If you had to choose just one supplement to take, it just might be an Omega-3-fatty acid supplement. Otherwise known as fish oil supplements, they are rich in Omega-3-fatty acids that are plentiful in cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel. The research on the benefits of Omega-3s has been pouring in for the past few years and in some cases is nothing less than astounding.
A little historical perspective on why it makes such a difference now. Historically, i.e., 100 years ago or so, the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6-fatty acids in the typical American diet was around 1:1. Now that ratio is around 1:10 or higher. High levels of Omega-6-fatty acids are found in processed foods — pretty much anything in a box or bag –because these processed foods are made using products like corn, canola, safflower and sunflower oils, which contain high levels of omega-6-fatty acids. These products are also full of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils which have been shown to contribute to many of the health ailments we suffer from in the US. We need Omega-6-fatty acids in our diet but, unless they are in proper ratios to Omega 3s, they become detrimental to our health.
The benefit of Omega-3s is in their powerful, anti-inflammatory effect. It is now understood that chronic low levels of inflammation are the root of many of the diseases in our country such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and arthritis. Reversing this inflammatory state means reducing the risk of disease. To illustrate this point we can look at cholesterol. A goal in medicine is to keep a patient’s cholesterol under 200, yet many individuals have heart attacks because of plaque build up on their arteries even if they have cholesterol levels under 200 naturally. The reason for this is that even with good cholesterol levels, if you still have chronic low levels of inflammation. This inflammation creates an environment that promotes plaque deposition on your arteries. In addition to decreasing this inflammatory state, Omega-3s can have a dramatic affect on lowering triglycerides and can increase HDLs (good cholesterol).
Some of the more impressive research about fish oil has revealed its ability to decrease cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm) which can lead to heart attack. One large study followed 22,000 male physicians over 17 years and showed an inverse relationship with the level of omega-3s and sudden cardiac death, meaning the higher the levels of Omega-3s, the lower the incident of fatal heart attacks. Those subjects with the highest levels of Omega-3s had an astonishing 81% reduction when compared to those with the lowest levels. Other studies have shown similar results and it is believed to be due to the anti-arrhythmic properties of omega-3s.1,2,3 In addition to their anti-arrhythmic properties, Omega-3s also promote vasodilation (which reduces blood pressure), reduce platelet aggregation (which decreases blood clotting), and reduces the inflammatory chemicals which lead to plaque formation in the first place. Each of these effects play a role in reducing cardiovascular disease which is by far the leading killer in our country today.
Omega-3s have also been shown to reduce cancer risk. Specifically, there seems to be an inverse relationship to Omega-3 levels and breast cancer in women.4 It has also been shown that higher levels of Omega-3s are associated with lower incidence of endometrial cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.5
Other research has looked at the positive effect of Omega-3s on rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, as well as auto-immune diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and psoriasis. Finally, there is convincing research showing significant reduction in depression as well as improvement in other psychiatric disorders such as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and schizophrenia.6
Are Omega-3s the cure all? Certainly not, but with the amount of positive research that has come out over the past few years we can no longer ignore the extraordinary benefits of this amazing supplement. It is important to remember, however, that to get the full benefit of Omega-3s you must be mindful that the ratio of Omega-3s to Omega-6s is important, too. To improve your ratio, add a quality Omega-3 supplement to your diet, eat cold-water fish a few days per week and reduce your Omega-6-fatty acid intake by cutting back on foods which contain seed oils, such as sunflower, safflower, corn, canola, and peanut oils. Read the packages of the foods in your pantry right now and you will see just how pervasive these oils are in our diet. Start finding healthy substitutes for these foods and you are on your way to reducing the chronic inflammation that causes chronic disease and accelerates the aging process.
Live well and stay healthy, Dr. Mike
- Circulation, 2002; 105:1897-1903
- JAMA vol 287. No. 14 p 1815.
- N Engl J Med. 2002 346:1113-1118
- Br J Nutr. 2002;87:281-289
- Lancet. 2001;3571764-1766