Arrhythmias and fish oil

Some pre-4th of July fireworks arrived in my e-mail inbox this week. It was a warm blast of exclamation points exploding around sections of italicized phrases and underscored sentences from HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D.

The e-mail begins: “Boy, you can sure tell conventional medicine is out to get nutrient therapies! This week’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has this absurd study on using fish oil as an anti-arrhythmic agent.”

Throw a blanket on the lawn and grab a cold beverage as we enjoy the bright lights bursting in air.

What could go wrong?

There are several types of arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms); some cause only mild chest discomfort, while others prompt heart attacks and strokes.

Researchers at the Wageningen Centre for Food Science in the Netherlands recruited 546 subjects with arrhythmias to take two grams of fish oil per day or a placebo. On average, the intervention group took the fish oil supplement for 356 days. The conclusion: “Our findings do not indicate evidence of a strong protective effect of intake of omega-3 PUFAs from fish oil against ventricular arrhythmia in patients with ICDs.”

ICDs – that’s one little wrinkle I didn’t mention. ALL subjects had implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) and they all had been diagnosed with either malignant ventricular tachydardia (VT) or ventricular fibrillation (VF).

Here’s Dr. Spreen’s take on ICDs, etc.: “The patients were so sick that they already had ICDs implanted within them! The evaluation was testing fish oil against malignant VT, the second worst type of arrhythmia; VF, the absolute worst, deadliest, hardest to get and hardest to stop arrhythmia; and sudden death! Even drugs won’t work against VF once a person gets it, which is the only reason why you’d EVER surgically implant an ICD in a person in the first place!

“Fish oil is dose related. The study used 2 grams/day – that’s not enough for much of anything. And if you really need an effect you’d start at 6 grams (and for VF you’d REALLY need an effect.) Now, re-run the test with high-dose CoQ-10, some magnesium and some L-carnitine, and you might have yourself an interesting study (though as sick as these people already were it would still be iffy).

“Chances are good that any drug, nutrient, or properly performed rain dance would fail that study.”

Get real

Unfortunately, the absurd aspects of the JAMA study sailed right over the heads of media outlets that reported the study. Here are two headlines I came across:

“Fish Oils may Not Protect Hearts”

“Fish Oil Won’t Fix Abnormal Heart Rhythms: Study”

Meanwhile, back here on planet Reality, fish oil supplements HAVE shown benefits for arrhythmia patients. For instance, in the e-Alert “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” (10/25/04), I told you about a study in which 65 subjects with arrhythmias (but no coronary heart disease or heart failure) were divided into two groups. One group received three grams of fish oil daily; the other received a placebo.

At the conclusion of the six-month trial, subjects in the fish oil group showed a decrease in several types of arrhythmias. In addition, triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels dropped, while HDL cholesterol went up. In the placebo group, none of these levels changed, and arrhythmias that were noted at the beginning of the study remained the same.

I agree with Dr. Spreen’s suspicions about the JAMA study. You have to ask: What is the purpose of such an oddly designed study (let’s just say it: a stacked deck) in one of the most prestigious and widely read medical journals in the world?

“Effect of Fish Oil on Ventricular Tachyarrhythmia and Death in Patients With Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 295, No. 22, 6/14/06,
“Fish Oils may Not Protect Hearts” Ivanhoe Newswire, 6/14/06,
“Fish Oil Won’t Fix Abnormal Heart Rhythms: Study” HealthDay News, 6/13/06,