The Benefits of Fish Oil

When it comes to nutrition and our diet, there are good fats and there are bad fats. Artificially produced trans-fatty acids are bad in any amount and saturated fats from animal products should be kept to a minimum. The best fats are those that contain the essential fatty acids so named because we need them to live. Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated and grouped into two families, the omega-6 EFAs and the omega-3 EFAs.

Minor differences in the makeup up the two groups make both the EFA families act very differently in the body. While the metabolic products of omega-6 acids promote inflammation, blood clotting, and tumor growth, the omega-3 acids act entirely opposite. Although we do need both omega-3s and omega-6s it is becoming increasingly clear that, an excess of omega-6 fatty acids can have grim consequences. Many scientists believe that a major reason for the high incidence of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, and some forms of cancer is the profound imbalance between our intake of high amounts of omega-6 and lower amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

Sources and Recommended Daily Requirements
The main sources of omega-6 fatty acids are vegetable oils such as corn oil and soy oil that contain a high proportion of linoleic acid. Omega-3 acids are found in flaxseed oil, walnut oil, and marine plankton and fatty fish. The main component of flaxseed and walnut oils is alpha-linolenic acid while the predominant fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oils are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The most beneficial and active of these fatty acids are EPA and DHA.

Recent research has established that consuming fish oils (EPA and DHA) play a crucial role in the prevention and even the treatment of numerous diseases and conditions such as atherosclerosis, heart attack, depression, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, and Raynaud's disease.

Recognizing the benefits of EPA and DHA and the serious consequences of a deficiency in our diets, the US National Institutes of Health recently published Recommended Daily Intakes of fatty acids. They recommend a total daily intake of 650 mg of EPA and DHA, 2.22 g/day of alpha-linolenic acid and 4.44 g/day of linoleic acid. Saturated fat intake should not exceed 8 per cent of total calorie intake or about 18 g/day.

Fish Oil Good For Our Brains
The human brain is one of the largest "consumers" of DHA. According to researchers, a normal adult human brain contains more than 20 grams of DHA. Low DHA levels have been linked to low brain serotonin levels, which are connected to an increased tendency to depression, suicide, and violence. A high intake of fish has been linked to a significant decrease in age-related memory loss and cognitive function impairment and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Additionally, several studies have established a clear association between low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and depression.

An adequate intake of DHA and EPA is particularly important during pregnancy and lactation. During this time, the mother must supply all the baby's needs for DHA and EPA because it is unable to synthesize these essential fatty acids itself. There is some evidence that an insufficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of premature birth and an abnormally low birth weight.

The constant drain on a mother's DHA reserves can easily lead to a deficiency and some research has concluded that preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure) and postpartum depression could be linked to a DHA deficiency.

Researchers have found that children who regularly eat fresh, oily fish have a four times lower risk of developing asthma than do children who rarely eat such fish. Other research has found fish oil to be helpful for treatment of other lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis and emphysema.

Fish Oil and the Heart
A vast amount of medical literature demonstrates that fish oils prevent and may help to ameliorate or reverse atherosclerosis, angina, heart attack, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease. Fish oils have also demonstrated an ability to help maintain the elasticity of artery walls, prevent blood clotting, reduce blood pressure and stabilize heart rhythm.

Various studies have concluded that fish oil supplementation may help prevent arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death in healthy men. Another study of heart attack survivors found that patients supplementing with fish oils markedly reduced their risk of another heart attack, a stroke or death. Other researchers found that fish oil supplementation for 2 years caused regression of atherosclerotic deposits.

Still other researchers have found that supplementing with as little as 2 grams/day of fish oil (410 mg of EPA plus 285 mg of DHA) can lower diastolic pressure by 4.4 mm Hg and systolic pressure by 6.5 mm Hg in people with elevated blood pressure. These reductions were enough to have patients avoid taking drugs in some cases of borderline hypertension, especially when combined with a program of salt restriction.

Reduces Pain and Helps Prevent Cancer
Fish oils have been shown to be particularly effective in reducing inflammation and can be of great benefit to people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis. Additionally, it is known that patients with ulcerative colitis have abnormally low blood levels of EPA. Clinical trials have shown that supplementation with fish oil (2.7 grams of EPA and 1.8 grams of DHA daily) can reduce the severity of the deficiency by more than 50% and enable many patients to discontinue anti-inflammatory medication and steroids, as well as cardiosteroids such as prednisone.

There is now also considerable evidence that fish oil consumption can delay or reduce tumor development in breast cancer. Studies have also shown that a high blood level of omega-3 fatty acids combined with a low level of omega-6 acids reduces the risk of developing breast cancer.

Safe Fish Oil Supplements That Are Easily Available
The processing and packaging of fish oil is important in helping determine its quality. Low quality oils may be quite unstable and contain significant amounts of mercury, cadmium, pesticides, and other undesirable trace components. High quality oils are stabilized with adequate amounts of vitamin E and are packaged in individual foil pouches or other packaging resistant to light and oxygen. Recent research indicates emulsified fish oils are much better absorbed than the straight oils in gelatin capsules.

Beware!!  Cod liver oils and fish oils are not the same. Cod liver oil is extracted from cod liver and is an excellent source of vitamins A and D. Fish oils are extracted from the flesh of fatty fish like salmon and herring and are good sources of EPA and DHA. Fish oils contain very little vitamin A and D, but cod liver oil does contain EPA and DHA. However, you would probably exceed the recommended daily intake of vitamins A and D if you were to try to obtain therapeutic amounts of EPA and DHA from cod liver oil. Of important note, research has shown that fish oil supplementation does lower blood concentrations of vitamin E, so it is a good idea to take extra vitamin E when adding fish oils to your diet.