Arresting Arrhythmias With Fish Oil
Julian Whitaker, MD
A hundred thousand times a day, 35 million times a year, 2.5 billion times during the average lifetime, the human heart beats in a rhythmic, regular cadence. This steady, dependable tempo is something you take for granted—unless you have an arrhythmia, or abnormality in the rate or rhythm of the heart.
Most of us have at one time or another experienced the unpleasant feeling that your heart is beating erratically or rapidly, “flip-flopping,” or “leaping out of your chest.” This is a generally benign occurrence that may be caused by stress or excess caffeine. But arrhythmias can take many forms. Your heart can beat too fast (tachycardia), too slow (bradycardia), or irregularly (fibrillation). All of these arrhythmias come in varying degrees of severity—some infrequent and harmless, others serious and even life-threatening.
Treatment depends on the type and seriousness of the arrhythmia and ranges from implanted pacemakers and defibrillators to drugs that slow the heart rate to acupuncture, which is particularly effective for atrial fibrillation. This subject is obviously very broad and nuanced, so I’m going to narrow our discussion to how you can protect yourself against the most serious type of rhythm disturbance, which claims the lives of 325,000 Americans every year.
Arrhythmias and Sudden Cardiac Death
When you hear about someone who drops dead out of the blue, that person was likely the victim of sudden cardiac death, also called cardiac arrest. It’s different from a fatal heart attack, which is caused by a blockage in a blood vessel that impedes blood flow to the heart muscle. Sudden cardiac death occurs when the heart’s electrical system misfires, causing the ventricles, the large lower chambers of the heart, to quiver rapidly and chaotically.
This condition, known as ventricular fibrillation (not to be confused with atrial fibrillation), interferes with the ventricles’ pumping ability, and without blood flow to the brain, loss of consciousness occurs within a minute. Unless a defibrillator is on hand to shock the heart back into normal rhythm, death quickly ensues—about 70 percent of people with ventricular fibrillation don’t even make it to the hospital alive.
Although sudden cardiac death sometimes happens to people who appear healthy, the vast majority have underlying coronary artery disease, and most have had a previous heart attack, often unbeknownst to them. Many also have a preexisting arrhythmia or a low ejection fraction, which is another sign of poor heart function.
Conventional physicians treat at-risk patients with drugs to slow down or normalize heart rhythms, but they are not very effective in preventing cardiac arrest—plus they have a plethora of adverse effects. Other treatment options include catheter ablation, destruction of areas of the heart muscle where erratic electrical signals originate, or implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs), which shock the heart back into normal rhythm if dangerous arrhythmias crop up.
Fortunately, there’s a safe, inexpensive supplement that not only reduces risk of ventricular fibrillation but also helps ward off heart disease on a number of fronts.
Fishing for a Safe, Effective Therapy
We’ve known for a long time that fish oil protects against cardiovascular disease. This was first noted in the early 1970s by Danish researchers who observed that Greenland Eskimos subsisting on fish and marine mammals had a very low death rate from heart disease. Since then, more than 4,500 studies have demonstrated the cardiovascular benefits of eating fish and taking fish oil supplements.
EPA and DHA, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, lower triglyceride levels, improve the health of the arteries, curb inflammation and plaque growth, decrease the likelihood of blood clots, help reduce blood pressure, and provide significant protection against lethal arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.
The largest study of fish oil’s anti-arrhythmic effects, a three-year placebo-controlled trial conducted in Italy, involved more than 11,000 people with a recent history of heart attacks. Those who took 1,000 mg of fish oil a day had a 40 percent reduction in sudden cardiac death! Earlier this year, Greek researchers found that the omega-3s in fish oil are also protective of people without cardiovascular disease—those who ate fish regularly had a much lower incidence of cardiac arrhythmias.
What Doctors Don’t Know Can Hurt You
Guidelines of the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology, and international medical organizations support the use of fish oil supplements—especially for patients who have just survived a heart attack, when the risk of sudden cardiac death is most acute. In Italy, a prescription for fish oil is standard operating procedure upon leaving the hospital. In fact, neglecting to prescribe it would be considered malpractice. But in the United States, you’d be more likely to get an ICD than a prescription for fish oil.
According to a study published last year in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, only 57 percent of doctors surveyed knew about the benefits of fish oil for patients with cardiovascular disease, and a mere 17 percent (those most likely to be aware of fish oil’s role in preventing sudden cardiac death) were considered to be “high fish prescribers.”
These guys are asleep at the wheel. They’re either not paying attention to the research (which is inexcusable, considering how long it has been around), or they’re just plain leery of recommending nutritional supplements to their patients. This is why I joined a lengthy, expensive lawsuit several years ago that finally forced the FDA to allow fish oil manufacturers to educate consumers about the benefits of their supplements. If patients aren’t getting this information from their doctors, they should at least be able to get it on their own.
After seven years of litigation and the loss of an estimated one million lives that might have been saved (had people known about the protective effects of fish oil against sudden cardiac death), the following claim is now allowed on fish oil labels: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
Best Source of Omega-3s?
I’m a strong proponent of including fish in your diet, and I personally eat salmon two or three times a week. However, I’m enough of a realist to recognize that most people just aren’t going to do this. So I maintain that the best way to ensure adequate intake of EPA and DHA is to take fish oil supplements—even if you eat fish.
Most fish oil supplements from reputable manufacturers are of good quality. Concerns about mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and other contaminants are overblown. In fact, supplements are much cleaner than fresh fish in this regard. Lipid peroxidation (rancidity) used to be an issue, but stabilization techniques have improved dramatically in recent years. (If you burp up a supplement, it may taste a little fishy, but it shouldn’t taste rancid. If it does, switch to another brand.)
You may have heard about OMACOR, the only FDA-approved, prescription fish oil. The only advantage of this “drug” is that it’s highly concentrated (each capsule contains 465 mg of EPA and 375 mg DHA), so you get higher doses with fewer capsules. The downside is that OMACOR costs more than a dollar a capsule, and your insurance may or may not cover it. I suspect that most of you would rather pop a few extra standard fish oil supplements or take more concentrated products (liquid or capsules), which are available over-the-counter for a fraction of the cost.
“A fish a day keeps the doctor away” may not have the same ring as the old apple adage, but fish oil packs a powerful punch and should be a part of everyone’s daily regimen.
- To protect against malignant cardiac arrhythmias, eat at least two servings of low-mercury, cold-water fish weekly, and supplement daily with 2–8 grams of fish oil.
- As I said earlier, ventricular fibrillation is just one type of arrhythmia. We have pretty good success at the Whitaker Wellness Institute helping patients get a handle on atrial fibrillation and other types of arrhythmias with acupuncture, IV and oral magnesium, coenzyme Q10, and other therapies.
- To make an appointment for these treatments at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, contact a Patient Services Representative at (866) 944-8253 or click here.
- Chrysohoou C, et al. Long-term fish consumption is associated with protection against arrhythmia in healthy persons in a Mediterranean region—the ATTICA study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 May;85(5):1385–1391.
- Marchioli R, et al. Early protection against sudden death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids after myocardial infarction. Circulation. 2002 Apr 23;105(16):1897–1903.
- Oh RC, et al. The Fish in Secondary Prevention of Heart Disease (FISH) survey—primary care physicians and omega-3 fatty acid prescribing behaviors. J Am Board Fam Med. 2006 Sept;19:459–467.
Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Copyright 2007. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.