Prescription vs. Supplement Omega-3 Fats

What's the Difference?

Gelatinous oil capsules
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Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats, or “good” fats, that include docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Studies in individuals with high triglyceride levels have shown that taking anywhere between 2 and 4 grams of omega-3 fats may be able to reduce triglyceride levels by up to 50%.

Although they are found in foods—such as certain fatty fish and nuts—omega-3 fats are also available in higher amounts in a variety of supplements that can be found on store shelves. Additionally, there are also a few prescription medications that contain omega-3 fatty acids, including Lovaza, Vascepa, and Epanova.

With all of these choices, would taking over-the-counter supplements containing omega-3 fats be just as good as getting a prescription for them?

Supplements or Prescriptions?

Supplements and prescriptions containing omega-3 fatty acids are not all created equal. Both undergo different monitoring requirements set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Over-the-counter products, like the omega-3 fatty acid supplements found in stores, are classified as a “food” by the FDA. This means that it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to make sure that the supplements are safe, free of contaminants, correctly labeled, and made in a safe and clean environment. The only way the FDA will remove a supplement from the market is if there have been a lot of health complaints about the product after it has reached store shelves.

Prescription drugs, on the other hand, are monitored a little bit differently. To be approved for use as a prescription medication, medications containing omega-3 fatty acids must undergo extensive testing before they can be prescribed by healthcare providers and sold in pharmacies. The manufacturers must prove to the FDA that the drug works how it is supposed to, that it is safe, and that the drug contains all of the ingredients stated on the label. They must also disclose any adverse effects experienced by individuals taking the medication.

Another difference between these two types of products is the amount of omega-3 fatty acids they contain. Prescription medications like Lovaza may contain up to 90% omega-3 fatty acids whereas over-the-counter supplements contain roughly between 30 and 50% omega-3 fatty acids, depending on the product. While omega-3 supplements are available to the general public, prescription omega-3 fatty acids are usually indicated for use in individuals who have very high triglyceride levels.

Because omega-3 fatty acid supplements do not have to undergo the extensive testing requirements that prescription omega-3 fatty acids do, they are usually much cheaper. When taken in equivalent amounts, prescription omega-3 fatty acids and over-the-counter omega-3 fatty acid supplements should lower triglycerides in the same manner.

If you are considering adding omega-3 supplements to your lipid-lowering regimen, you should consult with your healthcare provider. Even though they are readily available, they can still cause certain side effects and aggravate certain medical conditions.

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Article Sources

  • Dipiro JT, Talbert RL. Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiological Approach, 9th ed 2014.
  • Pharmaceutical Approvals Monthly. F-D-C Reports. Chevy Chase, MD 2005; 10(2): 34.