Fish Oil Helps Heal Hearts

February 13, 2018 Amy Alias, MD


Research suggests omega-3 fatty acids can help survivors of heart attack

In the past several years, the term “omega-3 fatty acids” has become well-known among consumers looking to include more healthy oils in their diets. Doctors and medical journals have touted the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish as an important way to maintain heart health. In parts of the world where fish is consumed regularly, rates of heart disease are lower and fewer heart attacks per capita have been recorded.

Research supports the heart-healing benefit of fish oil, suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids may lessen or even prevent further tissue damage after a heart attack occurs. In one study, published in the Aug. 2, 2016 issue of Circulation, patients who experienced a heart attack were given high doses of omega-3 fatty acids to measure their hearts’ function over time. After six months, these patients were shown to have 6 percent less decline in heart function than the control group, and they showed greater reduction in heart muscle scarring caused by the initial attack. The patients taking fish oil even showed better overall results than the group which was simultaneously taking standard heart disease treatment drugs, such as cholesterol-lowering statins and blood pressure medications.

This is all encouraging news for doctors and heart attack patients; in the future we may even see omega-3s administered as part of standard emergency heart attack care. But for the rest of us, there are even more good reasons to include more omega-3s in our diets.

What are some of the other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids?

If you have been treated for high cholesterol, you have probably heard of “good fats” versus “bad fats.” “The body needs the good fats to function, but it cannot make them on its own,” says Amy Alias, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group, “so we must get them from food or supplements. And the best fats you can consume for heart health are the omega-3 fatty acids.” The two most important omega-3s are known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid); these are primarily found in certain fish. The third omega-3 you need is ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), found in plants, nuts and seeds.

Besides being important for the health of your heart and cardiovascular system, omega-3s can help with a range of other conditions. For example, the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s can reduce the stiffness and joint pain of rheumatoid arthritis. The anti-inflammatory response is thought to help asthma as well. And since omega-3s are highly concentrated in the brain, they appear to boost cognitive function, and can even help relieve symptoms of depression. Babies who do not get enough omega-3s during pregnancy are at risk for certain developmental problems. Finally, the brain-boosting effects of omega-3s are thought to help patients with ADHD, Alzheimer's disease and dementia; but further research is needed in these areas.

What are some dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids?

To reap the most benefits from omega-3 fatty acids, you should seek to get them from the foods you eat rather than by taking supplements. Eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids two to three times a week is a good regimen; but avoid fish species that may have higher levels of mercury, PCBs or other dangerous compounds.

  • Fish to eat: Wild salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, anchovies, lake trout and herring.
  • Fish to avoid: Mackerel, swordfish, tilefish, shark and most farm-raised fish.
    • For those who don’t eat fish, algae oil contains DHA and provides a good alternative. And non-fish sources of omega-3s should not be overlooked. Whether you are vegan or not, you’ll want to consume some of these good fats, too.
  • Plant sources of ALA: Walnuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, canola and soybean oil.
    • Flax and chia seeds are among the richest sources of ALA, and can be prepared in a variety of ways.

“Although eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids is a good idea, oil and nuts are high in calories, so eat them in moderation,” says Dr. Alias. “If you chose to take supplements instead of consuming omega-3s in food, be sure to consult your doctor beforehand. Even supplements that are advertised as natural and good for you can have potentially serious side effects if used improperly.”

Heart disease is one of the top health problems we face—reduce your risk by eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Watch this video to learn more about dietary sources of omega-3s.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions



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