February is when we think of matters of the heart – heart disease, that is. It’s American Heart Month, and the American Heart Association wants to remind us that cardiovascular disease remains the single greatest cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.
“Researchers found that long-term omega-3 consumption was associated with 18% lower risk of heart disease.”
Now, a lot of the focus is on what’s BAD for your heart health: fried foods, processed foods, saturated fat, and smoking, just to name a few. But what about things that have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease – specifically, omega-3 fatty acids?
A recent study that reviewed existing research on eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two types of omega-3s, found that getting these nutrients through food or supplements was associated with a 16% lower risk of heart disease in people with high triglycerides (fats) in the blood, and a 14% lower risk for people with people with high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol.
After reviewing the results from an additional 17 published trials, they also found that long-term omega-3 consumption was associated with 18% lower risk of heart disease.
Why Take an Omega-3?
These findings are relevant because about 25% of Americans age 20 and older have elevated triglyceride levels, and about 27% of Americans 40-74 have elevated LDL cholesterol.
And while recent studies continue to find connections between heart health and Omega-3s, many people don’t eat enough omega-3-rich foods, and fewer than 20% of adults take an omega-3 supplement.
Ideally, we should be getting all of our key nutrients from the foods we eat: this includes proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and omega-3s. But many of us don’t get enough nutrients from diet for a variety of reasons, and we supplement to cover these gaps, especially for nutrients our bodies cannot produce, like Omega-3 fatty acids.
In the case of omega-3s that support cardiovascular health (EPA and DHA), we should be eating at least two to three servings per week of deep, cold-water oily fish – think salmon, mackerel, and sardines. A lot of us can’t or don’t like to eat these types of fish, so fish oil supplements offer an easier way to get these necessary fats.
Another thing to consider is the ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s we consume, which, in a healthy person, should be around two-to-one but now ranges about 10- or 15-to-one, thanks to a Western diet that favors fatty foods. Since high levels of Omega-6 fatty acids are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (as well as cancer and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases), increasing the ratio of Omega-3s to Omega-6s makes perfect sense.
Do everything you can to keep your heart in the right place: know your family history and disease risk, avoid smoking, get plenty of exercise, eat healthfully, and be sure to get enough beneficial nutrients like Omega-3s.
Heart health – yours and that of those you love – should be a priority this month and always.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.