Omega 3 fatty oils

by Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR

Nathan Wei is a nationally known board-certified rheumatologist and author of the Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit. It's available exclusively at this website... not available in stores.

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Omega-3 fatty oils are a form of polyunsaturated fats, one of four basic types of fat in foods.

(Cholesterol, saturated fat, and monounsaturated fat are the others.) All polyunsaturated fats, including the omega-3s, are important for health.

Excessive saturated fats have been associated with the development of degenerative diseases, including heart disease and cancer. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, however, are actually beneficial. Omega-3s (found primarily in cold-water fish) fall into this category, along with omega-6s, another type of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in grains, most plant-based oils, poultry, and eggs.

Omega-3s (and omega-6s) are termed essential fatty acids (EFAs) because they are important for good health. However, omega-3s must be obtained from food, therefore making outside sources of these fats "essential."

Although the body needs both omega-3s and omega-6s to thrive, most people consume far more 6s than 3s. Many experts recommend consuming a balance of these two EFAs.

Key omega-3 fatty acids include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), both found primarily in oily cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel. Plant foods rarely contain EPA or DHA. An exception is seaweed.

A third omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found in dark green leafy vegetables, flaxseed oils, and certain vegetable oils. Although ALA has different physiologic effects than EPA and DHA do, the body has enzymes that can convert ALA to EPA.

Studies of the Greenland Eskimos in the 1970s provided the first clues as to the benefit of omega oils. As a group, the Eskimos suffered far less coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, psoriasis than their European counterparts. The puzzle was their diet was very high in fat from eating whale, seal, and salmon. Eventually researchers realized that these foods were all rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Scientists have realized the importance of balancing omega-3 fatty oils with omega-6 fatty oils in the diet. Because most people on a Western diet consume far more omega-6-rich foods (including cereals, whole-grain bread, baked goods, fried foods, margarine, and others), the ratio is out of balance. This means for most Americans, increasing omega-3s to make the ratio more even should be a goal.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to play a part in keeping cholesterol levels low, stabilizing cardiac arrhythmia, and reducing blood pressure. Researchers now believe that alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the omega-3s, is particularly beneficial for protecting against heart and vessel disease, and for lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels. An excellent source of ALA is flaxseed oil.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also natural blood thinners, reducing the "stickiness" of blood cells (called platelet aggregation), which can lead to such complications as blood clots and stroke.

Studies of large groups of people have found that the more omega-3 fatty acids people consume, the lower their overall blood pressure.

Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish oils) have been shown to be beneficial for people with autoimmune diseases. This is probably because the omega-3s reduce inflammation in arteries.

In numerous studies, participants with inflammatory diseases have reported less joint stiffness, swelling, tenderness, and overall fatigue when taking omega-3s.

In 1998, a review of well-designed, randomized clinical trials reported that omega-3 fatty acids were better than placebo in improving rheumatoid arthritis. The research also showed that ingesting more omega-3 fatty acids enabled some participants to reduce their use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

There is no established recommended daily intake for omega-3s, but a healthy diet containing significant amounts of foods rich in this essential fatty acid is indicated. By increasing the intake of omega-3 fatty acids, it will be helpful since the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 will approach the ideal 1-1 balance.

Reducing consumption of omega 6 while increasing omega 3's should be the goal.

Omega 3 rich fish include Atlantic salmon and other fatty, preferably cold-water fish, including herring (both Atlantic and Pacific), sardines, Atlantic halibut, bluefish, tuna, and Atlantic mackerel.

Commercial fish oil capsules are available containing omega-3s such as DHA and EPA.

Venison and buffalo are both good sources of omega-3s and make a healthy choice for meat eaters.

Canola oil, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables are all good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3. A quarter-cup (1 ounce) of walnuts supplies about 2 grams of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, slightly more than is found in 3 ounces of salmon.

Omega-3 enriched eggs and breads are available.

There are no known drug interactions associated with increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids with foods. However, if omega-3s are taken through supplements (especially fish oils), be sure to check with your doctor first if you are taking a blood-thinner such as warfarin or heparin.

There are no known side effects associated with increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids through foods, although fish oil capsules do sometimes cause a "fishy" aftertaste.

One benefit of omega-3 fatty acids is that they are very safe to consume. However, many authorities recommend fish consumption be limited to two to three servings weekly because so many fish are tainted with mercury and other contaminants. Fish oil capsules don't present this risk.

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