The Omega-3 Index is actually two things. Most important, it is a risk factor for heart disease, just like cholesterol. But it is also an actual test you can take to assess your omega-3 status. Unlike a cholesterol test, you don’t need a doctor obtain an Omega-3 Index test. In fact, most doctors won’t automatically test your omega-3 level during annual well visits, even though most people don’t get sufficient amounts of these nutrients from their diets.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. They can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse. But it’s not all bad. Risk factors can also be modified to slow or halt the progression of diseases, and sometime even reverse them completely.
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- Diabetes and prediabetes
- Being overweight or obese
- Being physically inactive
- Having a family history of early heart disease
- Having a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy
- Unhealthy diet
- Age (55 or older for women)
One thing missing from this list is the Omega-3 Index. The hypothesis of the Omega-3 Index as a risk factor for heart disease was first put forth in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Dr. Bill Harris, who co-invented the Omega-3 Index test.
He said the Omega-3 Index fulfills many of the requirements for a risk factor, including consistent epidemiologic evidence, a plausible mechanism of action, a reproducible assay, independence from classic risk factors, modifiability, and, most important, the demonstration that raising levels will reduce risk for cardiac events. In other words, it could be just as important, if not more so, than your cholesterol level.
The Omega-3 Index risk zones are:
- High Risk = <4%
- Intermediate risk = 4–8%
- Low risk = >8%
The Omega-3 Index test is simply a measure of the amount of EPA and DHA in the blood, specifically the red blood cell membranes. For example, if you have 64 fatty acids in a cell membrane and 3 are EPA and DHA, then you would have an Omega-3 Index of 4.6%.
When you take an Omega-3 Index test it gives you a percentage. Well, what does that mean exactly? An Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher is ideal, the lowest risk zone. However, most consumers hover around 6% or below. And unfortunately in the US, most people are at 4% or below – the highest risk zone. Being in the highest risk zone translates to a 90% higher risk of sudden cardiac death.
Most consumers are not familiar with the Omega-3 Index test. In fact, many don’t even know about the health risks associated with low omega-3 levels. And for those who actually do understand what all of this means, there is still a lot of confusion.
For example, will all omega-3s raise the Omega-3 Index? The answer is no. ONLY EPA and DHA omega-3s will raise the Omega-3 Index. ALA, another popular omega-3 found in sources like flax and chia, will have no impact on the Omega-3 Index.
Low omega-3 levels are associated with a multitude of health issues such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, eye disease, and much more.
No matter how healthy you think you are, you should always know your number. Don’t guess what you can test!