A few weeks ago, I did a two-part blog series on triglycerides. I mentioned that omega-3 fatty acids are helpful in lowering triglyceride levels. I decided to devote an entire blog entry (or two or three) to these unique but popular fats, as friends, family members, and colleagues are constantly asking me about them.
Fish oils are technically called omega-3 fatty acids, which are types of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs, for short). There are two subclasses of PUFAs—omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Both subclasses are called essential fatty acids because the body can’t make them and must obtain them from dietary sources.
Linoleic, gamma-linolenic, and arachidonic acids are omega-6 fatty acids. Sources of omega-6s include corn oil, sunflower seed oil, and soybean oil. Eicosapentaenoic (EPA), docosahexaenoic (DHA) and alpha-linolenic (LNA) acids are the omega-3s. EPA and DHA are the fatty acids found in fish and other seafood. LNA is found in plant foods, including flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil, and is converted to EPA and DHA after ingestion.
Our bodies need both omega-6s and omega-3s, but the typical American diet is too heavy on the omega-6s. The ideal balance is 4 parts omega-6 to 1 part omega-3, but “Westernized” diets can be as high as 16 parts omega-6 to 1 part omega-3. A diet too heavy in omega-6 fatty acids has been linked to heart disease, certain types of cancer, and some autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
So, what’s up with omega-3s, or fish oils? Well, if you keep up with the latest health news, it may seem like every few months we’re hearing more and more about how helpful and healthful these fats are. In fact, fish oils are so good for us that even the American Heart Association has jumped on the bandwagon as far as recommending that pretty much everyone aim to fit these oils into their eating plan. Let’s look more closely at what fish oils have to offer:
- Heart disease: Several large population studies show that consuming fish on a regular basis (at least once a week) can protect both men and women from getting heart disease. Also, a recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet found that people who take statin drugs to lower their cholesterol levels along with a fish oil supplement have fewer heart problems, such as heart attack, sudden cardiac death, and unstable angina, than those just taking a statin alone.
- Triglycerides: Consuming approximately 4 grams of fish oils each day can lower triglyceride levels by up to 30%. In addition, LDL cholesterol may be lowered by up to 10%.
- Arrhythmias: Fish oils can reduce the frequency of cardiac arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeat. Consequently, they can lower the risk of sudden cardiac death.
- Blood pressure:Fish oils seem to play a role in moderately lowering blood pressure (but don’t stop taking your blood pressure drugs).
- Depression: Supplementation with 3–4 grams of fish oils, especially EPA, has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression.
- Crohn disease: Fish oils appear to have anti-inflammatory properties, and there’s some evidence that they can help reduce the symptoms of this inflammatory bowel disease.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: A handful of studies have found that taking at least 3 grams of fish oils daily can reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (another type of inflammatory condition), including stiffness and swollen, tender joints.
More findings next week!