3 and a Healthy Heart
Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fats, one
of four basic types of fat that the body derives from food. (Cholesterol, saturated
fat, and monounsaturated fat are the others.) All polyunsaturated fats, including
the omega-3s, are increasingly recognized as important to human health.
Eating too many foods rich in saturated fats has been associated
with the development of degenerative diseases, including heart disease and even
cancer. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, however, are actually good for you. Omega-3s
(found primarily in cold-water fish) fall into this category, along with omega-6s,
Why "essential?" Omega-3s (and omega-6s) are termed
essential fatty acids (EFAs) because they are critical for good health. However,
the body cannot make them on its own. For this reason, omega-3s must be obtained
from food, thus making outside sources of these fats "essential."
Although the body needs both omega-3s and omega-6s to thrive, most people consume
far more 6s than 3s. Hardly a day goes by, however, without reports of another
health benefit associated with omega-3s. For this reason, many experts recommend
consuming a better balance these two EFAs.
Scientists made one of the first associations between omega-3s
and human health while studying the Inuit (Eskimo) people of Greenland in the
1970s. As a group, the Inuit suffered far less from certain diseases (coronary
heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, psoriasis) than their
European counterparts. Yet their diet was very high in fat from eating whale,
seal, and salmon. Eventually researchers realized that these foods were all
rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which provided real disease-countering benefits.
Researchers continue to explore this exciting field. They've
found that without a sufficient supply of polyunsaturated omega-3s, the body
will use saturated fat to construct cell membranes. The resulting cell membranes,
however, are less elastic, a situation that can have a negative effect on the
heart because it makes it harder to return to a resting state.
In addition, nutritionists have come to recognize the importance
of balancing omega-3 fatty acids with omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. Because
most people on a typical Western diet consume far more omega-6-rich foods (including
cereals, whole-grain bread, baked goods, fried foods, margarine, and others),
the ratio is out of balance for almost everyone. This means for most Americans
the emphasis now needs to be on increasing omega-3s to make the ratio more even.
The bottom line: Omega-3s appear to help prevent and treat various disorders
in different ways. For example, research suggests that in individuals with non-insulin-dependent
(or type 2) diabetes, omega-3s can improve insulin sensitivity. They work yet
another way to ease menstrual pain, and so on.
Specifically, omega-3s in fish oil or other forms may help
- Improve heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to play a part
in keeping cholesterol levels low, stabilizing irregular heart beat (arrhythmia),
and reducing blood pressure.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also natural blood thinners, reducing the "stickiness"
of blood cells (called platelet aggregation), which can lead to such complications
as blood clots and stroke.
- Reduce hypertension. Studies of large groups of people have found that the
more omega-3 fatty acids people consume, the lower their overall blood pressure
level is. This was the case with the Greenland Eskimos who ate a lot of oily,
cold-water fish, for example.
- Improve rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Raynaud's disease, and other autoimmune
diseases. Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish oils) have been
shown to increase survival in people with autoimmune diseases. This is probably
because the omega-3s help the arteries--as well as many other parts of the
body--stay inflammation free. EPA is successful at this because it can be
converted into natural anti-inflammatory substances called prostaglandins
and leukotrienes, compounds that help decrease inflammation and pain.
In numerous studies over the years, participants with inflammatory diseases
have reported less joint stiffness, swelling, tenderness, and overall fatigue
when taking omega-3s.
In 1998, an exciting review of well-designed, randomized clinical trials reported
that omega-3 fatty acids were more successful than a placebo ("dummy
drug") in improving the condition of people with rheumatoid arthritis.
The research also showed that getting more omega-3 fatty acids enabled some
participants to reduce their use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Improve depression and symptoms of other mental health problems. The brain
is remarkably fatty: In fact, this organ is 60% fat and needs omega-3s to
function properly. Now researchers have discovered a link between mood disorders
and the presence of low concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids in the body.
Apparently, omega-3s help regulate mental health problems because they enhance
the ability of brain-cell receptors to comprehend mood-related signals from
other neurons in the brain. In other words, the omega-3s are believed to help
keep the brain's entire traffic pattern of thoughts, reactions, and reflexes
running smoothly and efficiently.
Clinical trials are underway to further investigate whether supplementing
the diet with omega-3s will reduce the severity of such psychiatric problems
as mild to moderate depression, dementia, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Interestingly, the oil used to help the child with a degenerative nerve disorder
in the popular film Lorenzo's Oil was an omega-3 fatty acid.
- Aid cancer prevention and cancer support. Preliminary research from the
University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may
help maintain healthy breast tissue and prevent breast cancer. Also, in a
recent study, participants who supplemented their diet with fish oils produced
fewer quantities of a carcinogen associated with colon cancer than did a placebo
group. More research into this exciting use for omega-3s is underway.
Dosage Information for a healthy heart
There is no established recommended daily intake for omega-3s, but a healthy
diet containing significant amounts of foods rich in this essential fatty acid
is clearly wise. By increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, you will
naturally bring the ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids back into a healthier,
2-1 or (optimally) 1-1 balance.
Try to reduce your consumption of omega-6-rich foods at the same time that you
increase your intake of omega-3-rich foods in the following categories:
- Marine sources: Atlantic salmon and other fatty, preferably
cold-water fish, including herring (both Atlantic and Pacific), sardines,
Atlantic halibut, bluefish, tuna, and Atlantic mackerel. The American Heart
Association recommends that people eat tuna or salmon at least twice a week.
As a reasonable substitute (or even an occasional alternative) for fresh fish,
commercial fish oil capsules are available containing omega-3s such as DHA
- Wild game: Surprisingly, venison and buffalo are both good
sources of omega-3s and make a healthy choice for people craving meat. These
wild game meats can be purchased through mail-order sources if your supermarket
doesn't carry them.
- Plant sources: Canola oil, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts,
and leafy green vegetables such as purslane are all good sources of alpha-linolenic
acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3. A quarter-cup (1 ounce) of walnuts supplies
about 2 grams of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, slightly more than is found
in 3 ounces of salmon
- Enhanced food: In the U.S., these include omega-3 enriched
eggs; breads are sometimes enhanced in other countries.
Guidelines for Use
Pregnant women and infants need plenty of omega-3s to nourish the developing
brain of the fetus and young child. If a pregnant woman gets too few omega-3s,
the growing fetus will take all that's available. This could set the stage for
depression in the mother. Talk to your obstetrician and pediatrician about specific
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with increased
consumption of omega-3 fatty acids through foods. However, if you decide to
take omega-3s through supplements (especially those containing fish oils), be
sure to check with your doctor first if you are taking a blood-thinner such
as warfarin or heparin.
Possible Side Effects
There are no known side effects associated with increasing your intake of omega-3
fatty acids through foods.
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