Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Donald Aulds, M.D.
You’ve probably been taught that fats are bad for your health. It is true that some types of fats are bad for your health, but there are some that we are not able to live without. Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the essential fats that our body needs. They are essential to our health, but they can not be manufactured by our bodies and must be obtained through our diets. Most omega-3 fatty acids come from certain nuts like walnuts, some vegetables and fruits, and fish such as halibut, tuna, salmon, herring and mackerel.
We are constantly bombarded by confusing or misleading advertisements for different types of fatty acids, making it difficult to distinguish between the good and the bad. Omega-3 fatty acids help in reducing inflammation and preventing risk factors found in chronic illnesses. Omega-6, which is found in meats, promotes inflammation. Omega-9 fatty acids, which help lower the risk of cancer and heart disease, are found in whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits, olive oil, and garlic. They play a vital role in the health of every cell in the body, and help prevent a number of key health problems.
What are the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids?
In 2002, the American Heart Association reported that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial to our health in the following ways:
- Blood pressure and cholesterol - Omega-3 can lower blood pressure and reduce triglyceride levels by 20 to 50 percent.
- Heart health – Omega-3 lowers overall risk of death from heart disease by reducing arrhythmias (irregular beating of the heart), decreased build up of plaque in arteries, and decreased “stickiness” of platelets in the blood to lower the risk of clot formation.
- Stroke – Omega-3 has been shown in studies to lower your risk of stroke by decreasing risk of clots and build up of plaque in the arteries.
- Rheumatoid arthritis – Omega-3 has been shown to reduce stiffness and pain in joints by decreasing inflammation in the joint. It also has been shown to increase the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs used for arthritis.
- Depression – Studies have shown that cultures that consume large amounts of fish have lower levels of depression. It may boost the effects of antidepressants.
- Osteoporosis – Studies suggest that it may improve bone density and may potentiate medications used for osteoporosis.
- Prenatal health – EPA and DHA have been shown to help in the development of the vision and brain of fetuses and newborns, and support the general health of pregnant women.
- ADHD – Studies now suggest that omega-3 can improve the cognitive function of children and reduce symptoms of ADHD.
- Asthma – Studies show improvement in lung function and reduction in the severity of asthma.
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia – Some research suggest that cognitive function is improved with omega-3.
- Other – Studies suggest help in reducing painful periods in women, diabetic kidney damage, obesity, Crohn’s disease, lupus, skin conditions and possibly the risk of some cancers.
What is the best way to get omega-3 fatty acids?
Research has shown that the body absorbs about 90 percent of omega-3 in foods but only 50 percent of omega-3 received from a supplement. A diet rich in omega-3 is the best way to get the benefits of omega-3, but if it is not available or you are a picky eater, a supplement will provide some health benefit. A Mediterranean-style diet tends to have a good balance of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids, because it is higher in vegetables and fruits and lower in meat compared to most American diets.
If you are considering a change in diet or supplements, discuss it with your physician and see a dietician who can help you make the needed adjustments.