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SOME FATS ARE ESSENTIAL FOR YOUR HEALTH

Written by Dr. David Perlmutter,
Internationally acclaimed neurologist and author

More and more Americans are learning that some fats are not only good for you, they are essential for your health. While the 1980'' and 90's were the heyday for "fat-phobia," informed consumers are now well aware -that there are powerful health benefits associated with the addition of specific fat supplements to the diet.

Among the most crucial of the dietary fats are the omega-3 essential fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both EPA and DHA have wide-ranging roles in human physiology and are considered "conditionally" essential since the body may be able to synthesize a small percentage of your needs from dietary sources of their precursor alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). However, studies have shown that foods rich in ALA, such as flax, are inefficient at increasing cellular levels of EPA and DHA. (1,2) In fact, one study using radio-labeled ALA demonstrated that only 3.8% of ALA ultimately converted to DHA in individuals consuming a diet high in saturated fats.(3) Because there are a variety of health conditions in which the need for DHA far exceeds its rate of synthesis, dietary supplementation with preformed DHA is a requirement.

Extensive medical research has substantiated the health benefits of DHA supplementation (specifically fish oil products) for both attaining optimal health as well as in the treatment and prevention of a variety of illnesses. An impressive 25% of total human brain fat is DHA with a substantial incorporation of DHA into the brain occurring during the third trimester of prenatal development as well as during the early postnatal period. Deficiencies of maternal DHA as well as postnatal dietary deficiencies have been linked to behavioral problems, visual dysfunction, and other neurological disorders.(4) These abnormalities are not unexpected when considering that DHA plays a pivotal role in the formation of neurons, glial cells, and neuronal membrane fluidity.(5) Fortunately, deficiencies of brain DHA are reversible with appropriate supplementation and may occur in just a few weeks.(6)

Deficiencies of DHA and EPA in depressed patients have prompted research evaluating the effectiveness of omega-3 supplementation in this disorder. In a recent report in Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers demonstrated a remarkable 50% reduction in depressive symptoms among 53% of medicated depressed patients taking a fish oil supplement.(7) EPA and DHA may be therapeutic not only for depressive symptoms, but may also protect against the higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death found among patients with depression.(8)

The idea that fish oil may be beneficial in coronary heart disease was first described in a landmark publication in 1980.(9) Subsequent studies have confirmed profound decreased risk for coronary heart disease related to fish consumption with further research identifying marked reduction of triglycerides in individuals taking fish oil supplements.(10,11)The importance of omega-3 fats for cardiovascular health is now so well-established that the American Heart Association released a statement in November of 2002 declaring that "People who have elevated triglycerides may need 2 to 4 grams of EPA and DHA per day provided as a supplement. Even the 1 gram/day dose recommended for patients with existing CVD may be more than can be readily achieved through diet alone."(12) Fish oil supplements have also shown to be therapeutic in a variety of other health issues including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, dysmenorrhea, asthma, psoriasis, and multiple sclerosis.(13)

While these studies clearly provide ample support for recommending fish oil supplementation to a well balanced diet, the appropriateness of simply increasing fish consumption as an alternative is controversial. Most of the debate seems to stem from the ever-increasing number of reports citing high levels of mercury contamination in commonly eaten fish. A recent study reported by the Associated Press had a profound impact on the public awareness of the hazards of fish consumption. The report summarized research demonstrating that having just 2 or more servings of fish weekly led to toxic levels of mercury in 89% of 116 subjects studied.(14) Because it is possible to remove heavy metals and other impurities from fish oil supplements, reports like these strengthen the case for fish oil supplementation as a primary source of omega-3 fats. However, simply choosing to use a fish oil supplement doesn't necessarily reduce the risk for contaminants. Inappropriate processing of fish oils can provide a product high in heavy metals, PCBs, and in addition, exaggerate lipid peroxide formation.

The importance of fish oil supplements for health preservation as well as in the treatment of various illnesses cannot be overstated. It is imperative however that these supplements be of the highest quality and purity. Nordic Naturals fish oils were chosen as the exclusive fish oil supplements for use at the Perlmutter Health Center because their products are unsurpassed with respect to both purity and production technique. Their products have taken on a pivotal role in the various comprehensive protocols utilized at our center for the treatment of neurodegenerative, psychiatric, behavioral, and many general medical problems as well.

Summary Highlights

  • Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): Foods rich in ALA (such as flax, walnut, soy, and pumpkin,) are inefficient at increasing cellular levels of EPA and DHA.
  • Perinatal Development: Maternal deficiencies in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, as well as postnatal dietary deficiencies, have been linked to behavioral problems, visual dysfunction, and neurological disorders in children.
  • Depression: A recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry demonstrated a 50% reduction in residual symptoms among 53% of medicated depressed patients taking a fish oil supplement.
  • Mercury and Fish Consumption: A recent San Francisco-based study found that two or more servings of fish per week led to toxic levels of mercury in 89% of patients, a risk that can be avoided by the consumption of molecularly distilled omega-3 supplements.
  • Cardiovascular Health: The American Heart Association released a statement in November of 2002 stating that "People who have elevated triglycerides may need 2 to 4 grams of EPA and DHA per day provided as a supplement. Even the 1 gram/day dose recommended for patients with existing CVD may be more than can be readily achieved through diet alone."


References
  1. Mantzioris, E., et al., Biochemical effects of a diet containing foods enriched with n-3 fatty acids. Am J Clin Nutr 2000; 72:42-48
  2. Pawlowsky, R.J., et al., Physiological compartmental analysis of linolenic acid metabolism in humans. J Lipid Res 2001; 42: 1257-1265
  3. Gerster, H., Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? Int J Vitam Nutr Res 1998;68(3): 159-73
  4. Uauy R, Hoffman DR, Peirano F; Birch DG, Birch EE. Essential fatty acids in visual and brain development. Lipids. 2001 Sep;36(9):885-95.
  5. Youdim, K., et al., Essential fatty acids and the brain: possible health implications. Neuroscience 2000: 383-99
  6. IBID # 5
  7. Peet, M., et al., A dose-ranging study of the effects of ethyl-eicosapentaenoate in patients with ongoing depression despite apparently adequate treatment with standard drugs. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2002; 59: 913-9
  8. Hibbeln JR, Makino K. Omega-3 Fats in Depressive Disorders and Violence: The Context of Evolution and Cardiovascular Health. In Brain Lipids in Biological Psychiatry. Skinner R, Corrigan F, eds. Elsevier Press; New York 2001.
  9. Kromann, N., et al., Epidemiological studies in the Upernavic district, Greenland. Incidence of some chronic diseases 1950-1974. Acta Med Scand 1980; 208: 401-406
  10. Oomen, C.M., et al., Fish consumption and coronary heart disease mortality in Finland, Italy, and the Netherlands. Am J Epidemiol 2000;151:999-1006
  11. Harris, W.S. et al., n-3 fatty acids and serum lipoproteins: human studies. Am J Clin Nutr 1997; 65: 16455-16545
  12. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3006624
  13. In Alternative Medicine Review. Monographs-Number One, Kelly Czap, Managing Editor, AI Czap, Publisher. Thorne Research, Idaho, 83825, 2002. ISBN 0-9725815-0-2
  14. Sharon L. Crenson. Flip side of a fish-heavy diet. Reported in San Jose Mercury News, October 20, 2002.

Read about the Global Issue of Overfishing