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Fish Oil and Essential Fatty Acids

Fish Oil and Essential Fatty Acids have been touted by many as important to the overall health of the body. But what are they and what benefits do they provide for you?  Dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish oil and certain plant and nut oils.

There are two main types of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These are plentiful in fish and shellfish. Algae often provides only DHA.
  • Short-chain omega-3 fatty acids are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). These are found in plants, such as flaxseed. Though beneficial, ALA omega-3 fatty acids have less potent health benefits than EPA and DHA. You’d have to eat a lot to gain the same benefits as you do from fish.

Fish oil contains both DHA and EPA, while some nuts (such as English walnuts) and vegetable oils (such as canola, soybean, flaxseed, linseed, and olive oils) contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). There is supportive evidence from multiple studies that suggests the intake of recommended amounts of DHA and EPA in the form of dietary fish or fish oil supplements may lower triglycerides; reduce the risk of death, heart attack, dangerous abnormal heart rhythms, and strokes in people with known cardiovascular disease; slow the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques (“hardening of the arteries”), and lower blood pressure slightly. However, too high of a dose may have harmful effects, such as an increased risk of bleeding.

DHA is one of the most prevalent fatty acids in the brain. This could partly explain why our brains do better with a greater supply. A Rush Institute for Healthy Aging study analyzed fish-eating patterns of more than 800 men and women, ages 65 to 94. Those eating fish at least once a week were much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who did not.

Although some types of fat like saturated and trans fat, may increase your risk of heart disease, the fats in fish oil can be beneficial. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, omega-3 fatty acids may help you reduce the amount of fat in your blood and reduce your risk of stroke and heart attacks. Additionally, the center notes that omega-3 fatty acids may decrease your cholesterol levels.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty layers of cold-water fish and shellfish, plant and nut oils, English walnuts, flaxseed, algae oils, and fortified foods. You can also get omega-3s as supplements. Food and supplement sources of these fatty acids differ in the forms and amounts they contain. In addition to omega-3′s, fish is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals and, it’s low in saturated fat.

Hundreds of studies suggest that omega-3′s may provide some benefits to a wide range of diseases: cancer, asthma, depression, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, and autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Fatty acids are beneficial for many different conditions because all of these diseases have a common genesis in inflammation.  In large enough amounts omega-3′s reduce the inflammatory process that leads to many chronic conditions.

Unfortunately, the American diet is too high in omega-6′s instead.  Before the introduction of grains, fats, and artificial substances, the ratio of omega-6′s to omega-3′s was two to one. Today, we consume at least 20 times more omega-6′s than omega-3′s. The problem is that excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids can promote inflammation, a key step in many chronic diseases.

Foods high in polyunsaturated fats, such as soybean, corn, sunflower, or safflower oils hurt you in more ways than one. These omega-6 fatty acids, when eaten in excess, can reduce your body’s ability to metabolize the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

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