Omega-3 Fats for Heart Health
by Michael Ozner, M.D., FACC, FAHA
With cardiovascular disease (CVD) the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States, it’s important that everyone understand their risk factors for heart attack and stroke. One easy way to combat your risk is to increase consumption of omega-3s—fatty acids that have been shown to support a healthy heart throughout life.
Omega-3 refers to a family of fats that the body can’t produce on its own—they have to be consumed. Although there are plant sources of omega-3s (e.g. ﬂaxseed, walnuts), the optimal source is ﬁsh, especially cold-water ﬁsh that are rich in omega-3s (e.g. salmon, tuna, sardines). People often don’t know the difference between omega-3s and ﬁsh oil, and doctors sometimes use the two terms interchangeably. Fish oil, or ﬁsh oil products, are simply supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids. These fats—particularly the two named EPA and DHA—are important because our bodies need them for optimal health. Omega-3 supplements are used when people are unable to maintain normal omega-3 levels in their bodies despite, or in place of, ﬁsh consumption.
Research on omega-3s and heart health is extensive, and the majority of clinical trials have demonstrated an improvement in heart health with regular ﬁsh or ﬁsh oil consumption. The prestigious medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, had a review article in 2011 highlighting the importance of omega-3s for cardiovascular health. The mechanisms of action of omega-3 fats discussed in this article that can potentially improve cardiovascular heath include:
- Lowering triglycerides
- Addressing inﬂammation
- Promoting healthy blood pressure
- Supporting a healthy resting heart rate
- Maintaining healthy insulin
- Mildly inhibiting platelet
- Supporting normal endothelial function
- Addressing atherosclerotic plaque
The American Heart Association recommendation for omega-3 intake is to eat (preferably oily omega-3 rich) ﬁsh at least twice a week for healthy individuals, if approved by their physician. For those with a history of coronary heart disease or elevated triglycerides, the intake of ﬁsh or ﬁsh oil supplements is greater, and should be considered in consultation with their physician.
The bottom line is: take your heart health seriously. Don’t wait until you’re in trouble to make necessary changes in diet, exercise, and stress reduction. Avoid cigarette smoking. See your personal treating physician to assess your heart disease risk factors and develop a prevention strategy to stay healthy. Regarding omega-3 fat, measure your omega-3 level at the time of your routine blood tests—if you are deﬁcient in omega-3s, discuss corrective measures with your physician.