This month we reexamine a compelling Harvard University study that outlined the top preventable dietary and lifestyle risk factors for premature death. All of the deaths calculated in the study were considered premature or preventable in that the victims would not have died when they did if they had not been subject to the behaviors or activities linked to their deaths.
In past issues we’ve explored some of the top offenders including high blood pressure, which is responsible for 395,000 deaths in the United States annually. Additionally, we presented findings on the perils of two other preventable death chart toppers: obesity (216,000 deaths) and inactivity (191,000).
Responsible for 84,000 preventable deaths annually, low dietary omega-3 fatty acids may be a lower risk than other factors cited, however it is still a considerable risk factor that can be addressed quite easily. This month we offer a primer on the importance of omega-3, its role in cell metabolism, signaling and inflammation, as well as some helpful dietary tips.
The Lowdown on Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are components of fats found in foods we eat. The term omega and number three refer to the chemical structure of the fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential because they are necessary for our bodies to work normally but the body can’t make them – you have to get them from food.
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids:
1. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the most common omega-3 fatty acid found in the western diet. It comes from plants, and is found in vegetable oils – primarily flaxseed, walnut, canola and soybean oils. ALA can be used to synthesize the functionally essential omega-3 fatty acids, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Although the American diet contains the recommended amount of ALA, it is not well converted to EPA and DHA, especially in older people. Therefore, preformed EPA and DHA are required for optimal health in most people, especially during periods of rapid growth and development such as pregnancy and in the first year of life.
2. & 3. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are known as the “long-chain” or marine omega-3 fatty acids since they are mainly found in fish and fish oils. EPA and DHA have the most potent health benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, they are especially low in the American diet, and since conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is poor, increasing intake of EPA and DHA has the potential to significantly improve health. The benefits of EPA and DHA for heart health and infant brain development is well documented. Emerging research also suggests that at high levels it can be helpful for mood support and for maintaining normal cognition in the elderly.
Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), omega-3 fatty acids have a number of health benefits. Omega-3s are thought to play an important role in reducing inflammation throughout the body – in the blood vessels, the joints, and elsewhere. However, omega-3 supplements (EPA/DHA) may cause the blood to thin and cause excess bleeding, particularly in people taking anticoagulant drugs. They also play a crucial role in brain function, as well as normal growth and development.
Because essential fatty acids (ALA, DHA, EPA) are not made in the body or are inefficiently converted from ALA to EPA and DHA, we need to get them from our diet. As stated above, the two crucial ones — EPA and DHA — are primarily found in certain fish. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) at least 2 times a week.
Most experts say that DHA and EPA – from fish and fish oil – have better established health benefits than ALA. DHA and EPA are found together only in fatty fish and algae. DHA can also be found on its own in algae, while flaxseed and plant sources of omega-3s provide ALA – a precursor to EPA and DHA, and a source of energy.
Scientific Evidence of Omega-3 Health Benefits
According to researchers at the distinguished Linus Pauling Institute (LPI), Oregon State University, research supports that increasing intakes of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease as part of a heart healthy diet by:
- Supporting proper heart rhythm;
- Promoting proper platelet aggregation;
- Decreasing serum triglyceride levels;
- Supporting arterial health;
- Supporting vascular endothelial function;
- Helping to maintain a healthy blood pressure;
- Promoting proper inflammatory response.
The Role of Omega-3s in the Mitochondria
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) play wide-ranging roles in cell metabolism, signaling and inflammation. Of these PUFAs, very long chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found principally in fish, have key roles in metabolism and inflammation. Combinations of omega 3 fatty acids are commonly consumed, and there is emerging evidence that it helps increase fat oxidation, and is useful in weight management. Moreover, treatment with combination omega 3 has been shown to triple the expression of genes encoding regulatory factors that control mitochondrial biogenesis and oxidative metabolism. High levels of combination omega 3’s -approximately 4 grams per day – is now often recommended to lower triglycerides and is currently one of the most common over-the-counter dietary supplements consumed.
Research Supports Importance of Healthy Mitochondria Relative to Omega-3s
In a recent cell culture study, human rhabdomyosarcoma cells (muscle cells) were treated with DHA/EPA combination omega-3. Mitochondrial gene expression, mitochondrial quantity, and overall mitochondrial metabolism was measured. The results showed that omega 3 significantly induced metabolic genes as well as oxidative metabolism (oxygen consumption), glycolytic capacity (extracellular acidification), and metabolic rate compared with control.
The conclusion was that omega 3 fatty acids appear to enhance all measures of mitochondrial function including glycolytic, oxidative, and total metabolism. Moreover, omega 3 significantly increased mitochondrial content (important for overall cell health) compared with the control group.
How Much Is Enough?
The American Heart Association recommends consuming 1-2 servings of fish per week (4 ounces/serving). Eating fortified foods and supplementing with fish oil can enhance omega-3s intake. As always, Juvenon advises readers to discuss dietary issues and supplementation with trusted health care providers who are familiar with your specific health concerns.
In the coming months, the Juvenon Health Journal will continue to feature research that will help you stay informed and healthy. By offering effective, natural supplements and health news you can use, Juvenon provides an essential toolkit to battle aging enemies.