Health Benefits of EFAs
Research shows that omega-3 fats can lower blood pressure, decrease LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and other vascular disorders. When heart attacks do happen, omega-3 fatty acids may make them less severe.
Omega-3s reduce the risk or severity of heart disease by influencing several factors, including blood clotting and blood pressure. There is also mounting evidence that omega-3s can protect the heart against arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms), which can be fatal. According to the American Heart Association, arrhythmias are responsible for more than 780,000 hospitalizations per year.
In August 2003, an article in the European Journal of Medical Research reported that omega-3 fatty acid could reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death in as little as 90 days. The fatty acids were reported to be as effective as aspirin and statins in reducing the risks of sudden death from heart disease. They only treatment that proved more effective than omega-3 fatty acids was the use of beta-blockers, but even patients taking beta-blockers benefited from the addition of omega-3 fatty acids.
In 2004, the FDA recognized the health benefits of EFAs by approving a qualified health claim for products containing omega-3 fatty acids. Food and supplement companies can now state on the product label that EPA and DHA fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).
Also in 2004, a team of researchers wrote an article in Preventive Medicine proposing the “Omega-3 Index”, which they defined as the red blood cell composition of EPA and DHA. According to the authors, the Omega-3 Index is a reflection of long-term omega-3 intake and is a simple indicator of CHD risk.
Most studies on the antiarthritic effects of EFAs focus on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the joints, causing pain and stiffness. In 1995, a meta-analysis in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology reveled that taking fish oil supplements for at least three months resulted in modest but significant improvement in joint tenderness and morning stiffness. In 1996, a population-based study published in Epidemiology suggested that omega-3 fatty acids help prevent rheumatoid arthritis. The study’s authors reported that women who ate two or more servings of broiled or baked fish per week had about half the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis as women who ate less than one serving per week.
Cancer and Other Conditions
Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent and treat certain cancers. A meta-analysis published in 2007 reported that fish consumption could provide a slight reduction in colorectal cancer risk. The same year, researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University conducted a large-scale study on fatty acids and breast cancer in Shanghai, China. They found that omega-3 fatty acids provided a protective effect against breast cancer. Also in 2007, researchers investigated the effects of fatty acids on prostate cancer risk in genetically predisposed mice and found that omega-3 fatty acids reduced prostate tumor growth, while omega-6 fatty acids did the opposite.
There are other uses for omega-3 fatty acids. Researchers are looking into the links between fish oil and childhood asthma, healthier pregnancies (and healthier infants), improved bone growth, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and lengthened remission time for patients in prolonged remission from Crohn’s disease. Some experts also believe that essential fatty acids help lower the risk and severity of depression.