Fats in the Beginning
Although the trend over the last twenty years has been towards a more “fat-free” diet we now understand that some fat is actually essential to human well being. The body needs essential fatty acids just like it needs other essential vitamins and minerals to help prevent and treat numerous diseases. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are also required by the body to control a large number of cellular processes. Since essential fatty acids are not produced naturally in the body, they must be obtained through food and nutritional supplements.
Modern science has discovered that EFAs profoundly influence the health of the human body. Research with essential fatty acid supplementation has shown promise in a number of areas including: cardiovascular health, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, skin conditions, brain function, infant development, immune function, and cancer prevention. 1-3
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Cold-water, fatty fish and fish oils contain the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for cardiovascular disease have been well documented and studied. The benefits of fish oil emerged when researchers noticed that people who frequently ate fish suffered fewer heart attacks and died of heart disease at a lower rate than those who seldom ate fish. 8-11 Most significantly, those studies showed that eating fish offers powerful protection against one of the most dreaded and unpredictable consequences of heart disease- “sudden-death”- heart attacks that kill within minutes. One of the turning points for omega-3s and heart health was in 1999, when the British medical journal, Lancet, published the largest study to date on fish oils and heart attack patients.12 The placebo-controlled trial included more than 11,000 heart attack patients who were followed for three to five years. The patients who took 850 mg per day of a fish oil supplement showed a 45% decrease in risk of sudden cardiac death and a 20% reduction in mortality from all causes.
Another landmark study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).13 The study examined the diets of 80,000 female nurses over the course of 14 years and found that the risk of stroke due to blood clotting can be reduced by almost 50% by eating fish two to four times a week. The authors believe that the benefits were gained through the omega-3 content of the fish.
The evidence of fish oil’s protective powers is so strong that the American Heart Association now urges everyone to eat at least two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish per week. In fall 2002, the American Heart Association advised people who already have heart disease to consume about 1 gram a day of the active ingredients in fish oil- EPA and DHA.14 This is one of the few times that a major health organization has endorsed any dietary supplement for treating or preventing disease.
In addition to heart disease, omega-3 fatty acids are also being studied for infant brain development, 18-22 as well as improved mental functioning in adults (ie. prevention and treatment of bipolar disorder, alzheimers, schizophrenia, and reduced stress levels)15-17, protective effects on ulcerative colitis, 24-26 and in controlling type 2 diabetes. 23
Boost Your Mood With Omega-3s
During this past century there has been a marked increase in the lifetime risk for major depression with a decreasing age of onset. Over the same time period there have been significant changes in the intake of dietary fats, with substantially more saturated and trans fats being consumed, and less of the healthy omega-3s. Diets such as the Standard American Diet (SAD) that emphasize processed, packaged and convenience foods are deficient in the brain-building omega-3s.
The human brain is more than 60% fat, with a significant portion made of omega-3s. The brain requires more omega-3 fatty acids than any other system in the body. With sufficient levels of omega-3s the membranes of the brain perform at their peak level which is essential for regulating mood, emotions, anxiety, sleep and staving off depression. Research shows that countries with the highest fish consumption (containing high amounts of omega-3s) have the lowest rates of depressive disorders. Japan has the highest fish consumption in the world and the lowest rates of depression at 0.12%, whereas in North America where fish consumption is among the lowest in the world, depression rates are 50 times higher at 6%.
Over 17 million Americans experience depressive symptoms that can range from changes in eating and sleeping patterns, problems with concentration, decreased energy, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, anxiety, and mood swings. As a result of these dramatic rates of depression, antidepressant medication is at the top of the list of social expenditures for drugs in many countries.
Scientists continue to evaluate more “natural” remedies to help with mood and emotional health including the use of omega-3 fatty acids, especially, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Scientists have determined that higher omega-3 fatty acid intake is correlated with a decreased risk of depression, seasonal mood changes and an overall improvement in mood. A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2002 found that 1000 mg of EPA provided the most significant improvements in depression, anxiety, sleep and libido in combination with standard antidepressant therapy.
Mood supporting nutrients like omega-3s can be found in cold, deep water fatty-fish such as sardines, anchovies and mackerel. Consuming fatty fish at least twice a week as well an EPA concentrated supplement will help balance your mental health, improve mood, reduce stress and provide an overall sense of well-being.
Omega-3s and their Sources
EPA and DHA are found in variable amounts in fish, with the highest amounts being found in fatty, cold-water fish such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel, lake trout, and salmon. Fish ranges from less than 0.5 g of total omega-3 per 100 g serving (cod, haddock, halibut), to 1-1.5 g (e.g. salmon); 1.5-2 g (herring, lake trout) and 2-3.3 g (sardines and mackerel) per 100 g serving of the fish.7 Depending on the source of the fish used, fish oils vary in the amount of EPA and DHA they provide. For instance, tuna oil typically contains 5% EPA and 25% DHA, salmon oil provides 6% EPA and 9% DHA, and the highest natural source of EPA and DHA would come from a blend of sardines, anchovies and mackerel which can yield 18% EPA and 12% DHA.
Concentrated Fish Oil
One of the newest fish oil concentrates to be marketed in Canada is a concentrated fish oil that is produced using sardines, anchovies, and mackerel as the starting material, and the EPA and DHA are concentrated to a level of 30% EPA and 20% DHA for a total of 50% omega-3s. Concentrated fish oils are definitely the future for helping to prevent and treat disease.
Quality of Omega-3 Supplements
Omega-3s have substantial research to prove their efficacy, however, having a quality oil supplement is also important to ensure the highest purity and potency of omega-3s. Some consumers are concerned about contamination by heavy metals and other environmental contaminants like dioxins and PCBs, especially from fish that can accumulate many of these toxins during their life span. This is one of the advantages that choosing a supplement can provide over consuming fish because many fish oil supplements have been purified to remove any contaminants and heavy metals, and have been tested to meet industry standards/levels for these toxins.
Have you had your Omega-3s Today?
With all the substantiated research in the area of omega-3s for health, it is essential that we are filling our plates with fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel, as well as consuming flaxseeds, and other nuts and seeds which are vegetarian options of omega-3s. For those who find it difficult to consume omega-3 rich foods, or require dosages that are higher than what traditional foods offer, high quality, omega-3 rich concentrated supplements are a convenient way to ensure we are receiving the omega-3s that our bodies crave.
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- Das UN, Horrobin DF, et al. “Clinical Significance of essential fatty acids”. Nutrition 1998; 4:337.
- Shils. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 1999 Williams and Wilkins Pp. 81-88.
- Letter to the Editor “Deficiency of Essential Fatty Acids and Atherosclerosis, Etcetera” The Lancet, April 7, 1956, pp 381-383.
- Spins/Scans Data, September 2001-August 2002.
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- Bang HO, Dyerberg J. Nielsen AB. Plasma lipid and lipoprotein pattern in Greenlandic West-Coast Eskimos. The Lancet, 1971;1,(7710), pp. 1143-5.
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- Dyerberg J. “Coronary heart disease in Greenland Inuit: A paradox. Implications for Western Diet Patterns.” Arctic Med Research 1989;48:47-54.
- Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial. Lancet. 1999;354:9177, pp. 447-55.
- Hu F, Bronner L, Willett W, Stampfer M, Rexrode K, Albert C, Hunter D, Manson J. Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Women. JAMA 2002;287(14):1815-1821.
- American Heart Association. “New Guidelines focus on fish, fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids” November 18, 2002. www.americanheart.org.
- Hibbein J. “Fish consumption and major depression.” Lancet 1998;351:1213.
- Kalmijn S, L Launer, A Ott, J Witteman, A Hofman, and M Breteler. “Dietary fat intake and the risk of incident dementia in the Rotterdam Study.” Ann Neruol 1997;42:776-782.
- Nemets B, Z Stahl Z, and R Belmaker R. “Addition of Omega-3 Fatty Acid to Maintenance Medication Treatment for Recurrent Unipolar Depressive Disorder.” Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:477-479.
- Anderson GL. “Docosahexaenoic acid is the preferred dietary n-3 fatty acid for the development of the brain and retina.” Pediatric Research 1990;27(1):89-97.
- Burgess J, L Steven, W Zhang, and L Peck. “Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Am J Clin Nutr Supplement 2000;71:327S-30S.
- Cheruku S, H Montgomery-Downs, S Farkas, E Thoman, and C Lammi-Keefe. “Higher maternal plasma docosahexaenoic acid during pregnancy is associated with more mature neonatal sleep-state patterning.” Am J Clin Nut 2002;76(3):608-613.
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- Ha TKK and MEJ Lean. “Recommendations for the nutritional management of patients with diabetes mellitus.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1998;52:467-481.
- Simopoulos AP. “Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases.”J Am Coll Nutr. 2002;21(6):495-505.