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Author: Jack Challem
Source: Better Nutrition, April 2007

The Basics: The omega-3 family of oils is essential for health, particularly for normal brain development and heart function. If you eat a lot of processed, packaged or fast foods-or cook at home with corn or safflower oil-odds are that you don’t get enough omega-3s. That’s because such foods contain large amounts of omega-6s, a competing family of dietary oils.

Alias: The two stars of the omega-3s family are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in cold-water fish and omega-3 fish oil supplements. In scientific papers, the omega-3s are often referred to as “n-3.” In Europe, they are sometimes called menhaden oils.

How They Work: The omega-3 oils have far-reaching roles in health, affecting the activity of genes and how cells communicate with one another. However, they may be best known for their anti-inflammatory benefits. Recent research has found that the omega-3s are the building blocks of powerful anti-inflammatory compounds known as resolvins and neuroprotections. EPA and DHA also get converted to several hormone-like anti-inflammatory compounds.

Health Benefits: Both conventional and alternative-minded physicians frequently recommend taking omega-3 oils for their many benefits.

Heart Health. The omega-3s protect the heart in several key ways. They reduce inflammation-important because low-grade inflammation of arteries is now regarded as the cause of coronary heart disease. The omega-3s are mild blood thinners, slow the heart rate, and improve blood-vessel flexibility. They also improve heart rhythm, reducing the risk of erratic heartbeats called arrhythmias.

It’s never too late to start taking omega-3 fish oils. European researchers recently gave 8g of omega-3 fish oil capsules daily to coronary artery bypass patients. The patients’ “bad” very-low density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol decreased and their “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol increased. They also had relatively low levels of troponin, a marker of surgery-related heart damage.

Cancer Prevention. The omega-3s may reduce the risk of many different types of cancer, including prostate and breast cancers. The reason gets back to their competition with omega-6 oils. In large amounts, the omega-6s have a cancer-stimulating effect. In contrast, the omega-3s inhibit the growth of cancers. Today, people consume at least 15 times more omega-6s, but in ancient times they ate roughly equal amounts.

Mood Lifter. The omega-3s are needed for normal brain development in infants, and research points to their need in maintaining healthy moods and behavior. Recent articles in the American Journal of Psychiatry described how the omega-3s help people with depression, postpartum depression and bipolar disorder. Other studies have found that the omega-3s can reduce impulsive behavior, hostility and physical aggressiveness. The omega-3s, particularly DHA, may also improve memory and help cognitive function in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dry Eyes Syndrome. Dry eyes may be more of a nuisance that a debilitating condition, but research suggests that people with dry eyes may benefit for the omega-3s. In a study of more that 32,000 women, Harvard University researchers found that women eating few omega-3s but a lot of omega-6s were more likely to suffer from dry eyes syndrome. Conversely, women who consumed a lot of omega-3s had a lower risk of dry eyes syndrome.

Background Check:
More than 8,000 scientific studies involving omega-3s have been published in the past 15 years. In 2006 alone, 800 studies were published in medical and scientific journals.

Gleanings:
Two recent studies found that people eating large amounts of fish rich in omega-3s had a 40-45% lower risk of developing age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindess among seniors. DHA is essential for normal retina function, and it also boosts production of neuroprotectin D1, which safeguards the retina.

Heads Up:
Trans fats interfere with enzymes called desaturases and elongases, which are needed for the body to properly convert omega-3 oils. Studies have found that omega-3 fish oil supplements are free of mercury. If you are a vegetarian, opt for DHA supplements derived from algae. Flaxseed oil contains alpha-linolenic acid, the parent molecule of the omega-3s, but many people do not efficiently convert it to EPA and DHA.

What Should You Take:
Consider taking 1000-3000 mg of fish oil daily.