The Health Benefits of Omega 3s

In the world of health and nutrition, omega-3s rank among the superstars. These fatty acids -- found naturally in some foods, added to others, and available as supplements -- show so much promise in fighting disease that researchers have explored their effects on more than 30 conditions. In 2007 alone, investigators published 600-plus studies on omega-3s, covering everything from heart disease to depression to cancer. From the buzz, it would seem these fatty acids can cure just about anything. Delve a little deeper, though, and it's clear that solid scientific evidence in support of omega-3s doesn't pan out for more than a handful of diseases. "Knowing when to use omega-3s, and for what conditions, can be tricky," says Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic. But with a little knowledge and advice from experts, you can figure out how to make these important nutrients work for you.

Making the Grade

A type of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3s -- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) -- aid in normal growth and development, reduce inflammation, and promote cognitive health. Most experts agree on the importance of omega-3s in the diet. What's less clear is how much they contribute to fighting specific diseases. To shed light on some answers, Natural Standard, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based research firm, created a report on omega-3s that assigned letter grades to their various uses. More than 30 researchers analyzed hundreds of studies, looking at both omega-3s in the diet and supplement use, says company cofounder and doctor of pharmacy Catherine Ulbricht. To better understand the results (below), we asked several experts to share their opinions of the grades. Here's what we found.

Grade: A
According to research, your heart benefits the most from omega-3s. DHA and EPA can lower triglycerides, help prevent a second heart attack, and, if you have high blood pressure, may lower it slightly.

Experts say: William Harris, Ph.D., a professor of medicine at Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota and an omega-3 expert, agrees with the first two findings: lowering triglycerides and helping prevent a second heart attack. To achieve the first result, Harris notes, you'll need to take supplements (versus simply adding omega-3-rich foods to your diet). Harris is not as impressed with omega-3s' effect on high blood pressure, however, because the drop is small. "With high blood pressure, when you take omega-3 supplements in high doses, you see maybe a 5 percent drop max," he says.

Grade: B
Natural Standard gave this grade to omega-3s as a tool for preventing cardiovascular disease and improving rheumatoid arthritis. In its opinion, the supporting evidence is "good" and potential benefits exist, but it would like to see more, and, in some cases, better designed studies.

Experts say: While Harris concedes this use hasn't been studied as intensely, he thinks taking omega-3s to prevent a first heart attack makes just as much sense as taking them to ward off a second (which earned an A). Roberta Lee, M.D., medical director of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing, an integrative health program affiliated with Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, also has a more favorable view of omega-3s and rheumatoid arthritis than a mere B grade. She says they're "important to maximize" treatment because it's an inflammatory condition.

Grade: C
For 20-plus other conditions that have been studied -- including depression, cancer, dementia, and stroke -- scientific evidence is unclear or conflicting. For now, using omega-3s for these issues isn't a sure bet.

Experts say: Some holistic practitioners may still recommend omega-3s for certain ailments based on their own results with patients. Lee, for instance, believes most chronic diseases with an inflammatory element will benefit from omega-3s. "I've seen amazing changes with eczema, asthma, psoriasis, and PMS," she says. Lee emphasizes that she considers the entire body when treating someone, and she makes other changes along with upping omega-3 intake.

Grade: D
Using omega-3s to help diabetes and lower high cholesterol were two among several conditions earning Ds from Natural Standard, meaning the scientific evidence didn't bear out. (No Fs were given.)

Experts say: Harris agrees with this grade. "I think some people do use fish oils in an attempt to lower cholesterol," he says, "but it's all based on very fuzzy logic. They have high cholesterol; fish oil is good for the heart; therefore, fish oil must lower cholesterol. But this is wrong thinking." What people might consider, he adds, is that omega-3s can help lower the risk for cardiovascular disease in people with high cholesterol or with diabetes.

Do fish oil supplements have too much mercury? See the research.

Now What?

Where does all of this leave you? If you want to use omega-3s therapeutically, which typically means taking supplements, consult with a holistic practitioner first -- even for the grade-A winners. How much you might need, and which type of omega-3 you should take (ALA, DHA, EPA), will vary depending on several factors.

Whether or not you take other medications could make a difference, as could the condition you're trying to treat (DHA and EPA have shown better results with treating heart disease, for instance, than ALA). And since a holistic practitioner may see a possible benefit for you that science doesn't fully support yet, it's always wise to seek knowledgeable assistance.

Specific conditions aside, everyone, even healthy people, should strive to include omega-3 rich foods in their diet simply for general well-being. Aim for two servings of oily fish a week, and eat plant sources of omega-3s daily. (See "Eat This," on the next page, for suggestions.) You can also try fortified foods, but be sure you read the label to see how much and what kind of omega-3s are included -- and know that some vendors don't provide this information.

At the same time, scale back on foods containing omega-6s (also a polyunsaturated fat), including vegetable oils like corn and safflower, processed foods, and meat and poultry. Although these fats are important to good health, they may contribute to problems like increased inflammation when consumed in excess -- and prevent your body from properly using omega-3s. Typical American diets consist of about 10 times more omega-6s than omega-3s, says Susan Moores, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association; a more optimal ratio is two to four times more. "Instead of corn oil, move toward canola oil, and instead of chicken, beef, or pork, have more fish," she says. "It's a matter of substitution, versus an addition." As with many nutrients, when it comes to reaping the undeniable benefits of omega-3s, smart food choices make all the difference.

Eat This

Up your intake of omega-3s with the foods listed below. Also eat more leafy greens (spinach, kale), winter squash (acorn, butternut), and beans (black, kidney, navy); there's less omega-3s in these particular foods, but every little bit helps.

Walnuts (1 oz.): 2.6 g

Herring (3 oz.): 1.8 g

Chinook salmon (3 oz.): 1.6 g

Ground flaxseed (1 tbs.): 1.6 g

Canola oil (1 tbs.): 1.3 g

Rainbow trout (3 oz.): 1 g

Canned white tuna (3 oz.): 0.8 g


Do fish oil supplements have too much mercury? See the research.

Text by Cheryl Alkon

Source: USDA Nutrients Database

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