Although the supplements did increase fatty acid levels in the blood (they didn't change in the control group), they didn't improve anything else.
Patients receiving the twice-daily supplements were on ventilators longer (14 days vs. 10.8 for the control arm), stayed in the ICU longer (14 days vs. 11.3 days) and had more days of diarrhea.
They were also more likely to die. After 60 days, 26.6 people receiving omega-3 had died vs. 16.3 percent in the control group. However, the difference was not considered to be clinically significant.
There were some differences between this study and the previous ones that may help explain the different results.
Unlike previous studies, in this trial regular nutrition was delivered separately from the supplements and in two doses as opposed to a continuous feed.
"We thought it would be a benefit for patients who couldn't tolerate full feeding," explained Rice, an assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
And previous control mixes were high in fat, whereas this one was mostly carbohydrates.
But it's unclear at this point if these differences actually can explain the divergent results, if there are other factors at play or if nutritional supplements really don't hold out any hope for these critically ill patients.
"The next logical step," said Rice, "is to look at the different components, fatty acids, carbohydrates and protein, to see if any of them make a difference in improving outcomes."
Adding nutritional supplements is not "the standard of care" at this time, said Dr. Hormoz Ashtyani, director of pulmonary critical care and sleep medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
"Now we have a couple of smaller papers that say this helps somewhat and a bigger one that says it do
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