Omega-3 and Triglycerides: Could It Really Be That Simple?
By Greg Post
We are wise to be wary of oversimplification. There is nothing that can cure everything. For example, if everyone on the face of the planet stopped smoking it would not wipe out the existence of lung disease. But I wonder how much lung disease would be wiped out if nobody smoked. My unscientific answer to that query is, "a whole heck of a lot." Lung disease (as well as many other chronic conditions) would see a dramatic decline if smoking ceased. Yet in spite of all the warnings and scientific evidence people continue to smoke.
But I am not on the anti-smoking bandwagon'today. Today's focus is on triglycerides. Triglycerides have become increasingly important in heart health matters. Many studies have suggested that elevated triglyceride levels not only indicate problems but are themselves the cause of some of these problems.
Triglycerides essentially have two sources in our bodies. First off our bodies produce them. They are necessary for life and are the most common type of fat in our energy storage system. The second source of triglycerides is the diet. We consume them in the foods we eat and our bodies convert some foods into triglycerides.
In some cases we might experience elevated triglycerides because of aging or certain medical conditions or even the medications we take to treat these medical conditions. But none of these reasons is the primary cause for the general increase in triglycerides. That credit goes to diet. But that is too simple and perhaps too painful. The fact is we eat too much for the amount of exercise we get and we eat the wrong types of foods.
So what are we to do? The simple (though not easy) answer is watch your diet and get some exercise. Of course while you are at it you could stop smoking. This very simple answer is a very good one. Diet is the main contributor to elevated triglycerides.
The particulars of diet I can save for another place and time. But there is one aspect of diet that we need to discuss now. That has to do with omega-3. Omega-3 is a scientific notation for an essential fatty acid that has been shown to provide significant health benefits in many areas. One of these areas concerns elevated triglycerides. In case you are unaware of it this is no secret. Sorry. I love to be the first to reveal a new discovery. But this is old news. In fact a statement made in a 2002 American Heart Association Circulation entitled, "Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease, put it this way, "The hypotriglyceridemic effects of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils are well established." That is a fancy way of saying that omega-3 from fish oils lowers triglycerides and there is abundant scientific evidence to prove it.
So if this is not news why bring it up now? Two reasons come to mind. The first is that a well established fact in the research community isn't the same as a well established fact where you and I live. Many controlled studies may have proven that omega-3 significantly lowers triglycerides but that doesn't mean it is common knowledge on the street. The other reason is one we all know too well. Just because we know we should do something is not the same as doing it. I may have high triglycerides. I may also know that this condition poses a significant health risk. I may further know that changing my diet and taking fish oil supplements can greatly reduce this health risk. None of this implies that I will actually take action.
The old adage, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink, seems to always hold true. But I can give the horse a little salt to increase his thirst. Here is a little salt. In one randomized trial two groups of patients with elevated triglycerides were compared. One group received simvastatin plus 4 grams of Omacor containing 90% omega-3 fatty acids. The second group also received the same amount of simvastatin plus a placebo. The first group (the one ingesting the fish oils) showed a 20 to 30% greater reduction in serum triglycerides than the second group. They also experienced a 30 to 40% greater reduction of VLDL cholesterol. VLDL can be converted in the body to LDL cholesterol. That is the bad stuff. To further support these findings a review of human studies concluded that four grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) reduced serum triglyceride levels by 25-30%. If this is not enough encouragement consider this. The American Heart Association resisted recommending fish oil supplements for some time though it encouraged eating fish. That has all changed. The AHA now recommends fish oil supplements for people with documented coronary heart disease or those with high triglycerides.
Omega-3 has many sources but can be divided into two categories. The first is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is derived from vegetative sources such as flax seed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil to mention a very few. The second category is represented by eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both of these are found predominantly in cold water fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel and tuna. Though all omega-3 fatty acids appear to lower triglycerides the cold water fish varieties have been shown to provide a much stronger effect. That is why fish oil supplements are much more common than alpha-linolenic acid supplements. Many quality supplements, however, provide a combination of the two types.
The nice thing about omega-3 regardless of the source is that it is naturally in our foods. We simply need to eat the right types of food. There seems to be an epidemic in our culture. That epidemic is the attitude among many that says, "I will wait until something is broken and then I will fix it with a pill." In other words, we live carelessly until we have a health problem. Then we run to the doctor and ask for a prescription. Not only is this expensive it seems a little backwards to me. I would rather consume the types of foods that I should and prevent a few trips to the doctor.
So what is the recommendation? Eat well. For proper triglyceride levels include ample servings of cold water fish like salmon. If your triglycerides are already high consult with your doctor about supplementing your diet with fish oils from a trusted source. The American Heart Association recommends two to four grams per day of DHA plus EPA for people with high triglycerides.
One more thing. We are all aware that some fish contain poisons such as mercury. Therefore it is important to purchase fish oil supplements from a trusted source. Quality supplements are free from these contaminants. They may cost a little more in the short run but they are worth it.
For more information on triglycerides and omega-3 please use the links below.
Omega-3 and Triglycerides: http://www.optimal-heart-health.com/omega-3.html
About The Author
Greg Post has degrees in science, divinity and philosophy and is currently an I.T. developer.