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Do You Need Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Reviewed by John Stanley, MD
Do You Need Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega 3’s , or to be more precise omega 3 fatty acids are essential acids which seem to be producing more and more health benefits every time you read about them. Originally we were told that they helped to lower cholesterol and were full of ‘good’ fats. At this time they still had a bit of an ‘alternative’ image but over time and with every new health benefit discovered they have become established as beneficial in many ways and for many age groups.

Now they are being recommended to babies who have not even been born yet right through to pensioners. And it appears that we should be taking more of them according to David C. Leopold, MD, director of integrative medical education at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego. He says, “Pretty much everybody’s diet is deficient in omega-3s. I think that’s why adding them back in seems to have so many health benefits. We’re just balancing out what’s normally there”.

Already it has been proven that omega 3 fatty acids reduce the risk of heart disease and lower triglycerides too and many other conditions are said to be helped by taking omega 3 as part of your diet.

For a better understanding of the ways omega 3 oils can help you throughout all of the stages of life, along with a few words of caution, here is a balanced view of the situation.

What Are Omega-3s and How do I get them?

Omega 3’s are required to keep our bodies working in a healthy fashion, hence why the word “essential” is used in the term “omega 3 essential fatty acids”. Its powers appear to come from the anti inflammatory qualities which it has in abundance. Leopold explains, “A lot of diseases, like heart disease and arthritis, seem to be related to an inflammatory process. Omega-3s can tune down the body’s inflammation, and that may be how they help prevent some of these chronic diseases”.


Although omega 3’s are essential it must be noted that they must only be in the body in the correct quantities, talk to your doctor before taking any supplements or giving any supplements to your children. Most people should not have the need to take supplements though, eating a healthy balanced diet will give your body all of the omega 3’s it needs.

Fatty fish, such as salmon, trout, mackerel, halibut or sardines are very good sources of omega 3’s. However eating too much of any food can cause weight gain and unbalance a diet. Limit yourself to no more than 12 ounces a week. In fact most cold sea water fish are quite good with the exception of tuna, swordfish, shark and king mackerel which are known to contain higher levels of mercury. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children must be especially careful to avoid these fish. 

Omega 3 fatty acids can be broken down into two groups, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In addition to cold water fish some plants contain EPA and DHA, however the fatty acids produced from the plants, such as dark leafy greens, flax and olive oil has been found to work less effectively as essential acids from fish. In the case of the plants the EPA and DHA is broken down in the body from the constituent part called ALA.

DHA can be extracted from algae oil and used in food products.  The best way to get any nutrients into your body is by eating food, and nowadays many common foodstuffs have omega 3 essential acids added. Foods like snacks, bread, juices and cooking oils are all fortified as a matter of routine. 

However sometimes we feel the need for supplements. Leopold urges that anyone with a condition which affects bleeding or needs to take blood thinning medication must talk to a doctor before taking fish oil supplements but if you are taking less than 3 grams per day it is improbable that bleeding will occur according to research. However for everyone else he says that “supplements are extremely safe” but always stick to the correct dosage.

Leopold is also happy to recommend omega 3 supplements to children but adds, “While you must talk to a pediatrician first, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t consider giving an appropriate dosage of omega-3 supplements to a child. Just keep in mind that a doctor needs to work out the correct dosage”.


 
Taking Omega 3 essential acids throughout the lifecycle

The benefits that can be achieved by taking omega 3s begin before the baby is even born. If the mother is taking omega 3s whilst pregnant then they had a smaller chance of going into labor prematurely. This information came from a 2003 study where pregnant women who ate omega 3 fortified eggs were found to increase their chances of going full term when compared to women who did not actively take omega 3s.

In cognitive development studies it was seen that some advancement of hand eye coordination, attention span, intelligence testing and social skills were seen in infants who were fed omega 3 enriched foods. It was also noted that if mothers took omega 3 supplements whilst pregnant then their infant at age 4 performed better in cognitive testing than those whose mothers did not take supplement s whilst pregnant.

Other benefits associated with omega 3s are reduced asthma risk, as seen in a 2008 study where teenagers who were born to mothers who took fish oil when pregnant had a lower chance of getting asthma. And it is said that omega 3s promote growth and helps the brain to develop in premature babies.

At this point it must be noted that the studies discussed are not conclusive however there is a body of evidence suggesting that ensuring that you and your children get adequate amounts of omega 3s can help in lots of ways. Formula milk is now routinely enriched with DHA and as long as mother is taking a good diet breast milk has ample DHA too.

As children grow older omega 3s have a role to play too. It is known that fish oil can help counteract the effects of depression in adults and a small scale study conducted in 2006 also saw the same improvement in children aged between 6 years and 12 years old.


Children at risk of developing type 2 diabetes can lower that risk by regularly eating food high in omega 3s according to research.

Some studies have identified that children with ADHD do not have as much omega 3s in their bodies as other children. The researchers gave these children omega 3 supplements and now believe that behavior can be improved and hyperactivity controlled in children who are less than 12 years old.

In a small study of 29 asthmatic children it was seen that the children taking fish oil regularly showed less symptoms than children who did not take supplements. It is believed that the omega 3s anti inflammatory powers reduced the swelling in the airways. In contrast, some other studies showed no appreciable improvement in symptoms.

Because many of the studies are small scale the results must be treated with some caution and larger scale work must be carried out before a better picture can be seen of the positive effects of the omega 3s. And not all studies used the same methods of getting omega 3s into the body, some used food as the way to get the omega-3s into the body and others used fish oil or omega-3 supplements. 


As children grow older and into adulthood they tend to be at their healthiest, but now is the time to think of the benefits for the future. Cancer and cardiovascular disease are main issues and research has found that heart disease risks can be lowered by as much as 32% just by people eating fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon or sardines twice a week. People who have already been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease should take fish oil supplements daily to ensure that they get enough EPA and DPA in their diets.

Young adults with depression and some other psychiatric disorders may benefit from taking more omega 3s according to research. It is known that omega 3s can play a part in the chemistry associated with the brain and some research has been carried out showing that depression sufferers have less omega 3s in their blood.


 
As yet there is not a body of evidence to say conclusively that omega 3s can help with cancer. However many tests have been carried out which indicate that there may be some positive effects on cancer of the colon, prostrate, ovaries, breast and esophagus when omega 3 supplements are used. Although the evidence is minimal at present it shows potential but more work must be done.

Ronald Glick, MD, is medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and he says, “We have studies showing that countries that have healthier diets -- with more vegetables and fish -- tend to have a lower incidence of depression than western countries”.

It has also been seen that taking fish oil increases the effectiveness of some antidepressants. And there has been research carried out showing the benefits of omega 3s when treating people with depression. Further research continues and there is a suggestion that other conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may benefit from omega 3s being part of the treatment.

Contradictory reports on whether omega 3s can be helpful for Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease or many other conditions means that a lot more research must be carried out before any conclusions can be drawn.

Heart disease is an issue as we become middle aged and more mature. This is an area where research has established that there are benefits to be achieved by ensuring that ample omega 3s are taken regularly. Experts like Erminia M. Guarneri, MD, a cardiologist and medical director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine are very upbeat when they say, “Omega-3s have enormous benefits from a cardiovascular standpoint”.

They have been seen to minimize risks in those suffering from heart disease as well as stopping problems from developing in healthy people. There have been many studies showing the benefits of taking fish oil if you have already had a heart attack. In one such study it was found that the chance of death being associated with the heart dropped 45%, it appears that omega 3s have a property which maintains a steady heartbeat. Omega 3s are also said to be beneficial when trying to lower stroke risks too.

High amounts of DHA and EPA have been seen to reduce the levels of triglycerides in the blood by as much as 50% but presently there is no body of evidence showing benefits with other forms of cholesterol.


 
Another risk as we grow older is memory problems, whether it is dementia or Alzheimer’s disease then omega 3s have been seen to have some positive effects. Studies have identified that those on diets containing lots of fatty fish have a lower risk of memory problems as they progress though life. DHA has also been assessed to check its effectiveness at slowing down the onslaught of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. One study did find a benefit however other omega 3 related studies have been unable to confirm the benefits.

Another area in which there is inconclusive evidence is that of rheumatoid arthritis, yet there is some belief that fish oil can be effective in reducing stiffness and pain associated with the condition. However there appears to be a requirement for very large doses of fish oil, up to 3 or 4 grams per day, which necessitates medical supervision. Osteoporosis is another condition which appears to respond well to omega 3s. Research has identified that greater bone density in the hip is found in those who eat a lot of fatty fish and another study saw old people gain bone density after taking fish oil supplements.


Omega-3s: The New Traditional Add on Remedy

Omega 3 fatty acids appear to enhance the powers of traditional medicines rather than doing the good work themselves and this leads experts to say that they really are a complimentary method of treatment. Because much research has been carried out into omega 3s and their health related powers in recent years the label of alternative has now changed to mainstream.

Gail Underbakke, RD, is a nutrition coordinator of the Preventative Cardiology Program at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and she says, “Omega-3s may not replace your medicines for arthritis or depression, but they might allow you to take lower doses of those drugs”. However that does not mean that fish oil supplements should be self administered if they are taken with drugs. Your doctor should always be involved in these cases to ensure that you are getting suitable treatment for your condition.

However if you are just taking fish oil daily as a supplement then you should not have any problems. Guarneri says, “With a few exceptions, I don’t think there’s any problem with the average person taking a fish oil supplement daily, like a multivitamin”. She goes on to explain that if you take one extra gram of fish oil as a supplement it can only be beneficial for you.

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