Omega-3 Fish Oils DHA and EPA: Are They a Panacea?

The Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and fish oils have long captured the attention of scientists whose investigation is steadily uncovering the many medicinal benefits of nature’s maritime gold.   It all began about 25 years ago, after epidemiological studies revealed that Greenland Inuits had substantially reduced rates of heart attacks compared with Western control subjects, despite a diet that was as high in fat.  As you know, it was the high intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish that held the key. Fats are divided into three categories:  the good (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), the bad (saturated), and the just plain awful (trans fats).  In the good group are the omega-3s: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).  All three are good for you, but evidence for a health protective role is strongest for the DHA and EPA found in fish and fish oils.  ALA, which is derived from plants, is less and only indirectly beneficial if you are trying to boost your omega-3s; the body uses most of it for energy and metabolizes only a small amount (< 10%) of ALA into DHA and EPA.

Much of the early research in the area of omega-3s focused on heart disease.  Dozens of observational studies have shown that eating fish lowers your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.  Subsequent randomized controlled trials have now clearly demonstrated the cardioprotective effects of omega-3s, DHA and EPA, found in fish and fish oil. The ways that omega-3 fatty acids reduce cardiovascular disease risk are still being studied, however, research has shown that they:

  • Decrease risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms), which can lead to sudden cardiac death.
  • Decrease triglyceride levels.
  • Decrease progression of atherosclerotic plaque and stabilize existing plaque so it is less likely to rupture and cause sudden heart attacks.
  • Lower incidence of blood clotting, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.
  • Reduce inflammatory responses.
  • Lower blood pressure.

DHA and EPA have since been studied in myriad trials and if there is any panacea out there, it appears that they may just be it.  Scientific evidence indicates that the omega-3 fatty acids, DHA + EPA, may have potential benefits in the prevention and/or treatment of the following health conditions:

  • Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive diseases
  • Asthma
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder and Depression
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis
  • Diabetes
  • Eczema and Psoriasis
  • High blood pressure
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Lupus
  • Joint disease including Rheumatoid arthritis and Osteoarthritis
  • Macular Degeneration
  • Migraine headaches
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Obesity

Awareness of why and how to boost your omega-3s is more important than ever.  It turns out that the modern western diet has taken us far from the diet of our remote ancestors.  Instead of eating diets rich in omega-3s we are loaded with omega-6s.  Physiological consequences of this shift in dietary representation of these fats include an increase in inflammation and inflammation-related conditions like heart disease and those listed above.  The absence of adequate quantities of DHA and EPA in our diets is so devastating that even the relatively conservative American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended supplemental intake of these nutrients for people with heart disease or multiple cardiovascular risk factors.  The AHA’s recommended intake of combined DHA + EPA for such individuals is approximately 1,000 mg daily.  Physicians often utilize higher daily doses in the range of 2,000-4,000 mg daily as part of a treatment plan to manage patients with elevated triglycerides or other inflammation-based medical conditions.

It is vital to be an educated consumer:  make sure to read the label and look for purified fish oil supplements that provide your target dose of combined DHA + EPA (not ALA or omega-6s, or omega-9s).  The hoax is that many products boast they have “1,000mg Fish Oils” knowing that’s the all important number, BUT if you examine the finer print under the supplement facts you will find they fail to provide what you’re looking for:  1,000 mg of combined DHA+EPA.

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