Author: Jade Beutler, R.R.T., R.C.P.
Source: Health Perspectives
Heart disease has risen over the past 50 years to become the leading killer of Americans, taking an estimated 750,000 lives per year. Although cancer remains the most feared of the so-called “degenerative diseases”, the largely preventable malady of heart disease continues to take its toll on lives here and abroad as people of other industrialized countties adopt the eating habits of their American counterparts. 80 years ago, Paul Dudley White brought the invention of the electrocardiogram (EKG) from Germany to America and was told by his peers that the device held no value given the extremely low incidence of heart disease in the United States. Yet only 30 years later, the rise in heart disease in the U.S. was so dramatic that the machine was credited as a most useful diagnostic tool.
Omega-3 fatty acids are lipid structures found abundantly in cold water fish and flaxseed oil. They have been extensively researched for their ability to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease. The ways in which Omega-3 fatty acids combat cardiovascular disease are many; but first, let’s take a look at some of the causes.
Saturated and trans fats (hydrogenated oils such as those found in margarine) possess the tendency to conglomerate (clump together), thickening the blood, causing a rise in blood pressure and increasing the work load of the heart. This sticking ability exaggerates the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque on arterial walls. In these instances, the availability of life-sustaining oxygen to the heart muscle may be minimized, causing angina pectoris and, possibly, heart attack.
To complicate this problem, refined fats and oils, such as trans fatty acids, have been shown scientifically to increase the harmful cholesterol low density lipoproteins (LDL) , while decreasing the beneficial cholesterol high density lipoprotein (HDL) and increasing triglycerides.
Furthermore, hormone-like substances, called prostaglandins, are produced from essential Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. One of the many important functions of prostaglandins is their regulating effect on arterial muscle tone. Any disturbance facilitated by a lack of dietary essential fatty acids may disrupt this system of checks and balances, resulting in arterial muscle spasm.
All of the abnormalities described above can qualify either as increasing blood viscosity or decreasing vessel lumen diameter. The resultant increased workload on the heart muscle may lead to enlargement of the right ventricle (cor pulmonale). Is it any wonder why heart disease kills more Americans than the other degenerative diseases combined?
In contrast to saturated and altered fat sources, Omega-3 fatty acids have proven scientifically to decrease blood platelet aggregation (stickiness), while keeping saturated fats mobile in the blood stream, reducing the tendency for them to conglomerate on arterial muscle walls. At the same time, this ability decreases blood viscosity, reducing the workload on the heart. A favorable dietary intake of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil ensures balanced prostaglandin production, thus regulating proper arterial constriction and relaxation.
Scientific studies have also shown normalization of blood lipids (fats) in hyperlipidemic individuals when supplemented with Omega-3 fatty acids. Decreases in harmful LDL cholesterol, increase in favorable HDL cholesterol, and reduction of triglyceride levels have been demonstrated.
Further, essential Omega-3 fatty acids are paramount in ferrying oxygen from hemogloben (the oxygen carrier in red blood cells) to each and every one of our one hundred trillion cells. A lack of oxygen (hypoxia) or loss of oxygen (anoxia) to the heart muscle with resultant tissue death in the definition of myocardial infarction (heart attack). Finally, the heart is an electrically driven organ. The aforementioned electrocardiogram (EKG) evidences this fact. Without electrical conduction, the heart will cease to contract. Unrefined Omega-3 fatty acids carry an electrical charge expressed in their electron cloud. Dr. Johanna Budwig of West Germany explains that these bioelectric dynamos enhance all life functions, including the electrical conduction and contractile strength of the heart muscle.
Population studies have demonstrated that people who consume a diet rich in Omega-3 oils from either fish or vegetable sources have a significantly reduced risk of developing heart disease. Furthermore, results from autopsy studies have shown that the highest degree of coronary artery disease is found in individuals with the lowest concentration of Omega-3 oils in their fat tissues. Conversely, individuals with the lowest degree of coronary artery disease had the highest concentration of Omega-3 oils.
So, what these studies indicate are that people consuming a diet rich in Omega-3 oils can prevent heart attacks. But, what about people who already have significant heart disease? Can a diet rich in Omega-3 oils prevent further heart attacks? The answer is Yes!
People who have experienced a heart attack and live through it are extremely likely to experience another. Several studies have sought to determine whether dietary recommendations can prevent recurrence. As of 1995, three studies have shown that dietary modifications are effective.
Strict vegetarianism may not be as important as consuming a diet high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol; but it is well established that vegetarians have a much lower risk of developing heart disease and a vegetarian diet has been shown to be quite effective in lowering cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and reducing the risk for atherosclerosis. Such a diet is rich in a number of protective factors such as fiber, essential fatty acids (including higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids), vitamins, and minerals including potassium and magnesium.
The other two studies showing that diet can prevent further heart attacks in patients suffering a first heart attack highlight the importance of Omega-3 fatty acids and the ineffectiveness of the standard American Heart Association’s dietary recommendations. In the dietary and reinfarction trial (DART) it was only when the intake of Omega-3 fatty acids (from fish) was increased that future heart attacks were reduced. The other study, the Lyon Diet Heart Study, determined that increasing the intake of Omega-3 from vegetable sources, such as found in flaxseed oil, offers the same degree of protection as increased fish intake.
The beneficial effects of Omega-3 oils in protecting as well as treating cardiovascular disease are quite obvious. Omega-3 oils impact many factors linked to heart attacks and strokes. They lower LDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides, inhibit excessive platelet aggregation, and lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in individuals with high blood pressure.