Getting adequate fish oil in your diet conveys compelling health benefits, including the ideal body composition, cancer prevention, heart health, optimal brain function, and overall well-being. Fish oil is needed for peak muscular function, an optimistic mood, healthy blood pressure, eye health, and preventing inflammation. Sounds like good stuff, right?
Still, the media LOVES to disrespect fish oil just as much as they like to talk trash about multivitamins, leaving a lot of people so confused they throw their hands up in bafflement and won’t take any supplements. Fortunately, most of the Poliquin readership hasn’t bought into media nonsense and benefits from quality omega-3 supplementation.
It’s valuable to have things clarified so we can understand the mechanism behind better health from fish oil and achieve optimal fat intake. This article will tell you the top seven things you need to know about fish oil with a special focus on the biological mechanism via which it supports your heart.
#1: Fish Oil Protects the Heart: It Started With the Eskimos
Forty years ago two Danish medical students, Hans Olaf Bang and Jorn Dyerberg, got the idea that fish oil could protect against heart disease from reports that the Eskimos, whose diet was made up almost entirely of marine life, almost never got heart disease. Analysis of blood samples from fish-eating Eskimos showed that their blood was almost completely free of inflammatory biomarkers linked with heart disease. They had the cleanest blood Bang and Dyerberg had ever seen.
Despite strong connections between better cardiovascular health and omega-3 fish oil intake, 40 years of research has left science befuddled about the therapeutic effectiveness of fish oil for the wellbeing of the heart. Until the last few years…
#2: A Stress Reaction Enhances Protection: The Princess Bride Effect of Fish Oil
Emerging research shows that the marine omega-3 oils, EPA and DHA, are highly susceptible to oxidation in the body, an effect assumed to be toxic and undesirable. Oxidation is generally what causes oxidative stress that builds into a chronic inflammatory state. However, more recent data suggest that what would normally be considered an unwanted outcome if it happened to any other molecular fat is beneficial when happens to DHA and EPA. Oxidized fish oil appears to be particularly protective to the heart.
Here’s what researchers are suggesting: Recall the story The Princess Bride in which the hero Westley ingests small doses of poison to develop an immunity so that he will survive if he is ever poisoned by an enemy—an effect called hormesis. A similar argument is being put forth about oxidized DHA and EPA. Researchers suggest they cause reactions in the body that enhance genes that end up protecting the heart against disease and stress.
#3: Get A Balanced Fat Intake To Benefit From Protective Fish Oil & Avoid The Toxic
To get the protective effect of fish oil, you must get an overall balanced fat intake between the omega-3 and omega-6 fats. The omega-6 fats can both help and harm the heart. In reasonable and balanced doses with the other fats, omega-6 fats have an anti-inflammatory effect, enhancing gene pathways. However, in the large, “toxic” doses that have become standard in the typical Western diet, the omega-6 fats cause cell death, damage, and rampant inflammation.
For example, the typical American diet of the 21st century has a ratio of at least 15 to 1 of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats. Recall, the omega-6 fats are those that come from vegetable sources. In contrast, humans evolved on a diet that provided a near equal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats.
Just look at what they ate: wild meat, which is naturally high in omega-3s, fish—the super omega-3 source, fruit, plants, and seeds and nuts that provided a balanced quantity of unrefined omega-6 fats. Compare that diet with the grain-fed, factory farm animals of conventional farming that are robustly high in omega-6 fats. Pile on the isolated vegetable fats (canola, soybean, corn, vegetable blends) and we are overwhelmed with omega-6 fat.
#4: Omega-3 to Omega-6 Fat Imbalances Cause Inflammation & Disease
The effect is that the omega-6s are killing cells and causing inflammation, while the omega-3s are trying to mitigate the damage. But they are so overwhelmed by the omega-6 fats that they can’t lessen the harm. In addition, EPA and DHA require complex metabolism in the body via enzymatic activity, but it’s those same enzymes that metabolize the omega-6s. The omega-3s are left without their enzymes, exacerbating the problem.
On the other hand, a more equal ratio of omega-6 to -3 fats provides the right dose of “stress” causing a beneficial and protective enhancement of genes that are anti-inflammatory.
#5: Results of the Research: Fish Oils DO Matter
A review published by the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University found the following compelling points about fish oil:
• High-quality fish oil supplementation helps prevent heart disease.
• Certain forms of DHA and EPA, specifically triglyceride form, taken in high doses (2 grams daily and upward) are more effective than other forms, such as the ethyl ester forms, and smaller doses.
• Fish oil has enormous value for preventing serious health problems other than heart disease.
• Conflicting reports that fish oil is not effective at preventing heart disease are likely due to the increasing effectiveness of medications such as statins and fibrates. In comparison to drug interventions, fish oils don’t make as much of an impact.
• Fish oil supplementation may be the way to go to protect the heart if you live an overall healthy lifestyle that is focused on therapeutic supplementation and preventing inflammation. Heart medications may be the way to go if you prefer the “fix” but don’t plan on living an “anti-inflammatory lifestyle.”
• Plant-derived sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed oil or chia seeds, have less benefit than those from cold-water fish because of the differences in how the body processes them.
#6: Don’t Believe Media Lies
Unfortunately, high-quality media sources like the New York Times use misrepresentative headlines and talk about research outcomes in distorted ways. For example, in September 2012, a large-scale analysis of 68,680 people published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that omega-3 users had a 9 percent lower rate of heart-related death compared with controls, and an 11 percent lower rate of heart attack. These differences did not reach statistical significance, which means that the overall conclusion was that omega-3 supplementation wasn’t associated with a lower risk of cardiac death, heart attack, or all-cause mortality.
Note that the although fish oil wasn’t found to be statistically beneficial, it was not detrimental either. Wouldn’t you be willing to fish oil daily for a possible 10 percent lower risk of heart attack? I know I would.
In addition, the JAMA review generated a series of letters to the editor that pointed out two key points to consider about the review:
1) A wide variety of omega-3 doses were included in the review, with no uniformity in terms of DHA and EPA dosing. Also, omega-3 sources varied, and included fish, shellfish, algae, and mammalian (seal) sources, which all vary in fatty acid concentration.
2) Quality of the omega-3s and processing weren’t considered. Recent data published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture suggests many of the top-selling commercial fish oil products don’t contain the amount of EPA and DHA listed on the label, and have been shown to contain extremely toxic contaminants.
#7: You Can Lose Fat with A Balanced Fat Intake
• A balanced fat intake will help you lose body fat: Research shows it improves insulin sensitivity and decreases cortisol response.
• Build muscle and strength for better body composition: We’ve known for a while that fish oil is anabolic, and a new study of middle-age adults showed that taking 4 grams a day for 2 months led to increased muscle mass and strength, in conjunction with a weight lifting program.
• Fish oil is anti-inflammatory and will decrease cortisol, allowing you to shed body fat. Decreasing inflammation in the body is one of the first things you need to focus on to improve body composition: Not only does body fat produce inflammatory biomarkers, you can’t lose fat if you have a high inflammatory status.
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