As many of you have seen, a study was just released by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center suggesting that omega-3s cause prostate cancer. One headline I saw read, “Taking omega-3 fish oil supplements may increase the risk of aggressive prostate cancer by 70%.” Those types of headlines definitely sell newspapers, but the science is not that simple—or accurate.
First off, this wasn’t a double-blind study purely on omega-3s.
To reach this conclusion, the researchers reanalyzed their findings from the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT), which accurately warned men about the relationship between vitamin E and prostate cancer
. This similar group of researchers discovered a 17% increase in prostate cancer among men taking 400 IU of dl-alpha tocopherol—which I believe is essentially an overdose of this one form of vitamin E.
The trouble is that too much vitamin E can have a pro-oxidant effect on HDL cholesterol which can adversely affect the immune system. In addition, when you take too much of one vitamin E derivative as they did in the SELECT study it will not eradicate the peroxynitrite radical. That’s the reason I prefer gamma tocopherol and mixed tocopherols which are what I include in my formulas.
But vitamin E wasn’t the only factor that contaminated the SELECT trial. Some of the the participants were also on prescription medications, and many of them smoked and drank alcohol. A study like this would carry much more weight if it didn’t have all of these other confounding variables.
What’s also interesting is the reason why the researchers conducted this analysis. They did it to confirm previous research that they reported from the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial, which showed that omega-3s were associated with high-risk prostate cancer, while trans-fatty acids and omega-6s are associated with lower rates of high-risk prostate cancer. If you listen to these findings, you would throw out your fish oil and load up on trans-fats.
It's also important to note that the omega-3 prostate cancer connection in this study was trying to connect too many dots and it suggested association but definitely not causation. This is a huge leap of faith! Plus, we don't know if the participants were taking omega-3 supplements or eating omega-3 rich foods since it wasn't a controlled trial. So, the entire conclusion of the study was based on a mere .2% difference in the participants' omega-3 levels. Plus, what they didn’t report is that one of the most important risk factors for prostate cancer in their data was having a first degree relative with prostate cancer.
This research also doesn’t make sense when you put it against the backdrop of everything we know about omega-3s and prostate cancer. First off, populations with the biggest intake of omega-3s from fish—such as the Eskimos, Japanese, and the Inuits of Greenland—have some of the lowest incidences of prostate cancer. For the Japanese, the incidence of prostate cancer is a full 10 times lower than it is for Americans.
Plus, there’s a tremendous amount of research showing omega-3s reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Here are just a few examples:
• A 2003 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that fish consumption—more than three times a week—was associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer. Plus, the strongest correlation was for the most aggressive, metastatic cancer.
• A 2001 study in the Lancet studied 6,272 Swedish men over three decades and found that men who didn’t eat fish had a two- to three-fold higher risk of prostate cancer than those who ate moderate or high amounts.
• A meta-analysis published in the 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no protective effect on the incidence of prostate cancer among those who eat fish, but showed a 63% reduction in mortality from prostate cancer.
So what’s the bottom line? This research doesn’t change my mind about omega-3s, as I take a ton of omega-3s myself. I already took them this morning and will take them again this evening, as I do every day.
Your body needs omega-3s for healthy blood pressure, arterial functioning, circulation, eye health, mental processing, and more. In fact, omega-3s are called an “essential fatty acid” because your body requires them—but can’t manufacture them—so you need to get them from food or supplements.
Now it's your turn: What do you think of this study?
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