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Game-Changing Test to Measure Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Researchers at McMaster and the University of Guelph discovered biomarkers of the Omega-3 Index (O3I) that will make it easier to track levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the bloodstream.

This will also improve access to information critical to cardiovascular and cognitive health. The findings were published in the Journal of Lipid Research.

"Our test can be part of a routine blood test without any special requirements," says lead author Philip Britz-McKibbin, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at McMaster.

The human body must obtain omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources, such as fatty fish and other seafood, nuts and seeds, and plant oils like flaxseed or soybean.

Existing tests to measure the O3I require drawing large volumes of blood and complicated laboratory work to analyze their omega-3 fatty acid content. As a result, patients are not screened for O3I routinely.

The new method, however, can help clinicians and patients understand how much supplementation is necessary.

This should make it much more convenient to do routine testing since dosage levels and product formulations differ widely in their exact omega-3 fatty acid composition.

- Professor Philip Britz-McKibbin

Lauryna Nelkinė, MSc., managing health content researcher at Healthnews who was not involved in the study, calls the new test a “game changer” in healthcare.

"It will allow measuring omega-3 fatty levels much faster, cheaper, and using fewer resources, thus making it more accessible for healthcare professionals, researchers, and individuals. This should help to track one crucial parameter of our health and be more mindful about some very important omega-3s supplementation factors such as dosage, types, and period of supplementation," she says.

The study included two key omega-3 fatty acids, called EPA (eicosatetraenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The participants were given between three and five grams of fish oil, EPA, or DHA supplements per day. The researchers then performed lipid profiling to isolate specific O31 biomarkers from hundreds of detectable circulating lipids.

The research team is now planning to identify a surrogate biomarker of the O3I with a urine-based test, which would eliminate the need to draw blood.

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Benefits of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids deficiency is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular events, inflammation, cognitive impairment, depression, fetal neurodevelopment, and premature birth.

"In general, if you have an O3I below 4 percent, you may have a higher risk for a cardiovascular-related event. Conversely, individuals with an O3I above eight percent have a lower risk. But since O3I is a modifiable risk factor, you can change it through diet," Britz-McKibbin says.

The body's response to omega-3 supplementation can vary significantly between individuals, with distinct health benefits reported for patients who consumed only EPA, only DHA, or a mixture.

- Britz-McKibbin

Nelkinė says adding omega-3 fatty acid supplements to the daily routine may benefit some individuals with decreased levels.

She says, "Especially those who dislike the taste of fish or remove fish from their diets due to religious or environmental concerns or live a busy lifestyle and are not able to include the recommended 2 portions of fish per week."

Eating one to two servings of seafood per week may reduce the risk of some heart problems, especially if seafood replaces less healthy foods, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

For those with heart disease, the AHA recommends consuming about one g per day EPA plus DHA, preferably from oily fish. Supplements are also an option under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

Some studies suggest that people with higher consumption of omega-3s from foods and dietary supplements may be at a lower risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, and other problems with cognitive function. However, more research on omega-3's effects on the brain is needed.

The new test to measure omega-3 fatty acids in blood will allow routine testing for nutrients essential for those with heart disease.

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