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The Fats That Can Save Your Life

Author: Anthony Stein
Source: Essential Health, Volume 3, Issue 1

Unfortunately, most folks assume that fats, in general, are detrimental to health when, in fact, desirable fats produce remarkable benefits. Consider what are called the omega-3 fatty acids found in both fish and flax oil. Research shows that these fats support better health in significant ways.

When researchers at the University of Pittsburgh treated liver cancer cells with the omega-3 fatty acids known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), they found that these nutrients inhibited the development of tumors (AACR, 4/3/06). The scientists believe that the omega-3 fats induce cancer cells to destroy themselves in a process called apoptosis (programmed cell death). In addition, the omega-3s reduced the level of a protein called beta-catenin that otherwise spurs the development of liver abnormalities. “…our finding that omega-3 fatty acids can decrease levels of beta-catenin is further evidence that these compounds have the ability to interact on several points of pathways involved in tumor progression,” explains Tong Wu, MD, PhD, whose lab conducted this research. In other words this study shows that omega-3s block cancer with several different mechanisms. Dr. Wu thinks that further investigation into omega-3s will show they can be used for both fighting liver cancer and prevetnting its inception.

Pancreas Protection

Other parts of the body also benfit from omega-3s. Research on how these fats protect the pancreas show they may help lower the risk of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas stops making insulin, the hormone necessary for the uptake of blood sugar. But a study at the Universtiy of Colorado at Denver found that when children genetically susceptible to type 1 diabetes were given omega-3 fatty acids, the insulin-making cells in the pancreas were more likely to keep functioning normally (JAMA, 9/26/07).

Eye Function

Meanwhile, scientists have found that omega-3 fats can save your eyesight as you age. In laboratory tests at Children’s Hospital in Boston, researchers looked into how these chemicals may shield aging eyes from retinopathy, a deterioration of the retina that often causes blindness (Nature Medicine, 7/07). People with diabetes frequently lose their vision because of a variation of this condition called diabetic retinopathy. This occurs when blood vessels swell and leak fluid or grow excessively on the surface of the retina. Omega-3 fatty acids block this process by encouraging the creation of bioactive mediators, compounds which hinder the growth of destructive blood vessels.

“The retina has one of the highest concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids in the body,” notes lead author researcher Kip M. Connor, PhD, “Given this, it is reamarkable that with only a (small increase) in dietary omega-3 intake, we observed an approximate 40-50 percent decrease in retinopathy severity.” That shows that a little omega-3 goes a long way in saving eyesight.

Borage Benefits

Omega-3s aren’t the only health stars among the fats. A fat known as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found in borage oil, is an essential fatty acid necessary for the optimal function and growth of organs, nerves, muscles, and cells. It may also prove to be a key nutrient that lowers the risk of breast cancer. In lab tests at Northwestern University, scientists discovered that GLA can inhibit the destructive action of Her-2/neu, a cancer gene responsible for about 30 percent of all breast cancers (Jrnl NCI, 11/2/05) “Breast cancer patients with Her-2/neu-positive tumors have an aggressive form of the disease and a poor prognosis,” says Ruth Lupu, MD, director of Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Breast Cancer Translational Research Program, who led the study. Dr. Lupu’s tests showed that treating cancer cells with GLA not only suppresses Her-2/neu expression, but also causes a 30- to 40-fold increased response in breast cancer cells to the drug trastuzumab, a monocional antibody that is used to treat many women with breast cancer. “In our tests, treating the cancer cell lines with both GLA and (trastuzmab) led to a synergistic increase in apoptosis (cell death) and reduced cancer growth,” says Dr. Lupu.

Take A Good Fat To Dinner

Regrettably, the typical American diet often contains large amounts of saturated fat and trans fats, nutrients found in refined foods and fatty red meat that may increase the risk of cancer (Med Hypo, 7/24/07), heart disease (Nut adn Metab,1/16/07), Alzheimer’s (Gerontology, 4/07) and diabetes (Cell Metab, 3/07). But with what research now shows about how the right fat can benefit health, there’s no reason for those in the know to reserve a spot at dinner for anything but the good fats- or take supplements to make sure you get enough.