The good press surrounding omega-3 fats (namely ALA, DHA and EPA) continues and their positive impact seems to extend to the cardiovascular system, brain, joints and other areas of our body. The benefits of omega-3 fats to general health and disease prevention have lead to an explosion of foods on the market that are formulated around or fortified with omega-3 fats. In the past five years more than 3,000 omega-3 products have been launched worldwide with the majority of these occurring in Europe.
As a huge fan of the cardiovascular system, I am especially intrigued by the positive impact of omega 3 fats on the heart and blood vessels. However, since omega-3 fatty acids have not been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels in a consistent manner in research studies, the cardio-protective effects must extend beyond that mechanism.
For instance, omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated with:
Decreased risk of arrhythmias that can lead to sudden cardiac death
Decreased risk of blood clots (thrombosis) that can lead to heart attacks or stokes
Lower serum triglyceride levels
Slowing the growth of atherosclerosis process (plaque formation)
Improving the function of blood vessel walls
EPA and DHA are found in Atlantic and Pacific herring, Atlantic halibut and salmon, coho, albacore tuna, bluefish, lake trout, and pink and king salmons. It is probably a good idea to include these fish in a regular diet a couple of times a week. ALA, which can be converted to
TDHA and EPA is found in canola oil and soybean oil, and in even smaller amounts in corn oil, beef fat, and lard.
A common question asked to doctors and nutritionists is whether or not a person should take fish oil supplements to promote a healthy cardiovascular system? At this time there is enough supporting research to suggest that anyone not consuming fish or other seafood should take a fish oil supplement to derive the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids – DHA and EPA. In fact, many people are avoiding fish and other seafood today because of concerns related to the level of heavy metals such as mercury in seafood. Furthermore, the conversation of ALA to EPA and DHA might not be as efficient as needed for optimal health, especially during certain situations such as in older people.
People with high blood cholesterol (total and LDL) and triglyceride levels who take fish oil supplements might experience reductions in one or both, particularly the latter. In addition, fish oil supplementation has also been suggested to lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure as well as improving glucose tolerance in Type 2 diabetes. For many people, fish oil supplementation can modestly reduce blood pressure and with regard to improving glucose levels in people with Type 2 diabetes, more research is needed to better understand whether or not there is benefit.
In case you are wondering:
ALA = alpha linolenic acid
DHA = docosahexaenoic acid
EPA = eicosapentaenoic acid