The 13th European Nutrition Conference was held at the Convention Centre, Dublin on 15–18 October 2019
Conference on ‘Malnutrition in an obese world: European perspectives’
Symposium 2: Assessment and novel technologies
Omega-3 index in 2018/19
Clemens von Schacky
Omegametrix, Martinsried, Germany and Preventive Cardiology, University of Munich, Germany
The omega-3 index, the percentage of EPA plus DHA in erythrocytes (measured by standar-
dised analysis), represents a human body’s status in EPA and DHA. An omega-3 index is
measured in many laboratories around the world; however, even small differences in analyt-
ical methods entail large differences in results. Nevertheless, results are frequently related to
the target range of 8–11 %, deﬁned for the original and scientiﬁcally validated method (HS-
), raising ethical issues, and calling for standardisation. No human subject
has an omega-3 index <2 %, indicating a vital minimum. Thus, the absence of EPA and
DHA cannot be tested against presence. Moreover, clinical events correlate with levels,
less with the dose of EPA and DHA, and the bioavailability of EPA and DHA varies
inter-individually. Therefore, the effects of EPA and DHA are difﬁcult to demonstrate
using typical drug trial methods. Recent epidemiologic data further support the relevance
of the omega-3 index in the cardiovascular ﬁeld, since total mortality, cardiovascular mor-
tality, cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction or stroke, or blood pressure all
correlate inversely with the omega-3 index. The omega-3 index directly correlates with com-
plex brain functions. Compiling recent data supports the target range for the omega-3 index
of 8–11 % in pregnancy. Many other potential applications have emerged. Some, but not all
health issues mentioned have already been demonstrated to be improved by increasing
intake of EPA and DHA. Increasing the omega-3 index into the target range of 8–11 %
with individualised doses of toxin-free sources for EPA and DHA is tolerable and safe.
n-3 Fatty acids: EPA: DHA
The omega-3 index was deﬁned as the percentage of EPA
and DHA in a total of twenty-six speciﬁc fatty acids in ery-
throcytes in 2004
the highly standardised analytical procedure
. As dis-
cussed in more detail elsewhere, every step of the analytical
method impacts substantially on the result
parameters such as time and vigour of shaking the sample
during lipid extraction, or time and agent used for trans-
methylation impacted on results
. Nevertheless, it was
possible to standardise the analytical method in three geo-
graphically distinct laboratories, with regular proﬁciency
testing demonstrating the fruitfulness of the efforts
Many laboratories around the world have their own
methods to analyse erythrocyte fatty acids, and some
are using these methods to produce results they call
omega-3 index. However, quantitatively, the results dif-
fer from the results obtained with the standardised
method, i.e. are either higher or lower
. This is problem-
atic if the target range of 8–11 % of the standardised
method is used as a reference. This can lead to over sup-
plementation (overshooting the target range, potential
risk of bleeding) or under supplementation (not reaching
the target value, increased risk for total mortality and
other untoward clinical events)
. Either way, non-
Corresponding author: Clemens von Schacky, email email@example.com
Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, Page 1 of 7 doi:10.1017/S0029665120006989
© The Authors 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Nutrition Society.
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Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
standardised measurements create serious ethical issues;
standardising the omega-3 index methodology is needed.
Currently, the standardised analytical method can be
identiﬁed by the trademark HS-Omega-3 Index
with all other laboratory parameters, standardisation of
the omega-3 index is one of the prerequisites for this par-
ameter entering clinical medicine.
The present review of scientiﬁc publications highlights
developments in the past two years.
Omega-3 index and human life
Using the standardised method to analyse erythrocytes,
and more than 20 000 samples from Omegametrix clin-
ical routine determinations, no sample was found with
an omega-3 index <2 % (Fig. 1). The same was true for
tens of thousands of samples from the Omegametrix
two sister laboratories called Omegaquant in Sioux
Falls, SD, USA and Seoul, South Korea (data not
shown). Thus, human life without a deﬁned minimum
of EPA and DHA in erythrocytes remains to be found,
i.e. minimum levels of EPA and DHA seem to be needed
for human life. This puts the discussion, as to whether
EPA and DHA can be considered drugs, to rest. Life
without drugs is possible, whereas life without EPA
and DHA is not.
How the human body maintains these minimum levels
is unclear. Individuals, such as vegans or vegetarians,
ingest minimal amounts EPA and DHA (e.g. in one
study the mean was 1⋅5(
SD 3⋅5) mg/d EPA and 2⋅8
(SD 10⋅1) mg DHA/d according to dietary recall), yet in
these individuals, the mean omega-3 index found was
SD 1⋅0) %
. In vegans or vegetarians, the omega-3
index did not correlate with the intake of α-linolenic
, which was also true for omnivores in a country,
such as Canada, with high intake of α-linolenic contain-
. As a general rule, no level is solely con-
trolled by the inﬂux, i.e. amounts going into the pool,
but also by other factors, such as distribution volume
(pool size), and efﬂux, i.e. amounts leaving the pool.
The pool size for EPA and DHA in human subjects
has not been determined, and what factors regulate the
catabolism of EPA and DHA have not yet been well
deﬁned in quantitative terms. It is not yet clear whether
small amounts of α-linolenic acid are metabolised to
EPA or DHA, or whether catabolism of EPA and
DHA is shut off to maintain a minimum omega-3
. Correspondingly, EPA and DHA might be
essential because life without a minimum omega-3
index is not possible. Alternatively, this may not be the
case if a minimum omega-3 index arises from α-linoleic
acid metabolism to EPA and/or DHA. The question of
essentiality cannot be resolved by simply analysing the
levels of fatty acids, but only by detailed metabolic stud-
ies in appropriate populations.
Issues in trial design
Frequently, clinical research organisations are hired to
conduct a multi-centre trial. By default, clinical research
organisations ask trial participants to ingest their trial
medication in the morning, which was also the case in
many, but not all large trials with clinical endpoints in
the omega-3 ﬁeld
. Trial medication in such trials
frequently was one capsule containing 1 g fat containing
860 mg EPA and DHA
. In many countries, break-
fast is a low-fat meal, if eaten at all. Bioavailability of
EPA and DHA is minimal with a low-fat meal, since
fat absorption requires a number of steps that are acti-
vated by a high-fat, but not by a low-fat meal
other words, the bioavailability of EPA and DHA was
minimised by asking participants to ingest EPA and
DHA in the morning.
Moreover, in all trials so far, participants were
recruited irrespective of their baseline omega-3
. Patients with congestive heart failure with
reduced ejection fraction or major depression are charac-
terised by a low omega-3 index, but in many other health
issues, such as coronary artery disease, this is not neces-
sarily the case
. In addition, uptake of EPA and
DHA has high inter-individual variability, e.g. by a fac-
tor 13 in one trial
. The consequence of both inhomo-
geneous baseline levels and high inter-individual
variability of uptake was that on-trial levels of EPA
and DHA largely overlapped among placebo and
. Since clinical events correlate with
the levels rather than with the intake of omega-3s, this
made it impossible to discern an effect of the intervention
with EPA and DHA
. The issues mentioned here are
discussed in more detail elsewhere
. In the future,
recruitment of trial participants will have to depend on
a low baseline omega-3 index (room for improvement
needed), and doses of EPA and DHA will have to be
individualised, in order to separate the levels in the pla-
cebo and verum groups. Positive trial results in popula-
tions characterised by a low omega-3 index, such as
patients with major depression or congestive heart failure
with reduced ejection fraction, support this approach,
although the dose was not individualised in the pertinent
. Individualising the dose is likely to increase
the effect, and thus reduce the sample size, as well as
reduce the untoward effects
. The latter is supported
by the results of trials using high doses of EPA and/or
DHA, as in the JELIS or REDUCE-It trials
both cases, the cost of a positive trial result was a small
increase in bleeding episodes (0⋅1 %/year)
Unfortunately, perception of the effectiveness of EPA
and DHA in clinical medicine is frequently shaped by the
results of pertinent Cochrane-Analyses. Cochrane-Analyses
include trials based on standardised Cochrane-criteria
designed for drug trials. In areas in which EPA and
DHA have been tested in randomised controlled trials,
Cochrane-Analyses tend to demonstrate no or only small
. This is because Cochrane-criteria do not allow
trials with the design issues just discussed to be excluded.
The magnitude of the potential effects of EPA and DHA
can be estimated by considering the results of
C. von Schacky2
Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
epidemiologic studies, e.g. the Framingham study, using
the original omega-3 index. With an omega-3 index >6⋅8
%, total mortality was 65 % of total mortality with an
omega-3 index <4⋅2%
,reﬂecting very similar results
from earlier studies
. The respective numbers for
total CVD (63 %), total CHD (59 %) and total stroke
(47 %) were similar
. Interestingly, simultaneously mea-
sured cholesterol levels were no risk for any of the events
. The risk for peripheral artery disease was
also substantially lower with a higher omega-3 index
than with a lower omega-3 index
. When dietary intake
was assessed, associations with the health issues men-
tioned were substantially smaller
. Together with
the positive results from large intervention trials, the
numbers mentioned support the use of the omega-3
index to maximise the beneﬁt and minimise the risk of
EPA and DHA in the prevention of mortality and
CVD. In keeping, the American Heart Association has
issued scientiﬁc advisories recommending EPA and
DHA for the secondary prevention of CVD but refrained
from mentioning a dose
Low levels of EPA and DHA precede the development
of congestive heart failure, and a low omega-3 index can
be found in these patients
. A large intervention
trial with approximately 860 mg EPA and DHA daily
in patients with congestive heart failure with reduced
ejection fraction increased the omega-3 index in the
verum group from 4⋅75 (SD 1⋅68) to 6⋅73 (SD 1⋅93) %
after 3 months, whereas it remained constant about
4⋅77 (SD 1⋅60) in the placebo group
. The target range
was not reached, but, since omega-3 index levels in the
verum group were somewhat separated from omega-3
index levels in the placebo group, the primary endpoint,
a combination of total mortality and hospitalisations,
was signiﬁcantly reduced in the verum group
An association between the intake of ﬁsh and blood
pressure was not found
. However, the circulating
levels of EPA and DHA were inversely related to blood
. In a representative assessment of the entire
population of Liechtenstein, the omega-3 index corre-
lated inversely with blood pressure (both systolic and
diastolic), whether assessed over 24 h, during daytime
or night, or conventionally in the ofﬁce. The inverse cor-
relation was independent of age and sex and other con-
founders such as BMI, smoking status, glycated
haemoglobin A1c, educational status, fruit and vegetable
consumption, physical activity and others
Endothelial function improved in intervention trials,
also depending on the omega-3 index
Meta-analyses of intervention trials demonstrated that
EPA and DHA lower blood pressure
Brain and the omega-3 index
As mentioned, in the Framingham study, an omega-3
index of 6⋅8 % was associated with a 53 % lower risk
for total stroke than an omega-3 index of 4⋅2%
the Reduce-It trial, in the verum group, stroke occurred
in ninety-eight patients, whereas it occurred in 134
patients in the placebo group, a 28 % reduction (hazard
ratio 0⋅72, 95 % CI 55, 0⋅93, P=0⋅01)
. Therefore, n-3
fatty acids must be considered a powerful possibility
for preventing the stroke, a catastrophic event for brain
structure and thus brain function.
In an epidemiologic study in children with a mean age
of 4, the omega-3 index correlated with complex brain
functions, such as executive function, in this case assessed
as the dimensional change card sort task
similar ﬁndings from study populations aged 31, 67
and 78 years
. Recent intervention trials conﬁrmed
that improvements in complex brain functions correlate
with omega-3 index, when measured
Pregnancy and lactation
Premature birth before week 34 of pregnancy is more likely
with low levels than with high levels of EPA and DHA in
plasma or erythrocytes, with the risk for preterm birth cor-
relating inversely with those levels
. Another publica-
tion found post-partum depression to strongly depend on
Fig. 1. Omega-3 index (y-axis) in 23 615 erythrocyte samples from Europe (x-axis), as
determined in the clinical routine of Omegametrix
Omega‐3 index in 2018/19 3
Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
the omega-3 index, i.e. with a higher omega-3 index, post-
partum depression was much less likely than with a lower
. Unfortunately, however, the ﬁndings
are not directly comparable to the results obtained with
the original omega-3 index, since different analytical proce-
dures were used
In 2018, a large Cochrane Meta-Analysis clearly found
premature birth to be reduced both before weeks 34 and
37, gestational age to be prolonged by 1⋅67 days (95 % CI
0⋅95, 2⋅39), based on forty-one randomised controlled
trials in 12 517 pregnant women, a lower incidence of
low birth weight 15⋅6v. 14 %; relative risk 0⋅90 (95 %
CI 0⋅82, 0⋅99), based on ﬁfteen randomised controlled
trials in 8 449 pregnant women, and relative risk for peri-
natal death of the child to be 0⋅75 (95 % CI 0⋅54, 1⋅03),
based on ten randomised controlled trials in 7 416 preg-
nant women, and more beneﬁts for mother and child
(all comparisons relative to placebo or control)
the practical conclusion, the authors mentioned: A uni-
versal supplementation can make sense, although, with
better knowledge, it should be aimed for women beneﬁ-
tting the most
Already in 2016, the omega-3 index had been assessed
in an almost representative manner in pregnant and lactat-
ing women in Germany and was found to be between 2⋅49
and 11⋅10 % regardless of timepoint (pregnancy v. lacta-
tion) and whether the woman supplemented EPA and
. Taken together, in this author’s opinion, the
data to date make it necessary to determine the omega-3
index before or early in pregnancy, later in pregnancy
and in lactation to make a targeted supplementation feas-
ible, with a target range of 8–11 % for the omega-3 index.
Omega-3 index in sports medicine
In 2014, we had observed that 106 German world class
athletes had a mean omega-3 index of 4⋅97 (SD 1⋅19) %,
with only one athlete in the target range
. More recently,
similar data were found in 404 US national division I col-
lege football athletes with a mean omega-3 index of 4⋅4(
0⋅8) %, again only one athlete in the target range
Interestingly, the more energy was burned throughout
the season, the lower the omega-3 index became
has important implications for athletes, since a low
omega-3 index predisposes to delayed-onset muscle sore-
ness, and increasing the omega-3 index results in less creat-
(measured as muscle swelling and pro-inﬂammatory cyto-
kines in plasma) and less loss of function
. Joint pain
was reduced with a higher omega-3 index, at least in
. Joint stability, e.g. in the case of the shoulder rota-
tor cuff, was higher with a higher omega-3 index
intervention trial, it had been demonstrated that brain
damage, assessed as neuroﬁlament light (the pertinent bio-
marker), can be reduced with high doses of EPA and DHA
in professional players of American football
these ﬁndings point towards higher membrane stability
with a higher omega-3 index. Together with the aspects
of cognition that have been improved by EPA and DHA
in intervention trials in athletes, such as reaction time
, current data indicate that an omega-3
index in the target range may be an important asset for
the athlete. This is supported by the fact that athletes are
at an increased risk for major depression, suicide and sud-
den cardiac death, all in keeping with a low omega-3 index,
and all seriously impacting on an athlete’s life
Other recent ﬁndings
Conventionally, SFA are considered as a homogenous
group with an ominous effect on life expectancy. With
the determination of the original omega-3 index comes
the measurement of six individual SFA in erythrocytes
It was thus determined that palmitic acid (C16:0) was
associated with increased total mortality in a 10-year epi-
demiologic study of 3259 participants, while the other
erythrocyte SFA investigated (C14:0, C18:0, C20:0,
C22:0, C24:0) had no association with total mortality
In a meta-analysis, higher levels of palmitic acid were
associated with a higher risk for developing type 2 dia-
. In a single study, this was also true for gesta-
. Cell membrane levels of palmitic acid
are partly derived from ingested palmitic acid, and partly
produced endogenously, e.g. in reaction to energetic sur-
. Together with other ﬁndings of individual struc-
ture, metabolism, biologic effects and impacts on life
expectancy, our ﬁndings question the conventional group-
wise nomenclature of fatty acids (e.g. SFA, PUFA and
others), as well as the conventional recommendation to
avoid all SFA. Whether high levels of palmitic acid
might be a biomarker for metabolically untoward body
fat, such as excess hepatic fat, remains to be investigated,
which is also true for the potential effects of actively redu-
cing levels of palmitic acid.
The ﬁndings just discussed were mirrored in an epide-
miologic study in children with a median age of 11 years,
with palmitic acid correlating positively with waist cir-
cumference, TAG, fasting insulin and fatty liver index,
against the background of a low omega-3 index (4⋅7
(SD 0⋅8) %)
. Interestingly, the levels of arachidonic
acid correlated inversely with the parameters men-
. According to a recent meta-analysis, high
levels of EPA and DHA in plasma or erythrocytes
were associated with a low risk for the metabolic syn-
. Thus, the omega-3 index makes it possible to
investigate the relations between metabolism and
non-n-3 fatty acids in more detail.
In patients with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic
encephalomyelitis, a low mean omega-3 index was
. Chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalo-
myelitis is a debilitating chronic medical condition with-
out a known aetiology, no clinically established
diagnostic test and no effective pharmacologic treat-
. Our ﬁndings add chronic fatigue syndrome/
myalgic encephalomyelitis to the list of chronic inﬂam-
matory diseases where EPA and DHA should be tested
in intervention trials for potential therapeutic value
Some recent intervention trials with EPA and DHA
had neutral results. In one trial, it became clear by meas-
uring the omega-3 index that this was due to participants’
C. von Schacky4
Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
. In another trial, effects on cognitive
parameters were smaller than expected within the
16-week trial period, demonstrating the difﬁculties of
In the years 2018 and 2019, a perspective on EPA and
DHA levels has proven useful to generate new knowl-
edge on fatty acids, such as there is no human life with
an omega-3 index ≤2 % in erythrocytes. Deﬁcits in
EPA and DHA, i.e. an omega-3 index below the target
range of 8–11 %, have been found in many countries
and populations. A deﬁcit in EPA and DHA is asso-
ciated with increased total mortality, fatal and non-fatal
cardiovascular events, stroke, impaired cognition, pre-
mature birth, perinatal mortality and other health
EPA and DHA in the population studied is required
for positive results of a randomised controlled interven-
tion trial. Reducing a deﬁcit in EPA and DHA prolongs
life, and reduces fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular
events, strokes, premature birth, perinatal mortality and
other health issues. In a trial, this can only be detected if
the levels in the verum group differ sufﬁciently from the
levels in the placebo or control group. Increasing the
omega-3 index into the target range of 8–11 % with indi-
vidualised doses of toxin-free sources for EPA and DHA
is tolerable and safe.
The present work was not supported by any funding
agency or by industry.
Conﬂict of Interest
C. v. S. operates Omegametrix, a laboratory for fatty
acid analyses. In the past 3 years, C. v. S. received hon-
oraria for speaking and consulting from BASF/Pronova,
EPAX, Huntsworth Medical, Abbott, DSM, Marine
Ingredients and Norsan.
The author had sole responsibility for all aspects of
preparation of this paper.
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