Importance of Omega Three Fats in Health and Disease

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March 13, 2002 | 39,883 views

By Dr. William Connor

Interest in omega-3 fatty acids began some 30 years ago and there are now several thousand papers in the scientific literature supporting their benefits.

There is little doubt that omega-3 fatty acids are important in human nutrition. They are significant structural components of the cell membranes of tissues throughout the body and are especially rich in the retina, brain, and sperm, in which docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) constitutes 36.4% of total fatty acids

Membrane fluidity is essential for proper functioning of these tissues. In the retina, where omega-3 fatty acids are especially important, deficiency can result in decreased vision and abnormal electroretinogram results.

Omega-3 Fatty acids are essential fatty acids, necessary from conception through pregnancy and infancy and, undoubtedly, throughout life.

The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids has increased in industrialized societies because of increased consumption of vegetable oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids, ie, linoleic acid, and reduced consumption of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Another important feature of omega-3 fatty acids is their role in the prevention and modulation of certain diseases that are common in Western civilization.

The following is a partial list of diseases that may be prevented or ameliorated with omega-3 fatty acids, in descending order of the strength of the available evidence as perceived by this reviewer:

Cardiovascular Benefits Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The strongest evidence of a relation between omega-3 fatty acids and disease is the inverse relation between the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet and in blood and tissues and the occurrence of coronary heart disease and its many complications.

Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on coronary heart disease have been shown in hundreds of experiments in animals, humans, tissue culture studies, and clinical trials.

Omega-3 fatty acids from fish have been shown to be protective of heart disease and, by a variety of mechanisms, prevent deaths from coronary disease, particularly cardiac arrest.

The unique properties of these fatty acids in coronary heart disease first became apparent in the investigations of the health status of Greenland Eskimos who consumed diets very high in fat from seals, whales, and fish and yet had a low rate of coronary heart disease.

Further studies clarified this paradox. The fat the Eskimos consumed contained large quantities of the very-long-chain and highly polyunsaturated fatty acids of EPA and DHA, which are abundant in fish, shellfish, and sea mammals and are scarce or absent in land animals and plants. EPA and DHA are synthesized by phytoplankton, which are the plants of the waters and the base of the food chain for marine life.

Dietary omega-3 fatty acids act to prevent heart disease through a variety of actions. They:

EPA and DHA have strong antiarrhythmic action on the heart. In experimental animals and tissue culture systems, EPA and DHA prevent the development of ventricular tachycardia and fibrillation.

Even total mortality has been improved in several studies in which the omega-3 fatty acid intake was increased. In one study, men who consumed salmon 1 time/wk had a 70% less likelihood of cardiac arrest.

In another study overall mortality was decreased by 29% in men with overt cardiovascular disease who consumed omega-3 fatty acids from fish or fish oil, probably because of the reduction in cardiac arrests.

The most recent data on fish consumption and risk of sudden cardiac death were from the Physician's Health Study in the United States in 20551 male physicians. Consumption of 1 fish meal/week was associated with a 52% lower risk of sudden cardiac death compared with consumption of <1 fish meal/month.

Total Death Rate Was Also Lower In Those Who Ate Fish.

Thrombosis, or the tendency to form blood clots, is a major complication of coronary atherosclerosis that can lead to heart attacks.

The omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil have powerful antithrombotic actions. EPA inhibits the synthesis of thromboxane A2 from arachidonic acid in platelets. This prostaglandin causes platelet aggregation and vasoconstriction.

As a result, fish oil ingestion by humans increases the bleeding time and decreases the stickiness of the platelets for aggregation to glass beads. In addition, the administration of fish oil enhances the production of prostacyclin, a prostaglandin that produces vasodilation and less sticky platelets.

Reduced Atherosclerosis

The EPA and DHA contained in fish oil fed to experimental animals actually inhibited development of atherosclerosis. There is evidence in both pigs and monkeys that dietary fish oil prevents atherosclerosis by actions other than reducing plasma cholesterol concentrations.

Atherosclerotic plaque formation may also be lessened by the reduction in growth factors after fish-oil consumption. Not only is platelet-derived growth factor diminished by fish oil consumption, but its messenger RNA is reduced. Because atherosclerosis begins with cellular proliferation in response to the influx of cholesterol-rich lipoproteins, the inhibition of this proliferation would greatly reduce the growth of the atherosclerotic plaque.

Reduced Cholesterol Levels

The pronounced effect of fish oil on high blood fats or elevated cholesterol levels is especially well documented and is supported by results of precise dietary studies in which the effects of a diet rich in salmon oil were compared with those of a vegetable oil and a diet high in saturated fat.

Fish oil in particular was shown to lower plasma cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations. Apolipoprotein B production is reduced by consumption of fish oil in comparison with vegetable oils such as safflower or olive oil.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Essential Components Of Cell Membranes In Infancy

There are 2 critical periods for the acquisition of these essential omega-3 fatty acids: during fetal development and after birth until the biochemical development in the brain and retina is completed.

As already noted, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is an important constituent of the cell membrane of these neural structures.

Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency is manifested in both the blood and in tissue biochemistry. Of note is a strikingly low concentration of DHA, which may fall to as much as one-fifth of the normal amount.

In addition, the body attempts to replace the deficient DHA with another highly polyunsaturated fatty acid of the omega-6 series. In rhesus monkeys, omega-3 fatty acid -- deficient diets fed to pregnant animals and then continued after birth induce profound functional changes such as reduced vision, abnormal electroretinograms, impaired visual evoked potential, more stereotypic behavior (e.g., pacing), and, perhaps, disturbances of cognition.

Some of these findings have been replicated in infants fed formulas deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. Most studies of premature infants have shown visual impairment and abnormal electroretinograms.

A recent study in full-term infants, in which a standard infant formula was compared with human milk and with formulas enriched with DHA, provided unequivocal evidence of considerable differences in visual evoked potential.

In all of the human studies, the biochemical evidence in plasma, red blood cells, and, occasionally, in tissues from autopsied infants has substantiated the omega-3 fatty acid deficiency state. The lower concentrations of DHA in plasma and erythrocytes are mirrored by lower concentrations in the brain and retina. Formula-fed infants have lower concentrations of brain DHA than do infants fed human milk. They also have lower intelligence quotients.

During pregnancy, both maternal stores and dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids are of importance in insuring that the baby has adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids at the time of birth.

All the polyunsaturated fatty acids, including DHA, are transferred across the placenta into fetal blood. In addition, EPA and DHA in maternal adipose tissue can be mobilized as free fatty acids bound to albumin and be made available to the developing fetus via placenta transport.

Several studies in monkeys have indicated that when the maternal diet is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, the infant at birth is likewise deficient as evidenced by low DHA concentrations in their plasma and red blood cells.

In humans, it was shown that the administration of fish oil or sardines to pregnant women led to higher DHA concentrations in both maternal plasma and red blood cells and in cord blood plasma and red blood cells at the time of birth.

Once membrane phospholipids have adequate concentrations of DHA, there is an avid retention of these fatty acids in the brain and the retina, even though the diet may subsequently be deficient. Several studies illustrate clearly the effects of omega-3 deficiency in both animals and humans.

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 71, No. 1, 171S-175S, January 2000

Omega three fats are essentialto your health. You can certainly get them from cod liver oil or fishoil.

If you already have significantsun exposure then you should not take cod liver oil as you will run therisk of overdosing on vitamin D.

You should then take fishoil capsules. The standard fish oil capsule is 180 mg of EPA and 120 mgof DHA. You should take approximately one capsule for every ten poundsof body weight, preferably in two divided doses.

So if you weigh 160 poundsyou would take 8 capsules twice a day. If you have problems with belchingthem up, you will want to consider taking them on an empty stomach.

Codliver oilhas the benefit of providing you with vitamin D and A. A reasonabledose for cod liver oil is one teaspoon for every 30-40 poundsof body weight. If you use cod liver oil during your summeryou will need to be careful of vitamin D toxicity and I suggestyou review the information on vitaminD testing.

When you take fishoil supplements or cod liver oil in the doses I recommendplease be sure and take a one vitamin E 400 unit supplementper day as this will help serve to protect the fat from oxidation.This is less of an issue with the cod liver oil as the vitaminD itself is a very potent anti-oxidant.

You will also need extraamounts of the "fourth and unforgotten" oil soluble vitamin,vitamin K. If you are juicing plenty of green vegetables and taking thecod liver oil or fish oil with the juice you should absorb the vitaminK in the vegetable juice. However, if you have osteoporosis or osteopenia,you will want to consider adding an extra 1000 mcg ( 1 mg ) of vitaminK per day.

Generally our diet containsfar to much omega 6 fats. Experts looking at the dietary ratio of omega-6to omega-3 fatty acids suggest that in early human history the ratio wasabout 1:1. Currently most Americans eat a dietary ratio that falls between20:1 and 50:1. The optimal ratio is most likely closer to the originalratio of 1:1. For most of us this means greatly reducing the omega-6 fattyacids we consume and increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids.

Please recognize that we get ALL the omega-6 and omega-9 fat we need fromfood. We do NOT need to take any supplements for these fats. Many of theomega fat supplements you see in health food stores will only serve toworsen your health, not improve it as they contain omega 6 fats whichwill worsen your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

I strongly recommend avoiding sunflower, corn, soy, safflower, canola,or products that contain these oils. That is no hydrogenated or partiallyhydrogenated fats, no margarine, no vegetable oil, no shortening. Theseoils are chock full of omega-6 fats and will only worsen your omega 6:omega3 ratio.

Acceptable oils will be a high quality extra virgin olive oil, coconutoil, avocados, and organic butter, or better yet grass-fed organicbutter.

Another way to improve your omega 6:3 ratio is to change the type of meatyou are eating. You could consume more game meat like venison, or othergame animals that are raised exclusively on grass type foods. However,these are hard to find and generally more expensive than beef.

Since nearly all cattleare grain fed before slaughter, if you eat most traditionally raised beef,it will typically worsen you omega 6:omega 3 ratio.

Normally a good ratio for omega 6:3 in fish is 2 or 3 to 1. The lowerthe better. Grassfed beef from Grassfed Organics is much higher in Omega3 than fish, with a 6:3 ratio of 0.16 to1. This information is from a study done at Iowa State Universityin August 2001.

To get the necessary Omega-3 fatty acids, you should consider eating meatthat is allowed to "free-range", or in the case of cattle, tobe grass-fed. Unfortunately, you cannot buy this grass-fed beef at yourlocal grocery store.

You must also be careful as many stores will advertise grass-fed beefbut it really isn't. They do this as ALL cattle are grass fed, but thekey is what they are fed the months prior to being processed.

Most all cattle are shipped to giant feed lots and fed corn to fattenthem up. You will need to call the person who actually grew the beef,NOT the store manager, to find out the truth.

The least expensive way to obtain authentic grass fed beef would be tofind a farmer who is growing the beef who you can trust and buy a halfa side of beef from him. This way you save the shipping and also receivea reduced rate on the meat.

An inexpensive, yet effectiveway to determine if the meat is really from a grass fed animal is to purchasethe ground beef. Slowly cook the beef till done and drain and collectall the fat. Grass fed beef is very high in omega-3 fats and will be relativelythin compared to traditionally prepared ground beef.

It will also be a liquid at room temperature as it has very few saturatedfats which are mostly solid at room temperature.

However, most of us live in large urban areas and do not have the timefor this process. Just as it would be ideal to have an organic gardenand grow your own vegetables, most of us elect not to do that for timeor space reasons.

I used to have an organic garden, but my schedule just wouldnot allow me to have that luxury anymore. So, if you are convinced,like I am, that grass-fed beef is better for you and you wouldlike the convenience of being able to order it over the Net,you can buy grass-fed beef online, shipped overnight to yourdoor, at GrassfedOrganics.

Another popular source ofomega-3 fats are from fish but they should be consumed with caution asthey have been linked to highlevels of mercury. Even the conservative FDA advises all pregnantwomen to avoid fish during pregnancy as 60,000 children suffer brain injuryevery year in the US from their moms eating mercury contaminated fish.The safest fish are Summer, Flounder, Wild Pacific Salmon, Croaker, Sardines,Haddock and Tilapia.