Until recently, the intake of fish oil and other omega-3 sources was discouraged by medical professionals because of purported blood-thinning effects and subsequent post-op bleeding risk associated with these fatty acids.
Various recent studies show that there’s “no difference in surgical bleeding when patients take fish oil” and that “omega-3 PUFA supplementation after major abdominal surgery did not increase bleeding risk”.
In fact, some scientific reviews show less bleeding in patients who had been taking omega 3 supplements.
What’s more, fish oil or omega-3 supplementation has shown to have noteworthy benefits for surgical patients. * PUFA means: polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)
The benefits and safety of taking fish oil / omega-3 when having surgery
During my years practicing in the field of general surgery, I have come across some consultant surgeons who refuse to operate on anyone taking herbal supplements or alternative medications.
This is because they are only exposed to the traditional Western medications and do not understand these supplements themselves. It is a common misconception that these pills are not scientifically backed and may be detrimental to their patient’s operation.
However, this is not always the case. Nowadays, many people are looking for alternatives, or complimentary treatments, to traditional Western medicine.
Because of this, more and more clinical trials have been performed on these commonly used supplements. In this article, I will discuss how Omega-3 fatty acids may be of benefit to the surgical patient.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 is not a single nutrient. It is actually a family of fatty acids that can be broken down into 3 compounds,
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA),
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
This is why it has the ‘3’ in its name.
These compounds cannot be made by the body and therefore need to be sourced from our foods.
Animal sources like cod and other oily fish provide EHA and DHA. Plant or nut sources of omega-3, such as flax seed and walnuts, contain ALA.
Omega-3 has been linked to a host of benefits including, but not limited to:
- Preventing heart disease and lowering levels of a specific type of fat, known as triglycerides
- Reducing inflammation
- Improving the body’s ability to fight disease
- Improving blood flow in diabetics
- Improving brain function
- Preventing the loss of muscle mass
What Does This Mean For Surgical Patients?
5 Benefits of Taking Omega 3 Supplements Before and After Surgery
1. Omega 3 helps protect your heart
Let’s talk about its most famous health benefit first: protecting the heart. Taking omega-3 supplements will lower triglyceride levels.
Triglycerides are a specific type of fat that blocks the blood vessels going to the heart. Reducing the levels of this fat molecule has been associated with a decreased overall risk of heart disease.
There is always a small risk of getting a heart attack during or after surgery, especially those that require the patient to be put completely to sleep or last longer than 4 hours.
A patient who is taking omega-3 supplements prior to surgery may have a stronger heart to begin with and therefore this risk is reduced. It has also been found that omega-3 supplements are associated a steadier heart rhythm.
This is an important factor specifically for patients undergoing valve replacements, bypass surgery or any type of heart surgery as it lowers the risk of heart attacks after the procedure.
“When combined with the amino acid L-arginine, fish oil was found to reduce post-surgical inflammation in patients undergoing colorectal and heart surgery.”
“Omega-3 supplements lowered the risk of post-operative atrial fibrillation in heart bypass patients by 54%; as well as shorter hospital stays.”
2. Omega 3 reduces inflammation
Another benefit of omega-3 supplements that impacts all surgical patients is its ability to reduce inflammation. Thus speeding the post-op recovery process.
All surgery will result in inflammation because inflammation results from any damage or trauma to cells. Inflammation eventually leads to healing but is hallmarked by swelling, redness and pain as well.
This is why patients may require painkillers known as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) after surgery. A common example of an NSAID is Ibuprofen.
Omega-3 reduces inflammation and therefore also reduces pain. This is an important benefit for surgical patients who are known to have stomach ulcers and kidney disease because these patients cannot take NSAIDs.
“Omega-3 supplements have been shown to reduce pain after surgery without any major side effects”.
3. Omega 3 aids those with diabetes
Diabetic patients are a particular group of patients who would benefit from omega-3 supplements. Diabetes reduces the ability of the person’s immune system to fight off infection.
In addition, diabetes affects the lining of the blood vessels, known as the endothelium, causing them to harden.
There is less delivery of nutrients to the organs they supply blood to. This is a disaster as far as surgery is concerned because the patient’s incision wound will not heal properly.
Omega-3 supplements protect against both of these harmful occurrences. Patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease may also be at risk of stroke after surgery. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is blocked.
4. Omega 3 enhances brain function
Omega-3, DHA in particular, has been proven to improve brain function and speed up the recovery process from an early stroke. Omega-3 is therefore a good supplement for patients about to undergo any type of brain surgery.
5. Omega 3 helps cancer patients heal
Finally, cancer patients also benefit from omega-3. Cancer patients are known to be cachexic or wasted away. This means that they are losing both muscle and fat without intending to. Cancer increases your body’s metabolic rate.
This leads to the breakdown of muscle mass, and proteins in general, which become used up as a source of energy when fat and sugar are not available.
This is how cancer leads to cachexia. However, the body needs proteins for optimum wound healing postoperatively.
Therefore, a cancer patient suffering from cachexia would not have enough proteins to heal properly.
Omega-3 has been shown to stop the loss of muscle mass and prevent them from wasting away thereby helping cancer patients’ wounds close faster.
Bleeding Risk And Omega-3
It is also important to mention that omega-3 was previously thought to increase the risk of bleeding in surgery.
Different types of cells and substances in the body need to be arranged in a particular order to form a blood clot.
The presence of omega-3 was thought to disturb this arrangement and lead to excessive bleeding.
This, naturally, would cause fear in surgeons since the ability to make blood clots is one of the minimum requirements before embarking on any surgery.
However, this theory has now been proven false. There is therefore no need to stop omega-3 supplements before scheduling an operation.
Omega-3 supplements are one of the most widely used supplements worldwide. The newest use of Omega-3 as a painkiller is a much-needed discovery in the surgical field.
New methods to control pain without the worry of life-threatening side effects are always welcome. This article has highlighted the particular benefits of this supplement as applied to surgical patients.
Our bodies are incredibly well equipped for repairing themselves and healing after an operation. Taking an omega-3 supplement is a step in the right direction to providing the right conditions for this to occur.
Buying Your Omega-3 Supplement
It is important to note that the purity of the source of omega-3 should be taken into account when buying any over-the-counter supplements.
Manufacturers talk about the EPA/DHA ratio in their supplements. This is because the different fatty acids have been known to be better for certain things than others.
For example, EPA is better for reducing inflammation and DHA is better for brain development. The EPA/DHA ratio reflects which omega-3 fatty acid is predominant in that brand’s formulation.
However, it is actually not such an important factor when choosing a supplement since both EPA and DHA need to work together to have optimum benefits.
It is more important to choose a supplement that delivers all the different types of omega-3 fatty acids so that the body can choose which particular one it needs most of, whilst still having enough of the other nutrients to assist in proper absorption and function.
A popular brand, valued for it’s optimal EPA/DHA ratio is .
The recommended dose is 1200-2400mg per day.
By Dr Denise Karlyn Quion Hee
Mb BCh BAO, MRCS
One more thing..
About avoiding omega 6 fatty acids
Dietary omega-3 dietary reduces systemic inflammation. In addition, and more importantly, it’s helpful to reduce your omega-6 fatty acid intake as these fatty acids are pro-inflammatory.
Cut back on (or avoid completely) industrial seed oils such as granola oil, corn oil, and soy oil. Health and diet experts such as Mark Sisson from point out that it’s largely of what you eliminate from your diet that has the greatest effect.
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