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Omega-3 fatty acids are one of two groups of fatty acids—the omega-3s and the omega-6s—that are vital to human life. They are called essential fatty acids (EFAs), which the body cannot make but absolutely needs for normal growth and development. These fats must be supplied by diet. People living in industrialized western countries eat up to 30 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids, resulting in a relative deficiency of omega-3 fats. Omega-6 metabolic products (inflammatory prostaglandins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes) are formed in excessive amounts causing allergic and inflammatory disorders and making the body more prone to heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. Eating diets rich in omega-3 acids or taking fish oil supplements can restore the balance between the two fatty acids and can possibly reverse these disease processes.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has endorsed omega-3 fatty acids as good for the heart. The omega-3 oils increase the concentrations of good cholesterol (high density lipoproteins, HDL) while decreasing the concentrations of bad cholesterol (triglycerides). In addition, eating omega-3-rich food will result in a moderate decrease in total cholesterol level. In a clinical study of 38 women, flaxseed flour, which contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, decreased total cholesterol level by 6.9% and LDL cholesterol by 14.7%. In addition, lipoprotein (a), which is associated with heart attacks in older women, decreased by almost 10%. Thus, omega-3 fatty acids are natural alternatives to estrogen in prevention of heart attacks in postmenopausal women.
Furthermore, omega-3 oils protect the heart by preventing blood clots or keeping other fats from injuring the arterial walls. They not only relax arteries but also help to decrease constriction of arteries and thickening of blood.
Hundreds of studies have shown that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of heart attacks, strokes, and abnormal heart rhythms. Eskimos, who eat a lot of cold-water fish, have low rates of heart attacks and strokes, possibly because they have thinner blood, high HDL to LDL cholesterol ratio, and less buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) in the arteries. Two clinical trials have shown that regular consumption of fish or fish-oil supplements can prevent sudden deaths due to abnormal heart rhythms. In the Diet and Reinfarction Trial (DART) of 2,033 men who previously suffered a heart attack, men who ate two to three servings of fatty fish a week had their risk of sudden cardiac death lowered by 29% compared to those who had a low fat or high fiber diet. In the Physician's Health Study of 20,551 doctors, a 52% reduction in risk of heart attacks was observed in those who ate at least one fish meal per week compared with those who ate fish once a month or less.
Author Info: Teresa G. Odle, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
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