma EPA, DHA, whereas for red blood cell, EPA, DHA, which is just the red cell membrane, it might be 5% or 6% would be normal. So numerically, the values are different. They correlate pretty well. So if you put them on an X-Y graph, the plasma level and the red cell level, you'd get a pretty good correlation.
But what's confusing about it is the number is different. It's like saying you're...if you don't have the same units, you don't really know how to set a target if people are talking about different numbers in different lipid pools. One problem that I have with the plasma is it's just more noisy. Day-to-day, it varies because, especially if you're in a non-fasting state, if you've just eaten, you’ve got now triglycerides with fatty acids coming into the blood, changing the denominator. It's because it's a percent of total fatty acids and if you just had a big meal, that's going to change your plasma percent EPA where it won't affect your red blood cell. So red blood cell is very much like a hemoglobin A1C relative to a plasma glucose. It's the same concept. It's a more stable long-term marker. It's not affected by daily fluctuations, whereas plasma levels are. So that's one thing I don't like about plasma. Plus very few studies have really used plasma. It's hard to know what the target omega-3 level would be in plasma.
Dr. Patrick: Do you think the omega-3 index is indicative of EPA and DHA levels in every different organ, including the brain? Or is there some...
Dr. Harris: Well, yeah, you hit it. Almost every organ, probably, but the brain. The brain is...there's this blood-brain barrier, of course, which is very careful to take in what it wants. A brain has got a huge amount of DHA, almost no EPA in brain tissue. I mean, obviously in the blood flowing through the brain, it's there, but yeah, the correlation between the red blood cell and brain tissue is not nearly as good in brain as it is in heart, liver, muscle, every other internal organ where the red cell does reflect much better. Numerically, maybe a different value for red cell versus liver, but the correlation would be very good. The higher the omega-3 in the red cell, the higher the level of the liver. But it may not be the same number, same percent.
Dr. Patrick: Do you think the red blood cell omega-3, the omega-3 index is a better indicator of brain than plasma? I think I've...
Dr. Harris: Well, probably, yeah, probably better than plasma. But I think you just have to... Part of the brain just turns over so slow. You know, red cells turn over in 120 days. I don't know off the top of my head how fast brain cells turn over and are resynthesized, but I suspect it's quite a bit longer. Turnover time is much longer.
Dr. Patrick: So you've measured omega-3 index in, I mean, just many, many people through publications and OmegaQuant which people can then, you know, go and get their omega index quantified. Are there like huge variations in people that are given, or have the relative, like average amount of dietary intake of omega-3 is similar? Do you see that there's still variations in the omega-3 index?
Dr. Harris: Yeah. Right. And this is something we don't understand yet. There is quite a bit of background variability and we always say genetic, well, you know, what else are you going to say? Even though we know that there's... We, scientific group, have not discovered any genes that really control EPA, DHA levels well, like the standard Fatty Acid Desaturase, FADS gene have very little effect. Mutations in that gene have very little effect on omega. They affect omega-6 arachidonic acid levels pretty substantially. Those mutations and Fatty Acid Desaturase but they don't affect the omega-3s very much at all, 2% or 3% variability explained by that. So we don't know what it is. A probably an even bigger variability is the variability in response to taking an omega-3. So we look at the Delta, the change in omega-3 index with different dosage groups and it can be, you know, on average, it's a very nice, the higher the dose, the higher the omega-3 index. But if you look at the individual's splay across those increase, some people on 1800 milligrams of EPA, DHA they might go up from an omega-3 index of 4 to 4.3. Others might go up from four to eight. I mean, it's just huge variability. And we don't think it's compliance all the time. I think there's some actual, just a lot of land to cover between your mouth and your blood.
Dr. Patrick: Yes. So there is, and I'm going to look this up after this conversation because I don't remember the gene. But there has been one identified where there are SNPs in that gene and it does play a role in the response to supplementation of omega-3 and it's, you know, it's...
Dr. Harris: Sounds a little familiar, but anyway. Just look it up.
Dr. Patrick: Yeah. I'll text it to you.
Dr. Harris: We'll get back to you.
Dr. Patrick: Yeah. We'll put it in the show notes, but I will text it to you too because yeah, some people, and gosh, I wish I had looked this up before for the conversation. But yes, some people actually may require a much larger dose of omega-3. And it's really interesting because it comes back to that. And I did want to talk about this... I don't want to go off on this tangent right now, but the trial design, and, you know, when you're doing clinical studies in nutrition, as you know more than anyone, it's very complicated, it's not like a pharmaceutical, you know, the gold standard being a randomized controlled trial which is great for pharmaceuticals because nobody has any level of the pharmaceutical in their bloodstream before they start the trial.
Everyone has the same baseline. And for the most part, I mean, there are some SNPs in some of the, you know, xenobiotic metabolism, you know, genes and liver and things like that. But you don't have as, you know, wide variation like you do with nutrition where, you know, the thought is that people have sort of, you know, depending on where they come from, their ancestors, you know, they've evolved certain steps to kind of, you know, adapt to that region. But anyways, you know, so in an ideal world for every randomized controlled trial you do, you obviously need to measure something like the omega-3 index at baseline and, you know, after treatment and throughout, perhaps, but also measuring the SNPs and looking at that and including that, that would be something...
Dr. Harris: And I thought you were going to say, you know, measure omega-3 before baseline and you have to be below a certain level to get into the trial.
Dr. Patrick: Well, that would be another thing is also just, you know, analyzing the data for all that, like, you know, people that are low, you're probably going to, like you mentioned, with the hyperlipidemia effects are much more robust when they had hyperlipidemia versus someone that was like healthy and normal.
Dr. Harris: Right. Right. And we're seeing more studies now where they do a randomized trial with omega-3 and at the end of the day you do what you normally do, you compare the effects seen in the placebo group on whatever endpoint, death, Alzheimer's, whatever disease and the omega-3, you pair them and you get a P-value. And sometimes you don't get a very strong effect until you look at the achieved omega-3 index and say, "Okay, those people that achieved this omega-3 index in one group, how did they respond?" These people mostly in the placebo group, but not always, never got that high, what was their response? So in other words, your outcome is based not on your assignment of groups but on the omega-3 level achieved. And then you can really see much more clearly, oh, the people that got a high level, they did much better. And mostly it's people who were in the supplemented group, of course, but there were some people in the supplemented group who don't get a change at all and they're, by that analysis, they're in this control group thing because they didn't change and their outcome didn't change. And that's the best way to look at those kinds of trials if you have a test.
Dr. Patrick: And that would be the easiest actually. You wouldn't even have to then look at the SNPs because you have this quantifier of, you know, omega-3 levels and obviously for whatever reason, people not responding, there's non-responders, you know, for whatever reason. Yeah.
Dr. Harris: Yeah. It's why it's important to titrate the omega-3 on a given patient, you know, you just don't ask them how much fish they eat so you can call it good.
Dr. Patrick: I know we're going on a tangent here, but is there a way you can sort of talk to these lead researchers, you know, that are running these huge clinical trials we'll talk about, you know, the VITAL with REDUCE-IT and STRENGTH and say, like set up some kind of, you know, way for them to use OmegaQuant and measure the omega-3 index because this sounds like to me, you know, there's such heterogeneity in the research. In your thoughts, why do you think there's such heterogeneity? What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Harris: Well, I mean, if we're talking about cardiovascular randomized trials with omega-3, that's where the heterogeneities you're talking about. Yeah, there's a lot of reasons why maybe over the last 10 years studies have not shown them...some studies have not shown an effect. Partly it's low dose, partly it's background omega-3 levels are higher in the population and they haven't controlled for that. Partly it's short-term treatment. I mean to me it's silly to think you can take somebody who's 65 years old and who's had a crappy diet their whole life and put them in a omega-3 trial, give them 840 milligrams of omega-3, like one capsule of Lovaza, and expect in three years to see a difference in cardiovascular endpoints. I mean, it's just ridiculous. So that's probably why those studies we'll talk about high doses have been effective because you've at least hit them with a bigger hammer.
But a lot of these studies... Plus the other thing that's happened is a background risk for heart disease has gone down. It's just continuing to drop. We're way below 1950s heart disease rates. A third of people die of heart disease now instead of half. And so the incidence of heart disease is down where we have much more powerful medications that are widely used in some of these...most of these trials had those background medications. So there's a lot of reasons why these early studies in the '90s, early 2000s may have worked and they're not working now when the same dose is used. So that is a problem. But I think if we would... And to your point about measuring omega-3 in the trial, both STRENGTH and REDUCE-IT did. Now, we did the analysis for STRENGTH at OmegaQuant. Another lab did it and REDUCE-IT. And I don't know if you want to get too far into REDUCE-IT, but the most successful omega-3 trial in years was REDUCE-IT with 4 grams of EPA. And they reported that the most striking, the only risk factor that they could measure or thing in the blood that they measured that would predict outcomes, it was better than cholesterol, better than triglycerides was the omega-3 level. It was the omega-3 level achieved that was the strongest predictor of benefit in the REDUCE-IT trial, which makes perfect sense. And so they're starting to move that way.
Dr. Patrick: So the REDUCE-IT trial, yeah. We can talk in a little bit, and let's get into the cardiovascular and I'll circle back, but, you know, the REDUCE-IT trial, you said it was 4 grams of EPA, so they were using Vascepa, Vascepa?
Dr. Harris: Vascepa.
Dr. Patrick: Vascepa. And is it the trial where there was like a 25% reduction in cardiovascular-related mortality?
Dr. Harris: Cardiovascular events mortality. Right.
Dr. Patrick: And was that correlated with the actual omega-3 index or was that just the program?
Dr. Harris: That was the standard approach, placebo versus active. They saw that difference.
Dr. Patrick: Did they do any sub-analysis with the omega-3 index?
Dr. Harris: Well, with the omega-3 levels, yeah. They measured omega-3 concentrations in the blood, not percent comp, but micrograms per mil. There's another confusion here. Well, okay. Your EPA is 10 micrograms per mil, well, how does that relate to the omega-3? And yeah, we know how it relates, but it's confusing for the medical world when you've got multiple metrics for omega-3 that have different units. That being the case, in REDUCE-IT, when they did look at their plasma EPA concentrations at the end of the study, people that had the highest biggest change in EPA levels in the blood had the greatest benefits compared to those who had minimal change. And to your point about how trial design, if we want to go there again, is different from drugs, not only do you not...when you do a drug trial, you don't have the drug in the blood in the control group. And if it's experimental drugs, they can't even go to the drug store and get it and cheat. But with omega-3, you're assigned to placebo, all you’ve got to do is bite into one pill and you know you're on the placebo. I mean, if you're on a five-year trial, right? It's going to be very clear that this is not fish oil. And if you already believe that fish oil is good and you see that now you're going to be five years on a placebo in this trial, you might want to go down to your local drug store and pick up a bottle of fish oil and just take it and don't tell anybody.
Dr. Patrick: Or at the very least, up the fish intake.
Dr. Harris: You can do that or start eating more fish, right? Exactly. But if you measure blood levels, you'll find that person. They're now in the treated group, you know. You don't measure blood levels, you have no idea.
Dr. Patrick: Exactly. Yeah.
Dr. Harris: So anyway, nutrition research is tough, but omega-3 is probably one of the easiest nutrients to study like a drug of all the nutrients because our background intake is so little and there's so little metabolism in vivo metabolism of omega-3. It's not controlled like calcium levels are controlled so tightly. Magnesium levels in the blood are controlled tightly. Glucose is pretty tightly controlled. You know, I mean, but omega-3 is not very tightly controlled. It's driven by diet, how much do you eat? So the reason that omega-3 has been probably like the fifth-most studied molecule in medicine is because it's been easy to study in the drug model, you know, plus it works.
Dr. Patrick: So you'd said something that kind of piqued my interest about it, you know, not being tightly regulated because, you know, it's controlled by your diet. Is there like an upper level to the omega-3 index. Can you saturate that? Like if you eat nothing but fish.
Dr. Harris: Yeah. Well, or eat 25 grams a day, which in that study, we don't know what the red cell was. We didn't measure them. We just did plasma. But yeah, in our experience at OmegaQuant, they were looking at thousands of dried blood spot tests for omega-3 getting up above more than 15%, 16%. So context, right? Average American's roughly 5% omega-3 index which is EPA and DHA in red cells as a percent of the total fatty acids in the red cell. So 5% of the fatty acids in the red cell membrane are EPA and DHA. In Japan, it's on average 9%, 8%, 9%, 10% because they eat so much more omega-3 than we do. Vegans are down around 3.5% as are U.S. military personnel. I'm sorry to say. When we've studied the soldiers, that's about the same as a vegan and you know they're not vegans. So they're not getting enough omega-3.
So 4%, we like to say be over 8%. That's the goal. That's been our target. So you can get up to about 15% or 16%. We have seen two or three people out of hundreds of thousands that are over 20%. Which is weird, but that's, I mean, a dolphin here at SeaWorld, which we studied and that's all they eat is fish, right? And they weigh about 200 kilograms. I mean, they're big mammals like us and they all these fish and their omega-3 index is around 18% or 19%. So I think that's about all that you can get into a cell membrane. There's only so much... The body will only let you put so much because when red cells are made, they're made to be able to perform a function and the fluidity of the membrane is very important and somehow or another bone marrow knows how much polyunsaturated fat can go into that membrane and it just is enough.
Dr. Patrick: And is there a difference between the amount of DHA versus EPA? I've always thought of, you know, DHA playing a more prominent role in membrane fluidity and, you know, in the membranes.
Dr. Harris: It's certainly there in a higher amount. DHA is always there in like four times the amount of EPA. I mean, unless you're just taking pure EPA, then they'll be one to one roughly. But in the normal situation, there's a lot more DHA than EPA. It doesn't mean one is more important than the other. It's just what it is. And when you take fish oil supplements, both EPA and DHA will go up. When you eat fish, both of them will go up. But typically in red cells. And I think in almost every other cell. I can't think of another cell type that's where EPA predominates over DHA. But still that doesn't say anything about the importance of them in biology. It's just what's in membranes.
Dr. Patrick: So you mentioned that target omega-3 index being around 8%. And let's talk about why that is. So I had my omega-3 index measured. I was telling you earlier. It was 11.7 and it said... I did it through WellnessFX and it says RBC omega-3 index. They called it that. So I'm assuming it's...
Dr. Harris: OmegaQuant was doing work with WellnessFX. It may still be. I'm kind of on the business stuff.
Dr. Patrick: This was literally like a week before everything shut down because of the pandemic in 2020. I had done this huge performance test where I had all these things measured and the omega-3 index was one of them. So I'm up there with Japanese.
Dr. Harris: Totally. How much omega-3 do you eat?
Dr. Patrick: Well, I eat salmon, I would say at least, you know, two, three times a week. I also eat sardines, like snack on those.
Dr. Harris: Oh, boy. That's a big one. That's a big one.
Dr. Patrick: Yes. And then I take a lot of fish oil. I take about 2 grams of EPA in the morning and 2 grams of DHA in the evening for a total of 4 grams.
Dr. Harris: Separately?
Dr. Patrick: I take them separately. Yeah. You know, I...
Dr. Harris: And where do you get pure EPA?
Dr. Patrick: A friend of mine. He is in Norway and he makes some pretty.
Dr. Harris: Okay. So you're not getting a prescription for Vascepa?
Dr. Patrick: No, no. Although I'm interested in doing that for my mother because I've been, you know, giving her mine and I'd like to keep mine and get her on something. But anyways, the omega-3 index and the 8%. So, you very recently published a study that correlated the omega-3 index to all-cause mortality, it was able to even predict mortality. Very, very interesting study. I shared it on social media, but I would love to talk about it.
Dr. Harris: Well. Yeah, yeah. Sure. It's going to be probably one of my capstone studies, I think. And in hindsight was a collaboration among 17 different cohorts, like the Framingham Study's a cohort. Women's Health Initiative's a cohort. MESA, EPIC. These are all and from all around the world. These are groups that have been recruited at one point in time, blood samples taken, fatty acid levels measured in that blood, and then the investigators follow this group of people over time, see what happens, what kind of diseases they get, you know, who dies, who doesn't. And so we had 17 of those pooled together and around 40,000, 45,000 people altogether where we had omega-3 levels at the beginning and then roughly the total follow-up time when you're looking at risk for death, all-cause mortality, you obviously look in a given window of time because if you wait long enough, it's 100%. Everybody dies.
So you can't wait forever. You got to wait. So we looked basically between ages 65 and 75, who died in that window of time. And we found that the people that had the highest omega-3 levels compared to the lowest were 15% or so less likely to die over that time. And it was very...when you look at quintiles of omega-3, it was very dose-dependent, the higher the omega-3, the lower the risk. And that was for total mortality. We then looked at cardiovascular mortality, cancer mortality, and then everything else, kitchen sink, you know, if it's not cancer, not cardiovascular, it's group three. And we saw the same thing in all groups... It wasn't as strong in cancer. It wasn't as stair-steppy like it was in cardiovascular. But the highest group in omega-3s did have a significantly lower risk of death from cancer. But interesting to me is the non-cardiovascular, non-cancer, all these other causes of death from electrocution to suicide, to car accidents, to kidney failure, you know, everything people die of. The higher the omega-3, just like cardiovascular, lower risk. So there's something very systemic, very protective across many systems in the body. Many diseases I think are just held somewhat in check by having a higher omega-3. It's not just heart disease. And I think that's the message to get out. It's not just heart disease.
Dr. Patrick: Right. And the 15% decrease in all-cause mortality, was that about a five-year? Was it translating to about a five-year?
Dr. Harris: In that study we didn't try to get at that because basically, that meant in that window of time, you were 15% less likely to die. How long you actually lived? We didn't follow people until they died all the time. But in another study we published from Framingham, just one cohort, we did see that there's roughly a five-year difference. If you're at the very lowest omega-3 versus the highest, your odds of dying are about five years earlier.
Dr. Patrick: Can you say again? So the omega-3 index for the lowest was...
Dr. Harris: It's probably under 4% and for the upper level roughly 7%. Again, this is observational and Framingham and nobody's supplementing. So we haven't got people, many people over 8%. This is, you know, people living in Boston. And so they don't have high omega-3 levels, but the highest quintile was about over 7%.
Dr. Patrick: You said the average in the United States was about five.
Dr. Harris: Five-ish.
Dr. Patrick: So five-ish. And what's the average intake of fish in the United States?
Dr. Harris: Fish, well, what is it? Thirteen pounds per person per year. And that's all fish and all...
Dr. Patrick: Awesome.
Dr. Harris: Right. So that includes, you know, shrimp which has zero omega-3 and white fish, Pollock, which is the fried fish that people get at McDonald's and salmon itself, which is one of the highest omega-3 fish. One of the highest that people actually eat, you know, that provides about one and a half grams per serving of omega-3. The average intake of EPA and DHA in America is something, you know, 100 to 150 milligrams a day. The median intake is zero. Okay. The average, because some people eat a lot and a whole lot of people eat none. You know, so the median is zero, at least to two decimal places. But the average intake is, say, 120 milligrams a day. In Japan, it's roughly 900 milligrams a day.
Dr. Patrick: Nine hundred milligrams. And...
Dr. Harris: For life, for minus nine months. I mean, because mom's doing it too. Yeah.
Dr. Patrick: And their, if I remember correctly, their average lifespan is about five years longer than the United States average.
Dr. Harris: Right. Despite the fact they smoke more, despite the fact they have more hypertension, despite the fact they have higher stress life, they still live four or five years longer.
Dr. Patrick: Does omega-3, is it known that if it has any effect on smoking in terms of like negating some of the negatives?
Dr. Harris: Well, in our most recent paper in Framingham, we asked the question... In general, we're trying to understand how much of a risk factor is omega-3 compared to things you already know for death. So we know cholesterol is a risk factor. We know blood pressure is a risk factor. We know diabetes, having diabetes. We know being a smoker is a risk factor for bad outcomes. So how does omega-3 compare to that? And we found that in the study we did in Framingham looking at all-cause mortality, that if you're a smoker and you have a low omega-3, you know, over the 10 years of the study, you're 50-50 chance of living. You're going to die at 50% chance of dying. If you have a low omega-3 and you're non-smoker, it's not so bad, your risk of death maybe is 30% over that [period].
If you're a smoker and you have a high omega-3, that's the other flip side, but you're a smoker, your risk is kind of like having a low omega-3 and being a non-smoker. And then if you've, best case you don't smoke and you have a high omega-3, your odds of dying are like 10%. So it's, in a way, having a low omega-3 is like being a smoker from a... I don't mean to say that taking omega-3 erases your risk of being a smoker. Don't want people to think you can do that. "Oh, I keep smoking. I just take some fish oil. I'm good." That's not the deal. We do know that smoking actually lowers the omega-3 index. Smokers have lower omega-3 index than non-smokers from other studies. And it could be because of the hyper-oxidative state of a smoker's blood that could actually destroy omega-3s potentially, or they just don't eat fish oil or they don't eat fish. That's the other explanation. So the general tack of both our study in "Nature Communications" on total mortality with our 17 cohorts and this latest one in "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" in Framingham point to having a high omega-3 level is protective in the same sense that having a low cholesterol is protective, in the same sense that having low blood pressure is protective. It's about the same predictive value, which is...
Dr. Patrick: Wow. And that's about 8% of omega-3 index around...
Dr. Harris: Yeah. Again, it's over seven in Framingham but in the pooled analysis of those 17 cohorts, it was roughly about 7.8%. The highest quintile was roughly about the 8% target. So we felt that our original 2004 idea that 8% would be the target which is based on much less data back then has been vindicated and continues to be vindicated. It's been seen that that 8%, it's not perfect. I mean, in Japan, you actually get an additional reduction in risk at 10% versus being at 8%. Okay. That's good. But we're now going from this much risk to this much risk, you know?
Dr. Patrick: Well, that was going to be my question too, is like what if we get up into it, you know, 10% to 12% to 13% omega index, is that even greater? I mean...
Dr. Harris: It could be. We at OmegaQuant, we kind of say our target level is 8 to 12. And it's not because above 12 is bad. It's because we just have so little data to say that, if you get to 14, you're better than you're at 12. Or even to say that you're 12, you're better than 10. We don't really know that. It's just a reasonable target level. It's safe. I'm not concerned about that. And it's tough enough for people just to get up to 8, never mind get up to 12. And so we're not trying to say anything above eight, as far as you can go, the higher the better, I don't know, I can't say that. I mean, there may be adverse effects that pop up somewhere out there. You would think in theory, there could be, we just haven't seen them, but that doesn't mean they're not there. So be conservative.
Dr. Patrick: Have you looked at the correlation of the omega-3 index with inflammatory biomarkers?
Dr. Harris: Yeah. And as you expect, we, again, we did this in Framingham. We looked at 10 very different inflammatory biomarkers in the plasma in patients in Framingham and correlated it with the omega-3 index and all 10 of them, the higher the omega-3, the lower the marker. So it's across the board. It isn't just, you know, CRP. There's also some phospholipase A2...PPLA-2, you know, LpPLA-2 to this one which is a kind of inflammatory markers. Well, very different. It's not very different chemical than CRP. Some bone-related inflammatory markers were reduced in association with omega-3. So it's there. And giving omega-3 does lower inflammatory levels.
Dr. Patrick: Right. So I was going to say like for people like there's the mechanism by which these inflammatory markers lower...I'm sorry, which omega-3s lower the inflammatory markers and there's a wide variety of them. So you have, you know, for a long time, I always thought of EPA being the, you know, anti-inflammatory, omega-3, which isn't entirely accurate because all these metabolites of DHA and EPA are...
Dr. Harris: Are anti-inflammatory. Well, not just anti-inflammatory, they're pro-resolving of inflammation, which is the flip side of, you know, you can either prevent an inflammation from starting, which may not be good because inflammation at one level is important. But if you don't have the omega-3s onboard, the active process of shutting down the inflammation once it starts, that shutdown is inhibited. So the inflammation stays longer. So Charles Serhan is the guy who's discovered all of these, what he calls some specialized pro-resolving mediators, which with all due respect to Charlie, I think it's a silly name. I mean, there's no molecule in the body that doesn't specialize. Come on. Water's specialized. I mean, so if they're pro-resolving mediators, they're molecules made from EPA and DHA, that... And some that are made from arachidonic that are also suppressive. Lipoxin A which is the one from arachidonic. So that whole field of...it isn't just that they're anti-inflammatory, they're pro-suppression, pro-suppressing of inflammation, which is the important piece.
Dr. Patrick: Right. Because as you mentioned, you're talking about, you want to be able to activate your immune system when there's a pathogen, you know, that's there, but you don't want it to remain active and spiral out of control. But in the context of just, let's say not a pathogen, let's talk about this low level of just chronic, you know, immune activation in this chronic, you know, inflammation that can be caused from a variety of lifestyle factors.
Dr. Harris: Sure. Just obesity.
Dr. Patrick: Exactly. Obesity. What role do these specialized pro-resolving mediators, the SPMs as they're called and resolvins, and protectins and...
Dr. Harris: Protectins and maresins, and poxytrokins and poxytrins and...there's a bunch of them now. It's actually a bewildering array of molecules that have been discovered made from EPA and DHA that operate on different cell types and different receptors through different mechanisms but at the end of the day, they suppress an inflammatory response and keep it from getting out of control. So I don't really know the answer, how the presence of those resolving mediators plays into the chronic inflammation of someone who's just got a lot of adipose tissue. I assume it will just keep a damper on it, keep it down. And what we saw in Framingham was all these mediators are inversely related to the omega-3 level. And these people aren't chronically inflamed. Oh, well, I mean, they're Framingham people in their '60s, so maybe they are like typical Americans. So there's a ton of research to be done. And then, of course, drug companies are very interested in taking some of these molecules that are made from omega-3 and making them drugs that can be used. Okay, fine. Good.
Dr. Patrick: One of the reasons I'm asking is because, you know, this chronic inflammation is at the root of, you know, many different diseases, cardiovascular disease, you know, dementia, cancer, a lot of the diseases that you were mentioning in the Framingham study and also in your large, you know, 17 study cohort. And so, you know, the question is, is that, so let's talk about in the context of cardiovascular health, for example, you know, you mentioned the REDUCE-IT trial with the high EPA, there was a dramatic lowering of triglycerides.
Dr. Harris: No.
Dr. Patrick: No. That wasn't the REDUCE-IT trial?
Dr. Harris: It didn't lower triglycerides very much. I mean, it was 15%.
Dr. Patrick: Fifteen percent. Okay. So I guess that's not dramatic, but that's what a lot of people talk about when they think about cardiovascular and omega-3 and...
Dr. Harris: Think about triglyceride lowering.
Dr. Patrick: They think about triglyceride lowering.
Dr. Harris: That's the indication that the FDA gave these drugs because the only way to get these nutrients turned into drugs and approved by the FDA as a drug is it's got to affect some risk factor that the FDA believes in. And when it all began with Lovaza, they said, you lower "Oh, look, we can lower triglycerides by 20%." And that was enough to get them an indication for people with triglycerides over 500. That's the limitation. Only Vascepa is indicated for reducing risks for cardiovascular events because it's the only one that's been shown to do that. Lovaza has never been tested for lowering cardiovascular events. It's the EPA plus DHA product, but it's approved for triglyceride lowering because, I mean, that's what we saw back 40 years ago, is it does that, but I don't think that's the mechanism by which omega-3s are cardioprotective.
Dr. Patrick: What do you think the mechanism is?
Dr. Harris: I think it's much more likely to be an anti-inflammatory mechanism and anti-platelet. So thinner blood, less likely to clot. We've been fascinated recently to look at what's called the RDW, the red cell distribution width, and we're just preparing a paper on this now. The red cell distribution width is just a metric that comes out whenever you do a complete blood count, a CBC on a patient, they get their hemoglobin, the hematocrit, the mean cell volume on the red cells, and they get this thing called RDW, red cell distribution width, which is really just how varied are the red cell sizes in your blood? Ideally, red blood cell sizes should be all the same size. So the coefficient of variation would be very thin, very narrow. So if you divide the standard deviation by the mean, you get a coefficient of variation. And that's the red cell distribution width. So it's expressed as a percent, if you have a high percent distribution, you've got...it's a remarkable predictor of all kinds of adverse outcomes, independent of everything else. I mean, this is in the last 10 years. This has been discovered that for some reason, how your red blood cells, the variation size of your red cells is a big predictor of outcomes, bad outcomes. And if you have a lot of little cells and a lot of big cells, and so a wide bell curve of red cells, that is bad. You want to have a very steep, sharp distribution of red cells and the omega...
So we were interested in, since we measured the omega-3 in red cells, you know, maybe instead of just being a passive vehicle that's carrying omega-3s around the blood allowing me to measure omega-3 status, maybe they're actually affecting red cell biology. Maybe they're really changing the way red cells carry oxygen, pick up CO2, squeeze through capillaries because, you know, red cells got to squeeze through half its diameter as it goes through a capillary. So it's got to be very flexible, and omega-3s will help make that membrane more flexible. So it could be that we're mainly delivering more oxygen to tissues when you have a high omega-3, haven't tested this, this is all... I mean, I'd love to test this. So it is really very cool that... Again, we've seen that we've got a data set of 40-some thousand people. We see the very strong correlation between high omega-3 and lower, healthier RDW, and we're getting ready to submit that now. But the ways that omega-3s may be protective, we may have never thought of yet, which makes it hard to explain to people how they work. It's easy to say they lower triglycerides, and I get that. But so what?
Dr. Patrick: Exactly. So many mechanisms are doing so many things and that membrane fluidity with the red blood cell membranes itself, that's super interesting. Another thing I'm sure you're familiar with Dr. Ronald Krauss' work on small dense LDL particles and how those are more atherogenic and, you know, the larger buoyant LDL seems to be more cardioprotective because it is transporting, you know, fatty acids and cholesterol and things to cells and it's the small dense ones that really kind of get stuck in the arteries and start this inflammatory cascade. What he's also shown, him and his collaborators and colleagues, that, you know, inflammation can, you know, can basically cause a larger buoyant LDL to form a small dense LDL. The inflammation plays a role in that process. And so what I would love to see, I guess, this answers my question, you haven't looked at this yet, but the omega-3 index and small dense LDL particle.
Dr. Harris: We can look at that.
Dr. Patrick: Yeah. Because...
Dr. Harris: We'll get back to you on that.
Dr. Patrick: Yeah. Awesome. I think that would be, you know, because right now people go, when they go and get their cholesterol measured, it's usually just total LDL and, you know, there's some good LDL there like, you don't want no LDL.
Dr. Harris: Well, is it good LDL or just not as bad LDL?
Dr. Patrick: Well, the reason I say good is because, you know, like when you have a damaged cell, you want to repair that damage and your LDL is going to bring triglycerides and cholesterol and, you know, fatty acids and everything that cell the building...another membrane every time you make a new cell. I mean like, so it's serving a function, right? And so I guess, I don't know if good is the right word to describe it, but yeah. I mean, it's got a function that's important for normal health. So that would be very interesting to see if there's a correlation between omega-3 index and small dense LDL particle size. I would imagine you're going to see an inverse correlation.
Dr. Harris: I would think so. I would guess too, but we'll see.
Dr. Patrick: And it would be great to have that sort of panel in the physician's, you know, toolbox, right, where they measure the omega-3 index, they're measuring the small dense LDL. And, you know, it's like, "Oh, your omega-3 index is 3%. Well, you got to take some fish oil or..."
Dr. Harris: Right. And [inaudible] raising your omega-3 index is going to have implications all over the body that may not be even measurable in a blood test that are good, good things like this red cell biology, it just behaves better. It's a more efficient mover of gases or something like that.
Dr. Patrick: So you also had a recent study. I'm kind of going back to resolving the inflammation aspect. What I think is very relevant in, you know, our 2021 world that we live in.
Dr. Harris: COVID world.
Dr. Patrick: Oh, yes. The COVID world where we have a pathogen that is in some people causing a very bad cascade of inflammation. So you published a study looking at the omega-3 index and COVID-19-associated mortality.
Dr. Harris: Right. Right. We did that with colleagues here in LA. I don't know which way I'm pointing but...
Dr. Patrick: I probably should have said that pilot pre-print hasn't actually... Has it been peer-reviewed, it's not been peer-reviewed or?
Dr. Harris: Oh, no, it was peer-reviewed and published in January. It was published in January. Yeah. And it was a pilot study because we only had access to data from 100 people which was too bad, but we did have omega-3 index levels on 100 people that had been admitted to Cedar Sinai in LA with COVID. And so we asked the question, you know, "Is there any relationship between how they did, did they live or die, and their omega-3 level?" And, again, the distribution of omega-3 levels was very narrow. You know, like I think it probably went from a low of three to a high of five, something like that, you know, but the distribution was narrow. So we weren't able to see, you know, the older people had an 8%. Nobody there in the study had an 8%. And so we looked at the people who had the highest quartile of omega-3 levels, the 25% highest compared to everybody else who was lower. And those people were really half as likely to die as people who had... And it was 0.07 P-value, so it wasn't statistically significant by standard metrics, but in the race to understand what we can do about COVID, we'll put up with a slightly non-significant strong trend in the right direction with good biology behind it to explain it. Another paper's come out from Chile just confirming the same thing. We saw the same thing.
Dr. Patrick: Okay. What about Japan? Do you know what their...because their omega-3 index is higher, do you know their mortality?
Dr. Harris: I know a group has looked at this worldwide and they looked at WHO data on COVID death and they looked at reported fish intake in the countries. And they did it by six different regions around the world. And what they showed, you know, the higher the average fish intake, the lower the risk of death from COVID. Okay. It's hard to... There's so many variables here.
Dr. Patrick: Right. Of course.
Dr. Harris: But it sings the right song. What that paper, that specific paper was most interesting to me about was not this worldwide population thing, which was just their introduction. They were doing in silico experiments, looking at the spike protein on COVID and they found that there's two conformations, an open and a closed conformation. And if it's open, then they can interact with the receptor. It's closed, it can't. They found that DHA, again in silico experiments, if it's present, will hold that thing in a closed position.
Dr. Patrick: You're kidding.
Dr. Harris: No. So it will not interact with the receptor and not be taken in. I mean, that's the theory. So then...
Dr. Patrick: That's a huge deal. I mean, you know, the vaccines, at least the mRNA vaccines at Johnson & Johnson keep it in a close transformation spike protein. They inserted two proline amino acids to keep it in a closed.
Dr. Harris: Oh, I didn't know that.
Dr. Patrick: Yeah. So it can't interact with the ACE-2 receptor.
Dr. Harris: Interesting.
Dr. Patrick: Very interesting. It's a different spike. Very important because the whole... I'm not going to go off on this tangent, but like a lot of the, you know, terrible effects of the SARS COV-2 infection go through ACE receptor, and because a downregulation of that receptor occurs when the spike protein binds to it, endocytosis pulls it into the cell and causes downregulation which disrupts the whole renin-angiotensin system and lung injury.
Dr. Harris: That's a mess.
Dr. Patrick: I mean, heart injury. Exactly. That's a big mess. So.
Dr. Harris: Anyway, this is, you know, take this with a grain of salt because it was in silico experiment because it also showed that linoleic acid did the same thing.
Dr. Patrick: Can you send me that paper?
Dr. Harris: That's what prompted them to look at DHA. Somebody else had published linoleic acid had the same kind of effect, potential effect. And so they looked at DHA.
Dr. Patrick: And that's an omega-6 fatty acid for people that are not aware.
Dr. Harris: Correct. This is a classic omega-6. Right. So not all omega-6 are bad. Okay. Well, you all know. I'll send you that paper.
Dr. Patrick: Thank you. Yeah. I mean, the fact that both the DHA and linoleic acid could keep the spike protein in a closed.
Dr. Harris: Yeah. So, I mean, again, a completely different mechanism for suppressing inflammation, this would actually suppress infection if it's true.
Dr. Patrick: And well, not only... It would also suppress, you know, negative outcomes, severe outcomes through the renin-angiotensin system. Like that whole thing not happening, like the bad stuff. So very cool.
Dr. Harris: Yeah. It's cool stuff.
Dr. Patrick: Since you mentioned linoleic acid, and I kind of know there's so many people out there that talk about the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio and how... I'll never forget, I was submitting a paper for a review on omega-3s and I mentioned the omega-3 to omega-6 index ratio and, you know, how it could be negative and this was, you know, years ago and a reviewer just ripped me to shreds. I mean, totally came down with all this evidence that that was not true. Of course, you know, it blew my mind and I was like, "Wow, this seems to be convincing."
Dr. Harris: Well, I thought it was true. I wonder if I reviewed that paper. I don't know too many people or more.
Dr. Patrick: I think I do know who the reviewer was, but anyways, I can tell you off-camera. But I changed my mind basically. So, you know, this whole thought that the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is so important, everyone's so concerned about eating too much omega-6, which, you know, the dietary sources, major net dietary sources these days are vegetable oils, refined oils, but, you know, getting them through and then people become scared about getting them through whole foods like eating nuts, and flaxseed, and healthy food.
Dr. Harris: Oh, yeah. It gets crazy.
Dr. Patrick: Yeah. So what do you think...what are your thoughts on this ratio?
Dr. Harris: I agree. I mean, the ratio, I mean, the concept... Well, we haven't got that much time. Makes some sense. It's just, it's very imprecise because when you say omega-3, you don't know what you're talking about, ALA, EPA, or DHA. Could be any of them. And then when you say omega-6, you don't really know. There's 7 omega-6 fatty acids in the blood, which ones are you talking about? And so you don't know what this ratio...you can't act upon it because you don't know what you're acting upon. The other problem is you can have a high omega-3 intake and a high omega-6 intake or low omega-6 and a low omega-3 and have the same ratio. So that doesn't help because the problem is that you can fix a bad ratio by taking more omega-3, and that's the right way to do it, but you cannot fix and improve your health by leaving your omega-3 intake alone and just lowering your omega-6, which that ratio, people tend to do that. They say, "Well, I got to fix it." Well, the way to fix it, there's only one way to fix it. It's a good way to fix it. So eat more EPA, DHA. That's fine. If you want to play that ratio game and fix it that way, okay.
A type of heart arrhythmia. Atrial fibrillation, also known as A-fib, is characterized by a rapid, irregular heartbeat. It occurs when the electrical signals that regulate blood flow between the upper and lower chambers of the heart become dysregulated. It is the most common form of heart arrhythmia.
An omega-3 fatty acid found in the human brain and the meat of fatty fish. DHA plays a key role in the development of eye and nerve tissues, and is essential for normal brain function in humans. DHA may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease1 and cardiovascular disease, and may be useful in treating certain inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Dietary sources of DHA include krill oil and the meat and roe of salmon, flying fish, and pollock.  Patrick, Rhonda P. "Role of phosphatidylcholine-DHA in preventing APOE4-associated Alzheimer’s disease." The FASEB Journal (2018): fj-201801412R.
An omega-3 fatty acid found in the meat of fatty fish. EPA reduces inflammation in the body and helps counter oxidative stress in cells. It is crucial for modulating behavior and mood and has demonstrated beneficial effects in managing anxiety and depression. EPA may reduce risk of developing certain chronic diseases such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. Dietary sources of EPA include herring, salmon, eel, shrimp and sturgeon.
A chemically modified form of omega-3 fatty acids. Ethyl esters are produced via distillation of the triglyceride form of omega-3 fatty acids. Some evidence suggests they have lower bioavailability than the triglyceride form. Ethyl esters are found in many omega-3 dietary supplements as well as prescription omega-3 medications such as Lovaza and Vascepa.
A genetic condition that causes abnormally high blood lipid levels. Type IIb hypercholesterolemic disorders affect very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. People with type IIb hypercholesterolemia typically have total cholesterol and triglyceride levels above the 90th percentile or apolipoprotein B levels above the 90th percentile, depending on the disorder type.
A genetic condition that causes abnormally high blood lipid levels. Type V hypercholesterolemic disorders increase serum triglycerides, very low density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol, and chylomicrons. People with type V hypercholesterolemia typically have triglyceride levels above the 99th percentile.
A prescription-only dietary supplement used to manage high triglycerides. Lovaza contains the ethyl ester form of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It is typically used in combination with exercise and diet.
A type of polyunsaturated fat that is essential for human health. Omega-3 fatty acids influence cell membrane integrity and affect the function of membrane-bound cellular receptors. They participate in pathways involved in the biosynthesis of hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions. Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mainly in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood. The human body can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, but the efficiency of the process varies between individuals.
A component of blood that aggregates (clumps together) to stop blood flow to injured areas. Platelet aggregation is an early step in the atherosclerotic process. Also called thrombocytes, platelets are not nucleated cells, but fragments of megakaryocytes, a type of bone marrow cell.
The highest level of intake of a given nutrient likely to pose no adverse health effects for nearly all healthy people. As intake increases above the upper intake level, the risk of adverse effects increases.
A molecule composed of a glycerol molecule bound to three fatty acids. Triglycerides are the primary component of very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL). They serve as a source of energy. Triglycerides are metabolized in the intestine, absorbed by intestinal cells, and combined with cholesterol and proteins to form chylomicrons, which are transported in lymph to the bloodstream.
A prescription medication used to reduce the risk of heart attacks. Vascepa contains the ethyl ester form of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. It works in the liver and bloodstream to reduce triglycerides. In contrast to Lovaza, which includes DHA, Vascepa is EPA-only and often given as an adjunct to cholesterol-reducing drugs called statins.
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