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Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Fish Allergies

Q: Cardiovascular disease runs in my family, and since I keep hearing that omega-3 fats are good for the heart, I want to get more of them into my diet. The problem is, I'm allergic to fish. Does this mean I'm allergic to fish oil capsules too? Is there another, natural way to get omega-3s?

Dr. Donnica:
If you are allergic to fish, you should NOT take fish oil supplements or omega-3 fatty acids, despite their health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids may be important in reducing the risk of heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer. They also may play a role in improving mood and memory. While cold water fish are the highest source of omega-3 fatty acids, there are other foods and oils that contain these fatty acids in smaller amounts: walnuts, flax seeds, and flax seed oil. The current recommendation is to have 7 to 11 grams of omega-3 fatty acids each week.

Food allergies affect 5 to 7 million Americans and are the most common cause of anaphylaxis outside of the hospital. They are responsible for 125 deaths per year in the US. The question is whether you have a true allergy or a food intolerance. You should consult a physician to be sure.

Having a food allergy means that your immune system reacts to a specific protein as if it were a threat by releasing histamines and other powerful chemicals, which trigger your allergic symptoms and can range from a rash to an asthma attack to deadly anaphylaxis. While there shouldn't be any proteins in the oil derived from fish in a fish oil capsule, this is one of those issues in which many doctors err on the side of "better safe than sorry". Fish is one of 7 types of foods that account for 90% of all food-related allergic reactions; other foods include peanuts, tree nuts (e.g. walnuts, pecans), milk, soy, wheat, and eggs. While some children may outgrow their food allergies, these allergies in adults tend to increase in severity over time

What else can you do to reduce your risk of heart disease? There are vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, that are available. First, discuss your cardiovascular risk profile with your doctor. If you smoke, stop. If you are overweight, start a heart-healthy weight loss program. Aerobic exercise five times per week for at least 20 minutes may help. Ask your doctor if you should be taking a daily baby aspirin (81 mg). Have your cholesterol tested; if it's elevated, discuss strategies for cholesterol reduction with your doctor.

Created: 4/3/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.
Reviewed: 4/1/2010  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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