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Take Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids for the Health of Your Heart

Aug 16, 2008
Much of the misunderstanding surrounding polyunsaturated fatty acids may perhaps be ascribed to the general horror evoked in our society by the very words "fat" and "fatty". And it's quite true that saturated fats and so-called "trans-fats" need to be kept to a minimum within a healthy diet. Essential fatty acids, however, are a different matter.

The word "essential", in this context, means simply that they can be manufactured by the body in only very small quantities, if at all, and a supply must consequently be obtained through the diet. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are also essential, however, in the broader sense that they are a vital part of a properly balanced diet, and play a crucial role in the health and appearance of the whole human organism.

The most important of these essential fatty acids are linoleic acid (omega 6) and alpha-linolenic acid, one of the omega 3 essential fatty acids. Both groups are vital for human health, and the body requires a properly balanced intake of the two. But it's probably fair to say that it's the benefits of omega 3 essential fatty acids which are currently attracting the most attention, perhaps because the typical Western diet commonly contains far more omega 6 than omega 3, an imbalance which may have potentially serious health consequences.

The benefits of omega 3 essential fatty acids may include relief for sufferers from numerous conditions, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia, bipolar illness and more general depression. But by far the greatest attention has been paid to omega 3's role as a powerful protector against heart attack, cardiovascular disease and stroke, still amongst the biggest premature killers in the Western world.

Particular attention has been paid to the cardio-protective effects of the omega 3 essential fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, better known as EPA and DHA respectively. Both EPA and DHA have been shown in a number of studies to reduce levels of blood triglycerides, microscopic particles of fat strongly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack. The consumption of oily fish, by far the richest source of EPA and DHA, is therefore now recommended both by nutritionists and orthodox medicine, including the American Heart Association.

In fact regular (ie at least twice weekly 100 g servings) consumption of oily fish and sea food, with correspondingly increased intake of omega 3 essential fatty acids, has been shown in a number of studies to reduce mortality in sufferers from coronary heart disease by as much as one-third.

And large scale studies following thousands of subjects for a decade and more have reported reductions of up to 40-50% in the incidence of coronary heart disease in subjects consuming the highest amounts of omega 3 essential fatty acids; the best protective effect being found in those who did not already consume significant amounts of oily fish and seafood.

There's also good evidence from studies following tens of thousands of subjects for ten or more years that the risk of sudden death by heart attack, through failure of the heart muscle or arrhythmia, may be reduced by anything up to 50% simply by the weekly consumption of oily fish, a finding supported by evidence that higher blood levels of EPA and DHA also appeared to reduce this risk.

The US Food and Nutrition Board has recommended that infants under 1 year should obtain 0.5 g daily of alpha-linolenic acid, rising gradually to 1.6 g for adult men and 1.1 g for women. The European Commission, by contrast, recommends for adults 2 g per day of omega 3 essential fatty acids, which should include 0.2 g of EPA/DHA.

But since oily fish, such as herring, mackerel, salmon and sardines, tends to form rather a small element of the Western diet, typical daily intakes of EPA and DHA may be as low as 0.04 g. For most individuals, to obtain the benefits of omega 3 essential fatty acids from diet alone would therefore require a very radical change of diet, and supplementation is probably the more attractive option.

Fortunately, odorless and tasteless fish oil supplements are now readily available, and it is also possible to obtain eggs enriched with omega 3 essential fatty acids. It should be noted, however, that polyunsaturated fatty acids may be more prone to oxidative free radical damage than saturated fats, potentially eliminating much of their effectiveness. When supplementing with omega 3 essential fatty acids, it is therefore sensible also to increase intake of vitamin E, the most important fat-soluble anti-oxidant, a move which will also provide numerous cardiac health benefits in its own right.
About the Author
Steve Smith is a journalist and freelance copywriter with a particualr interest in wellness and nutrition More about good nutrition, liquid vitamins and minerals
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