Fatty Acids Fight Heart Disease, Arthritis, Obesity and More
In Japan and other nations where fish is a dietary staple, many disease rates are significantly lower than in Western countries.
Omega-3 fatty acids -- lipid compounds that are a major constituent of fish oil -- receive much of the credit for this difference.
Many people now take omega-3 supplements to reduce their risk for heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity and other health problems. But do omega-3s really deliver all these salutary effects?
To get the facts, Bottom Line/Health spoke to distinguished researcher Andrew L. Stoll, MD...
Why are omega-3 fatty acids important? Essential fatty acids are dietary constituents that promote good health.
In addition to omega-3, there's another essential fatty acid known as omega-6. For optimum health, we need to consume roughly the same amount of omega-3s and omega-6s.
But Americans eat small quantities of fish and even less omega-3-containing plants, such as flax and the salad green purslane. Instead, our diets are loaded with omega-6-rich oils -- corn, sunflower and most oils in processed foods. We eat 10 to 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.
Why is this unhealthful? Omega-3s contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). When we consume this beneficial fat, much of it gets converted into eicosanoids, hormone-like substances that direct the inflammatory response and other functions within the immune system, heart and brain.
Omega-6s contain the fatty acid arachidonic acid. This substance also turns into eicosanoids -- but with a critical difference.
Omega-6 eicosanoids are strongly inflammatory, while omega-3 eicosanoids are only mildly inflammatory or, in some cases, anti-inflammatory.
That's why balance is so important. Without it, uncontrolled inflammatory responses can damage virtually any organ system in the body.
How do omega-3s protect the heart? By offsetting omega-6s, omega-3s reduce atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Without omega-3s, omega-6s can inflame and damage coronary arteries, allowing plaque buildup.
Omega-3s also raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which transports plaque-causing cholesterol out of the body.
EPA prevents blood platelets from sticking together, reducing the risk for clotting.
Omega-3s also help inhibit arrhythmia (erratic heartbeat), the leading factor in fatal heart attacks. Research shows that at least 1 g daily of omega-3s reduces a heart patient's risk for sudden death by 30%.
How do omega-3s help prevent obesity and diabetes? Obesity is a diabetes risk factor. Omega-3s are the only fats that may actually promote weight loss, since they cause the body to burn calories. Plus, people who eat omega-3-rich foods or take supplements often report fewer cravings for other more fattening foods, such as ice cream, butter and cookies.
Omega-3s fight diabetes by making the body's insulin receptors more responsive. In adult-onset (type 2) diabetes, the body's insulin receptors fail. This can lead to a dangerously high level of blood sugar.
What about diseases of the immune system? The highly inflammatory eicosanoids produced by omega-6s are great infection fighters. But when left unchecked by omega-3s, they can damage healthy tissue.
In the digestive disorder known as Crohn's disease, the gut becomes inflamed... in rheumatoid arthritis, it's the joints... in asthma, the airways are inflamed.
In a remarkable Italian study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, 60% of Crohn's patients who took 2.7 g of fish oil supplements daily went into remission for more than one year. No medication has proven to be more effective in treating Crohn's disease.
Studies also indicate that omega-3s reduce the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.
Do omega-3s help fight other diseases? Research conducted at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston showed that omega-3s block abnormal brain cell signaling in patients with bipolar disorder (manic depression). Therefore, omega-3s can be a powerful adjunct in treating this illness.
Many bipolar patients who take the antidepressant lithium (Lithonate) and other mood stabilizers, such as divalproex (Depakote) and lamotrigine (Lamictal), improve initially but later relapse. Omega-3s can enhance the drug's effectiveness and may allow some people to reduce their dosage.
If you're on a mood stabilizer: Do not alter the dose without your doctor's approval. Stopping these medicines abruptly can make the illness worse.
How much omega-3 does a healthy person need? To maintain health, 1 g to 2 g a day. But it's hard to get that much in food alone. You'd have to eat, say, a large salmon steak daily.
You should certainly try to eat more omega-3-rich foods, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines... wild game meats, including elk, buffalo and venison... flax... purslane... and walnuts. Add one to two servings a day of these foods to your diet. Still, you may not get enough omega-3s in dietary sources. To ensure adequate intake, take a daily 1 g to 2 g supplement.
How do I choose the right supplement? Look for distilled fish oil capsules with an omega-3 concentration of 50% or more.
Quality supplements cost more, but they allow you to take fewer and smaller pills, without the fishy aftertaste you often get with other brands.
What do you recommend for vegetarians? Flaxseed oil is a good option for strict vegetarians or people allergic to fish. Consume one-half tablespoon daily of this plant-based omega-3.
Some people take flaxseed oil straight. Others can't tolerate the strong taste. However, it's virtually imperceptible when used in waffle batter and other recipes.
Do omega-3 supplements have any side effects? Omega-3s may inhibit blood clotting. If you're taking a blood thinner, such as warfarin (Coumadin), or high-dose aspirin, check with your doctor before taking omega-3 supplements.
Some people experience stomach upset, but this usually goes away within seven days. You'll be less likely to have this problem if you use a quality supplement... take it with food... and divide your daily intake among two or three equal doses.
By the way, it's a good idea to take vitamins C and E with omega-3s. These antioxidant vitamins scavenge disease-causing molecules known as "free radicals." Once free radicals are eliminated, omega-3s can do their job.
I typically recommend 800 international units (IU) of vitamin E and 1,000 mg of vitamin C daily. In addition to other benefits, your colds won't last as long.
Kay’s Note (from Elaine’s website):
Flax seed is illegal.
From Elaine: "lignin is found when the whole seed (and its stiff coat) are ground up. I think it is harmful for people just starting out on SCD. I think some bacteria feast nicely on lignin - it is tough like bark."
Flax seed oil is legal.
From Elaine: "The oil itself, in very small amounts, (and one will have to reduce the prescribed dose by at least 50%) may be helpful." On SCD, without the groundup almonds, I would highly doubt if one would need a supplement of these oils. The huge amount of supplements being pushed are questionable as to the fact that they may be doing as much harm as possible good.