If you aren't taking fish oil, consider getting hooked
September 10, 2006
If you're not yet convinced that fish oil should be slipped into the water supply, consider this: Scientists have created genetically modified pigs that can produce the omega-3 fatty acids normally found in seafood.
Though this omega bacon isn't sizzling just yet, the researchers believe the cloned creatures are necessary because if omega-3s grow any more popular, we'll need to dig up new sources for what some consider the "miracle drug" of the century.
The strongest evidence shows that a diet rich in omega-3s fights heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends fish and fish oil to reduce heart attack risk and to help those who already have had one. They also are suggested for people with high triglycerides, which are important fats found in the blood. Heart disease, obesity and diabetes are associated with high triglycerides.
But omega-3s, nutrients that have antiinflammatory properties, may have a rainbow of other therapeutic uses, including treatment of arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, exercise-induced asthma, macular degeneration, depression, attention-deficit disorder, autoimmune disorders and breast and liver cancer, just to name a few. (See sidebar, Page 6.) Preliminary studies have shown that the use of omega-3s may even help prevent premature labor.
And although it's too early to call fish oil a cure-all, business is booming. Sales of fish-oil supplements, which totaled $183 million in 2003, almost doubled to $359 million in 2005, according to Nutrition Business Journal. Sales of plant oils, which also contain omega-3s, grew 11 percent in 2005.
Omega-3s are found in grass-fed animals, seafood, seeds and leaves and now are used to spike dozens of other products, including meal-replacement shakes, nutrition bars for expectant mothers, eggs, waffles and topical skin-care formulations. More than 75 percent of U.S. infant formulas now contain the omega-3 fatty acid DHA because of findings linking DHA in breast milk to brain-related function.
For Chicago dietitian and nutritionist Bonnie Minksy, omega-3s are critical tools thanks to their many uses and because bad side effects are "virtually non-existent." At a recent conference on integrative medicine, she noted that 21 researchers working in varied medical fields all found omega-3 fats helpful.
"Most disease is caused by inflammation," said Minsky, the wellness director for Nutritional Concepts Inc. "Omega-3s `put out the fire.'"
Newer research is looking at how fish oil protects the brain, slows cognitive decline in the elderly and lowers the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Scientists at Rush University Medical Center have found that Chicagoans who ate fish one or more times a week had 13 percent slower decline in thinking ability with time. Those who rarely ate fish had a somewhat faster decline in their thinking ability.
Cancer is another hopeful frontier. The balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is thought to play a role in the development and growth of breast cancer. Others have speculated that omega-3s in combination with vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium can play a preventive role.
Keith Block, director of the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, incorporates them into a nutritional plan to treat those already suffering from cancer.
In addition to the anti-inflammatory benefits, Block said, omega-3s condition the membranes of cancer cells in a way that allows "greater absorption of chemotherapy," which can lead to the death of more cancer cells. Recent research also hints that omega-3s can reduce resistance to chemotherapy in patients who have been treated repeatedly, he added.
And cardiologist and biochemist Angelo Scanu, director of the University of Chicago Hospitals Lipid Clinic, uses omega-3s to treat high trigylcerides, a major cause for coronary heart disease and stroke.
But despite the exploding popularity, Scanu doesn't believe that people with normal triglyceride levels need omega-3 supplements, which illustrates the current debate: Though fish oil has blockbuster druglike status among integrative medicine practitioners, mainstream doctors are waiting for definitive studies before jumping on the bandwagon.
There are limits
The research isn't all positive. A June study in the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that consuming fish oil does not appear to protect younger people against abnormal heart rhythms.
Other researchers looked at the risk and benefits of omega-3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer. They were not able to find evidence of a clear benefit of omega-3 fats on health, according to work published in the British Medical Journal.
"The research produces mixed results for practically every suggested benefit," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "To me this means that if there are benefits, they are small."
After reviewing the literature on omega-3s for her book "What to Eat" (North Point Press, $30), Nestle concluded fatty acids are overhyped.
"At this point, putting omega-3s into bread and sodas or whatever is about marketing, not health," Nestle said.
Still, there is one major area of agreement: Omega-3s are important in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, according to Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, a pioneering researcher in the field and co-author of "The Omega Diet" (HarperCollins, $14.95). "This is no longer something people doubt," she said.
Beyond that, there is a burgeoning interest but less research in the area of blood-pressure control. And finally, scientists hope that omega-3s can help in the areas of mental health, depression and cognition.
Well-planned, controlled clinical trials are needed, but adequate funding is scarce.
"If omega-3s were a pharmaceutical drug, it would be a very different story," said Simopolous, founder and president of the non-profit Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health. "But while we don't have adequate data to say omega-3s can cure attention-deficit disorder, we have enough to say `We need to do the study.' And the data accumulated over the past few years point in that direction."
This may, indeed, indicate a need for genetically modified omega pigs. But Simopoulous pointed out there's an easier way to go about it: a change in diet. Pigs can get omega-3s simply by eating grass.
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Evidence piles up in favor of omega-3s
The preliminary research finding positive health benefits of omega-3s is flooding in. In just the last six months, it has been shown that:
- Raising the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet may prevent more sudden deaths than automated external defibrillators found in homes or public places, according to a study in next month's issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
- Although research has linked low levels of omega-3s to mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, newer work shows it also can benefit mood in healthy adults.
People with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood were less likely to report mild to moderate depression, according to a study presented at the American Psychosomatic Society's annual meeting.
- UCLA researchers found that increasing the amount of omega- 3s and reducing the amount of omega-6s in the diet may reduce prostate cancer tumor growth rates and prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels, according to a study published in the August issue of the journal Clinical Cancer Research.
- Those who ate more fish and more omega-3 fatty acids were less likely to have age-related macular degeneration.
The benefits of eating more omega-3 fatty acids were most apparent among those who consumed less linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, suggesting that the proper balance of fats is key.
- Omega-3 fatty acids may be an effective therapy for the treatment as well as the prevention of human liver cancers, according to studies presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.
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