OMEGA-3: THE HEALTHY FAT     
Copyright 2006 Joe Smulevitz, C.H., M.H.

We hear a lot about fats especially saturated and trans-fats (hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats and oils) that have been linked to a number of serious health problems.  However, polyunsaturated fatty acids or good fats have been designated essential fatty acids (fats we cannot make ourselves) that may actually help protect against degenerative diseases.

Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fat that research shows has significant health benefits.  The research began in the 1950s when scientists investigated the diets of the Inuit (Eskimos) in Greenland.  Their food consumption was high in fat but they had a low incidence of heart disease.  Their secret was a diet consisting mainly of fish that swim in cold ocean waters that are recognized as rich sources of omega-3s.

There are two families of omega-3 fats:  The most important is the "marine" omega-3s consisting of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in oily cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel and albacore tuna.  The other omega-3 is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found primarily in flaxseed, some nuts (walnuts) and vegetable oils such as canola, soybean, flaxseed and olive oil. Although alpha-linolenic acid is an important source of omega-3 fatty acids and should be incorporated into a healthy diet, scientific evidence is more supportive of the health benefits of fish oils EPA/DHA than the plant derived ALA.

Numerous studies acknowledge that intake of the recommended amounts of EPA and DHA in the form of fatty fish or fish oil supplements have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular disease.  The findings show significant lowering of blood triglycerides, (a type of blood fat involved in the development of heart disease), help with prevention of heart disease, slight reductions in blood pressure and lower risk of heart attack.  Other important health benefits may exist although the evidence is not as conclusive.  These include decrease of stiffness and joint tenderness, help with depression, eczema, bipolar disorder, Crohn's disease, cancer prevention, asthma, psoriasis, allergies, arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer's, hyperactivity in children and impaired mental function in middle-aged adults.

The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty cold-water fish at least two times per week for healthy adults.  The fish should not be fried, as frying will damage the omega-3 oils.  Some people are not fond of fish, while others may be concerned about mercury associated with certain fish.  These individuals and people that consume less than the recommended two serving of oily fish per week may benefit from using fish oil supplements. Look for capsules labelled as "pharmaceutical-grade fish oil, guaranteed free of pollutants, enteric-coated and free of pollutants."  Vitamin E is often included in the capsules to help prevent oxidation.

A healthy person should look for fish oil supplements containing at least 400 (mg) EPA and 200 (mg) DHA to receive health benefits.  The capsules are best tolerated with meals. The Heart Association suggests supplementation with 2 to 4 g of EPA plus DHA each day can significantly lower blood triglycerides, especially in persons with marked elevations.  Persons with known heart disease need at least 1 g  (1000) mg of EPA plus DHA each day according to the American Heart Association.  This amount can be obtained from eating cold-water fish or fish oil capsules.  The blood pressure lowering effect of fish oil supplements seems to be dose-dependent-the higher amounts producing the greater reduction.

High dose levels of fish oil preparations greater than 3 g  (3000 mg) of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding.  A physician should be consulted before using fish oil (especially at doses greater than 3 g per day) if there's a history of coronary heart disease, prior to surgery or taking medications such as aspirin, antiplatelet drugs, anticoagulants, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents.  Diabetics should also be monitored as fish oil may slightly lower blood sugar levels.  Young children and women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or might become pregnant should limit their consumption of fish as some species may contain harmful contaminants.  However, most high quality fish oil preparations are usually free of toxins.

Joe Smulevitz is a Chartered/Master herbalist providing consultations on herbal protocol. He can be reached at herbalistjoe@sympatico.ca



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