Omega-3 Fatty AcidsPage 2 of 4
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Omega-3 Fatty Acids Helpful in Treating a Variety
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
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).
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.
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