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Omega-3 Fatty Acids

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Omega-3 Fatty Acids Helpful in Treating a Variety of Conditions

Studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful in treating a variety of conditions. The evidence is strongest for heart disease and problems that contribute to heart disease, but the range of possible uses for omega-3 fatty acids include:

High Cholesterol
Those who follow a Mediterranean-style diet tend to have higher HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. Similar to those who follow a Mediterranean diet, Inuit Eskimos, who consume high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish, also tend to have increased HDL cholesterol and decreased triglycerides (fatty material that circulates in the blood). In addition, fish oil supplements containing EPA and DHA have been shown to reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol and triglycerides. Finally, walnuts (which are rich in ALA) have been shown to lower total cholesterol and triglycerides in people with high cholesterol.

High Blood Pressure
Several studies suggest that diets and/or supplements rich in omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure significantly in people with hypertension. Fish high in mercury (such as tuna) should be avoided, however, because they may increase blood pressure.

Heart Disease
One of the best ways to help prevent and treat heart disease is to eat a low-fat diet and to replace foods rich in saturated and trans-fat with those that are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3 fatty acids). Evidence suggests that EPA and DHA found in fish oil help reduce risk factors for heart disease including high cholesterol and high blood pressure. There is also strong evidence that these substances can help prevent and treat atherosclerosis by inhibiting the development of plaque and blood clots, each of which tends to clog arteries. Studies of heart attack survivors have found that daily omega-3 fatty acid supplements dramatically reduce the risk of death, subsequent heart attacks, and stroke. Similarly, people who eat an ALA-rich diet are less likely to suffer a fatal heart attack.

Stroke
Strong evidence from population-based studies suggests that omega-3 fatty acid intake (primarily from fish), helps protect against stroke caused by plaque buildup and blood clots in the arteries that lead to the brain. In fact, eating at least two servings of fish per week can reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 50%. However, people who eat more than three grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day (equivalent to 3 servings of fish per day) may be at an increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke, a potentially fatal type of stroke in which an artery in the brain leaks or ruptures.

Diabetes
People with diabetes tend to have high triglyceride and low HDL levels. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can help lower triglycerides and raise HDL, so people with diabetes may benefit from eating foods or taking supplements that contain DHA and EPA. ALA (from flaxseed, for example) may not have the same benefit as DHA and EPA because some people with diabetes lack the ability to efficiently convert ALA to a form of omega-3 fatty acids that the body can use readily.

Weight Loss
Many people who are overweight suffer from poor blood sugar control, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Studies suggest that overweight people who follow a weight loss program including exercise tend to achieve better control over their blood sugar and cholesterol levels when fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon, mackerel, and herring) is a staple in their low fat diet.

Arthritis
Most clinical studies investigating the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplements for inflammatory joint conditions have focused almost entirely on rheumatoid arthritis. Several articles reviewing the research in this area conclude that omega-3 fatty acid supplements reduce tenderness in joints, decrease morning stiffness, and allow for a reduction in the amount of medication needed for people with rheumatoid arthritis.

In addition, laboratory studies suggest that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids (and low in omega-6 fatty acids) may benefit people with other inflammatory disorders, such as osteoarthritis. In fact, several test tube studies of cartilage-containing cells have found that omega-3 fatty acids decrease inflammation and reduce the activity of enzymes that destroy cartilage. Similarly, New Zealand green lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus), another potential source of omega-3 fatty acids, has been shown to reduce joint stiffness and pain, increase grip strength, and enhance walking pace in a small group of people with osteoarthritis. In some participants, symptoms worsened before they improved.

Osteoporosis
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Osteoporosis
Studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA help increase levels of calcium in the body, deposit calcium in the bones, and improve bone strength. In addition, studies also suggest that people who are deficient in certain essential fatty acids (particularly EPA and gamma-linolenic acid [GLA], an omega-6 fatty acid) are more likely to suffer from bone loss than those with normal levels of these fatty acids. In a study of women over 65 with osteoporosis, those given EPA and GLA supplements experienced significantly less bone loss over three years than those who were given a placebo. Many of these women also experienced an increase in bone density.

Depression
People who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids or do not maintain a healthy balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in their diet may be at an increased risk for depression. The omega-3 fatty acids are important components of nerve cell membranes. They help nerve cells communicate with each other, which is an essential step in maintaining good mental health.

Levels of omega-3 fatty acids were found to be measurably low and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids were particularly high in a study of patients hospitalized for depression. In a study of people with depression, those who ate a healthy diet consisting of fatty fish two to three times per week for 5 years experienced a significant reduction in feelings of depression and hostility.

Manic/Depression (Bipolar Disorder)
In a study of 30 people with bipolar disorder, those who were treated with EPA and DHA (in combination with their usual mood stabilizing medications) for four months experienced fewer mood swings and recurrence of either depression or mania than those who received placebo. A similar but larger study is currently underway at the University of California- Los Angeles School of Medicine.

Schizophrenia

Preliminary evidence suggests that people with schizophrenia experience an improvement in symptoms when given omega-3 fatty acids. However, a recent well-designed study concluded that EPA supplements are no better than placebo in improving symptoms of this condition. The conflicting results suggest that more research is needed before conclusions can be drawn about the benefit of omega-3 fatty acids for schizophrenia. Similar to diabetes, people with schizophrenia may not be able to convert ALA to EPA or DHA efficiently.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Children with ADHD may have low levels of certain essential fatty acids (including EPA and DHA) in their bodies. In a study of nearly 100 boys, those with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids demonstrated more learning and behavioral problems (such as temper tantrums and sleep disturbances) than boys with normal omega-3 fatty acid levels. In animal studies, low levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower the concentration of certain brain chemicals (such as dopamine and serotonin) related to attention and motivation. Studies that examine the ability of omega-3 supplements to improve symptoms of ADHD are still needed. At this point in time, eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids is a reasonable approach for someone with ADHD.

Eating Disorders
Studies suggest that men and women with anorexia nervosa have lower than optimal levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (including ALA and GLA). To prevent the complications associated with essential fatty acid deficiencies, some experts recommend that treatment programs for anorexia nervosa include PUFA-rich foods such as fish and organ meats (which include omega-6 fatty acids).

Burns
Essential fatty acids have been used to reduce inflammation and promote wound healing in burn victims. Animal research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids help promote a healthy balance of proteins in the body -- protein balance is important for recovery after sustaining a burn. Further research is necessary to determine whether omega 3s benefit people in the same way.

Skin Disorders


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