Fish Oil Fatty Acids: Should They Swim In Your Blood Stream?

Juvenon Health Journal volume 9 number 10 October 2010

By Benjamin V. Treadwell, Ph.D.

The goal, for most of us, is a long, healthy life. Genetics clearly play a significant role, but environmental factors are, perhaps, equally important in determining longevity and health. Although, for the moment, our genetic make-up is beyond our control, we can influence our lifespan with our diet and daily routine (avoiding smoking, excessive drinking, a sedentary lifestyle, emotional stress, etc.).

Luckily, many of the options for improving our health don’t require difficult choices. In fact, some involve virtually no sacrifice, like supplementing our diet with nutrients that the body can’t synthesize, but which have been shown to produce significant health benefits. One of those nutrients is the subject of this issue of the Health Journal. Its potential for improving health, especially cardiovascular health, was first reported over three decades ago.

Positively Fishy
Those early reports linked high consumption of coldwater fish with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disorders. Since then, additional studies have attributed a variety of positive health effects to consuming fish or oil extracted from fish (normally the skin).

“Environmental factors are important in determining longevity and health.”

The cardiovascular health benefits are, perhaps, the most significant. Positive effects have been reported by several independent academic institutions from around the world. Early results supported a direct link between fish oil extract and improved heart rate (stabilizing heart rhythm), in addition to noting a decrease in blood clots and artery-blocking thrombi.

Active Ingredients
Further work demonstrated that the active ingredients in fish oil are unsaturated fatty acids, commonly referred to as the omega-3s. The number 3 after “omega” indicates that the first unsaturated bond is 3 carbons in from the end of the carbon chain. Two fatty acid species make up the bulk of the omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), 20 (eicosa) carbons in length with five (penta) unsaturated bonds, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), 22 (docosa) carbons in length with six (hexa) unsaturated bonds. Most research has indicated that the majority of fish oil’s health benefits can be attributed to these two species.

“Early results supported a direct link between fish oil extract and improved heart rate.”

Fatty Acids Fighting Fat
Omega-3s are making research news again. An exciting new human study recently demonstrated how a daily dose of three to four grams of Omega-3s, combined with a prescribed cholesterol-lowering statin drug (simvastatin), can reduce common fats that circulate in our blood.

These neutral fats, called triglycerides, are normally used as a source of energy and stored in tissues, such as adipose tissue (fat tissue). But when we store too much, our serum (blood) level of triglycerides becomes too high (>150mg/100 ml), which can lead to inflammation and associated health concerns.

“The active ingredients in fish oil are unsaturated fatty acids, also known as omega-3s.”

This study is of particular interest to western civilization where about 70% of the population is overweight, which translates to high triglyceride levels. The research was performed with 62 subjects who had high triglyceride serum levels as well as high cholesterol levels.

Half of the group took four grams of the omega-3s plus 20 mg of the simvastatin per day. The other 31 people were placed on the simvastatin alone, 20 mg/day. At the end of the six-week study, the research team drew blood from each subject and examined several important lipid markers, such as triglycerides, HDL, LDL and total cholesterol.

“A new human study showed how omega-3s can help reduce common fats in our blood.”

The results showed that the statin alone did reduce serum triglyceride levels. However, in combination with the omega-3s, the reduction was amplified three-fold (from 13.9% to 41%). The study also demonstrated significant reductions of LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol levels in both groups, with a slightly greater reduction in the group taking the combined treatment. There was little or no effect on the HDL cholesterol level.

In Fish Oil’s Favor
Although this study was directed at examining the effect of combining the omega-3s with statins to reduce triglycerides, previous work from other laboratories has demonstrated triglyceride-lowering benefits when omega-3s are taken alone. In both cases, omega-3-rich fish oil seems to be effective as an aid for maintaining a healthier lipid profile.

There are other prescribed medications (fibrate class of drugs) that have been shown to reduce triglyceride levels. In terms of unwanted side effects, however, fish oil containing the omega-3s has a much better safety record, with few side effects reported. Of course, before considering adding fish oil to your diet, you should consult your health professional.

“Prospective randomized comparison between omega-3 fatty acid supplements plus simvastatin versus simvastatin alone in Korean patients with mixed dyslipidemia: lipoprotein profiles and heart rate variability,” published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, describes a recent study designed to determine the effectiveness of combining the omega-3 fatty acids with the cholesterol drug to lower triglycerides in human patients with high serum cholesterol and high serum triglycerides.

Conducted by a team of investigators from the Seoul National University College of Medicine and Seoul Metropolitan Boramae Hospital, the study was performed with patients whose triglycerides ranged between 200 and 499 mg/100ml, and whose cholesterol was higher than 200 mg/100 ml. With a specific diet in common, half of the subjects were instructed to take a 20 mg tablet of the cholesterol-lowering drug, simvastatin. The other half was asked to take a four-gram tablet of the omega-3s as well.

After six weeks of this protocol, blood was drawn and analyzed for a number of markers of inflammation and lipid profile. Patients taking the simvastatin alone showed some decrease in LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. By comparison, the group receiving the combination of simvastatin and omega-3s demonstrated a dramatic decrease (41% vs. 13.9%) in the level of triglycerides.

The investigators concluded that, for lowering high triglycerides to more normal, less pathogenic levels, adding the side effect-free omega-3s may be more effective than an often prescribed, fibrate-statin combination.

Read abstract here.

This Research Update column highlights articles related to recent scientific inquiry into the process of human aging. It is not intended to promote any specific ingredient, regimen, or use and should not be construed as evidence of the safety, effectiveness, or intended uses of the Juvenon product. The Juvenon label should be consulted for intended uses and appropriate directions for use of the product.

Dr.Treadwell answers your questions.

question: I read where antioxidants can prevent the positive effects of exercise. What are your thoughts on this issue? – D

answer: In one recent study, by the Joslin Diabetes Center and Harvard Medical School, exercise was shown to activate metabolic pathways with certain health benefits, except for those subjects who were taking high doses of the antioxidant vitamins C and E. The investigators theorized that it is oxidative stress, resulting from exercise, for example, which prompts the body to turn on the “good” metabolic pathways. Antioxidants prevent that stress. Keep in mind, though, that the study was relatively small and short-term, and the 39 subjects were all younger men.

As we get older, the redox state (balance of oxidation and reduction) in the tissues of our bodies is altered with an increase in the production of oxidants. Unfortunately, the body’s antioxidant system just does not work as well (isn’t turned on as quickly) as it did when we were younger. Taking antioxidant supplements to bring the redox state back to a more youthful balance should help prevent the age-associated increase in oxidized cellular products. This benefit seems to outweigh the potential of oxidative stress, like that produced by exercise, to activate “good” metabolic pathways, at least until more research is completed.

Benjamin V. Treadwell, Ph.D., is a former Harvard Medical School associate professor and member of Juvenon’s Scientific Advisory Board.