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Respected health care organizations proposed intake recommendations for oily fish of two servings per week for healthy adults, which equates to approximately a daily total of 500 milligrams (mg) EPA and DHA.‡ The recommendation encourages adults already with or at-risk of developing cardiovascular disease to talk to their primary healthcare professional about supplementing with amounts greater than 500 mg of EPA and DHA per day. Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
The omega-3 index is also important because it is inversely related to one’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio — another important measurement (3). A lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio (meaning, you consume a balanced amount of these two fatty acid families) is associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease, to name a few (4). Of course, most people get far too much omega-6 and too little omega-3, thanks to the plethora of highly processed foods in the Western diet.
The Japanese notably have the lowest levels of coronary heart disease mortality and atherosclerosis among developed nations — a phenomena that has been largely subscribed to diet. However, even within Japan, a 10-year study of over 41,000 people found that higher intakes of omega-3s were associated with lower risks of nonfatal coronary events (8). A more recent study also found that Japanese with higher omega-3 index levels (10%) had a lower risk of fatal coronary heart disease than those with a lower omega-3 index levels (8%) (9). The study begs the question of whether maybe even the Japanese have room to improve their omega-3 intake and whether 8% should be considered the lower limit of a desirable range.
The absence of DHA in many pure EPA trials, and therefore lack of competition between EPA and DHA during digestion and consequently for uptake, is considered to be partly responsible for the positive outcomes. Simply put, pure EPA delivers more EPA into cells where it is needed than combined EPA & DHA blends. Consequently, oils containing DHA may not be suitable for a variety of conditions when treatment relies on increasing levels of EPA and its end products.
Several large studies have linked higher blood levels of long-chain omega-3s with higher risks of prostate cancer. However, other research has shown that men who frequently eat seafood have lower prostate cancer death rates and that dietary intakes of long-chain omega-3s aren’t associated with prostate cancer risk. The reason for these apparently conflicting findings is unclear.
The FDA recommends that consumers do not exceed more than three grams per day of EPA and DHA combined, with no more than 2 grams from a dietary supplement. This is not the same as 3000 mg of fish oil. A 1000 mg pill typically has only 300 mg of omega-3; 10 such pills would equal 3000 mg of omega-3. According to the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies, supplementation of 5 grams of EPA and DHA combined does not pose a safety concern for adults. Dyerberg studied healthy Greenland Inuit and found an average intake of 5.7 grams of omega-3 EPA per day; among other effects these people had prolonged bleeding times, i.e., slower blood clotting.
Fish oil has been shown to have a direct electrophysiological effect on the myocardium. Initial experience with animal ischemia models demonstrated that the ventricular fibrillation threshold was increased in both animals fed or infused with omega-3 FA.23,24 This progressed to a demonstration, on a cellular and ion channel level, that omega-3 FA reduce both sodium currents and L-type calcium currents.25–29 It is hypothesized that during ischemia, a reduction in the sodium ion current protects hyperexcitable tissue, and a reduction in the calcium ion current reduces arrhythmogenic depolarizing currents.30
A March 2010 lawsuit filed by a California environmental group claimed that eight brands of fish oil supplements contained excessive levels of PCB's, including CVS/pharmacy, Nature Made, Rite Aid, GNC, Solgar, Twinlab, Now Health, Omega Protein and Pharmavite. The majority of these products were either cod liver or shark liver oils. Those participating in the lawsuit claim that because the liver is the major filtering and detoxifying organ, PCB content may be higher in liver-based oils than in fish oil produced from the processing of whole fish.
“This systematic review did find moderate evidence that ALA, found in plant oils (such as rapeseed or canola oil) and nuts (particularly walnuts) may be slightly protective of some diseases of the heart and circulation. However, the effect is very small, 143 people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person developing arrhythmia. One thousand people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person dying of coronary heart disease or experiencing a cardiovascular event. ALA is an essential fatty acid, an important part of a balanced diet, and increasing intakes may be slightly beneficial for prevention or treatment of cardiovascular disease."
Jump up ^ Kwak SM, Myung SK, Lee YJ, Seo HG (May 2012). "Efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplements (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials". Archives of Internal Medicine. 172 (9): 686–94. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.262. PMID 22493407.
Another recent study shows that fatty fish consumption can cut the risk of eye-diabetes complications. The researches tracked the seafood consumption of about 3,600 diabetic men and women between the ages of 55 and 80 for nearly five years. The researchers found that people who regularly consumed 500 milligrams each day of omega-3 fatty acid in their diets (equal to two servings of fatty fish per week) were 48 percent less likely to develop diabetic retinopathy than those who consumed less. (23)
However, this difference in the length of the carbon chain gives these two types of omega-3s significant characteristics. EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids, while ALA is a short-chain fatty acid. The long-chain fatty acids are more important for cellular health. Another omega-3 fat, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) can also be better synthesized by your body by elongating EPA.
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It seems that infancy and childhood are some of the most important periods of time in a person’s life to get plenty omega-3s in their diet, probably because of the amount of long-chain fatty acids found in the brain and retina. It’s crucial for developing babies and children to get a good amount of DHA and EPA so their brains and eyes develop fully and properly. (78)
Five studies with 7 data sets recruited participants without specific clinical conditions.36,47,51,55,60 The main results revealed that there was no significant difference in the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms between patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment and those not receiving it (k, 5; Hedges g, –0.008; 95% CI, –0.266 to 0.250; P = .95) (Figure 3A). Fourteen studies with 14 data sets recruited participants with specific clinical diagnoses.33-35,48-50,52-54,56-59,61 The main results revealed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 14; Hedges g, 0.512; 95% CI, 0.119-0.906; P = .01) (Figure 3A). Furthermore, according to the interaction test, the association of omega-3 PUFA treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms was significantly stronger in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without specific clinical conditions (P = .03).
DHA is one of the most prevalent fatty acids in the brain. This could partly explain why our brains do better with a greater supply. A Rush Institute for Healthy Aging study analyzed fish-eating patterns of more than 800 men and women, ages 65 to 94. Those eating fish at least once a week were much less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who turned up their nose at it.
The bottom line of all that is that there was no clear health benefit from consuming omega-3 fatty acids in food or supplements. There was a suggestion of a possible benefit from LCn3 on cardiac events, but this did not hold up when they took into consideration the quality of the evidence. The better trials, with less risk of bias, tended to be negative.
In a 2009 joint study by the USDA and researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina, grass-fed beef was compared with grain-finished beef. The researchers found that grass-finished beef is higher in moisture content, 42.5% lower total lipid content, 54% lower in total fatty acids, 54% higher in beta-carotene, 288% higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium, 193% higher in total omega−3s, 117% higher in CLA (cis-9, trans-11 octadecenoic acid, a cojugated linoleic acid, which is a potential cancer fighter), 90% higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA), lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease, and has a healthier ratio of omega−6 to omega−3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84). Protein and cholesterol content were equal.
16. Saito Y, Yokoyama M, Origasa H, Matsuzaki M, Matsuzawa Y, Ishikawa Y, Oikawa S, Sasaki J, Hishida H, Itakura H, et al. Effects of EPA on coronary artery disease in hypercholesterolemic patients with multiple risk factors: sub-analysis of primary prevention cases from the Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS). Atherosclerosis. 2008;200:135–40. [PubMed]
For rheumatoid arthritis, one systematic review found consistent, but modest, evidence for the effect of marine n−3 PUFAs on symptoms such as "joint swelling and pain, duration of morning stiffness, global assessments of pain and disease activity" as well as the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The American College of Rheumatology has stated that there may be modest benefit from the use of fish oils, but that it may take months for effects to be seen, and cautions for possible gastrointestinal side effects and the possibility of the supplements containing mercury or vitamin A at toxic levels. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has concluded that "[n]o dietary supplement has shown clear benefits for rheumatoid arthritis", but that there is preliminary evidence that fish oil may be beneficial, but needs further study.
*Swordfish contains high levels of mercury, as does shark, king mackerel, and tilefish (sometimes called golden bass or golden snapper). Women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should avoid these high-mercury species of fish, but can eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
We are now fortunate to understand how these fats work in combination and in isolation, how they are digested, absorbed and utilised in the body, so we are able to tailor different blends of EPA and DHA according to the health benefits we are seeking to achieve. At Igennus, we have long specialised in the role of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA in clinical nutrition, as a powerful tool in the patient’s ‘toolkit’ for helping to regulate inflammation by restoring several biological markers, known as the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and AA to EPA ratio. Before we discuss the therapeutic role of EPA in nutritional medicine, here’s a very brief summary of the role of both EPA and DHA in health throughout life.
There was no significant association between the Hedges g and mean age (k, 17; P = .51), female proportion (k, 18; P = .32), mean omega-3 PUFA dosage (k, 19; P = .307), EPA to DHA ratio (k, 17; P = .86), dropout rate in the omega-3 PUFA group (k, 18; P = .71), duration of omega-3 PUFA treatment (k, 19; P = .14), Jadad score of randomization (k, 19; P = .10), Jadad score of blindness (k, 19; P = .57), or total Jadad score (k, 19; P = .18).
In a 2009 letter on a pending revision to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association recommended 250–500 mg/day of EPA and DHA. The Guidelines were revised again for 2015-2020; included is a recommendation that adults consume at least eight ounces of a variety of types of fish per week, equating to at least 250 mg/day of EPA + DHA. The Food and Drug Administration recommends not exceeding 3 grams per day of EPA + DHA from all sources, with no more than 2 grams per day from dietary supplements.
If, however, we want to target the actions and benefits of either fat for more intensive support or clinical use, we need to alter the natural 1.5:1 EPA:DHA ratio found in most omega-3 sources such as fish oil – which is when concentrated supplements are especially useful. Certain forms of omega-3 called ethyl-ester and re-esterified triglyceride give nature a helping hand – allowing us to achieve targeted ratios of specific fatty acids at high concentration and physiologically active doses.
What about blood clotting? Circulating cells called platelets are critical in causing your blood to clot. When platelets are activated, they aggregate and cause clots. If these clots occur in particularly sensitive regions of your body, they can lead to a heart attack or stroke. EPA reduces platelet activation, an early step in platelet aggregation to help to reduce clotting. One study found that EPA was superior to DHA in decreasing platelet activation, a precursor to blood clotting.1
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