By Dr. Mercola
Omega-3 fats — specifically EPA and DHA — are essential to your overall health, including your heart health.
A recent analysis of 19 studies confirms that regular consumption of fish and other omega-3 rich foods, including certain plant-based sources, may lower your risk of a fatal heart attack (myocardial infarction) by about 10 percent.1,2,3
This effect held true even after accounting for confounding factors like age, sex, ethnicity, diabetes and use of aspirin or cholesterol-lowering drugs.
According to senior study author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, “Our results lend support to the importance of fish and omega-3 consumption as part of a healthy diet.” Other studies have found even more significant effects.
One large Italian trial found that heart attack survivors who took 1 gram of omega-3 fat each day for three years had a 50 percent reduced chance of sudden cardiac death.4
Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fat
Omega-3 fats benefit your cardiovascular health in several ways. In addition to lowering your blood pressure and triglyceride concentrations and improving endothelial function (a major factor in promoting the growth of new blood vessels), research has demonstrated omega-3s are:
- Antiarrhythmic: counteracting or preventing cardiac arrhythmia
- Antithrombotic: tending to prevent thrombosis (a blood clot within a blood vessel)
- Antiatherosclerotic: preventing fatty deposits and fibrosis of the inner layer of your arteries from forming
- Anti-inflammatory: counteracting inflammation (heat, pain, swelling, etc.)
Researchers are also attributing a number of other health benefits to omega-3 fat, including:
Not All Omega-3s Are Made the Same
It’s crucial to understand that not all omega-3 fats are created equal. There are two areas of confusion about omega-3s that I will attempt to clarify here:
- Marine animal- versus plant-based omega-3 (docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) versus alpha-linolenic acid (ALA))
- The difference between fish- and krill-based omega-3 (triglyceride-bound omega-3s versus phospholipid-bound omega-3s)
For starters, omega-3 fats can be obtained from both marine animal and plant sources, but contrary to popular belief, they are simply NOT interchangeable.
In recent years, a “myth” of sorts has sprung up, where people who avoid animal foods believe they can simply consume plant-based omega-3 ALA to meet their needs. But this isn’t true and the science doesn’t support this assertion. Dr Tobias Omega 3 Fish... Buy New $29.97 (as of 07:05 EDT - Details)
Omega-3s EPA/DHA are essential polyunsaturated fats your body needs for a variety of functions, including digestion, muscle activity, blood clotting, visual acuity, memory and learning, and basic cell division and function of cell receptors.
Omega-3s EPA/DHA are considered “essential” fats as your body cannot make them and, hence, you must get them from your diet. Omega-3 ALA, on the other hand, is quite ubiquitous in the diet and therefore there is no real need to supplement.
Plant-based omega-3 has 18 carbons whereas marine-based omega-3s have between 20 and 22. They all have their first double bond in the third position — hence the name “omega-3.” However, as you will see below, the difference in the length of the carbon chain makes a significant difference.
This is where the distinction between long-chain and short-chain omega-3s comes from. EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids and ALA is a short-chain fatty acid.
Although your body can convert some of the ALA found in plants to the DHA found in marine oils, it is very rare for it to be more than 5 percent and typically found to be 1 to 3 percent, or even less. This is an insufficient amount to have any significant benefit.
Animal- Versus Plant-Based Omega-3
Key Difference: ALA Is a Source of Energy Whereas EPA and DHA Are Structural Elements
According to Nils Hoem, Ph.D., a leading scientist in omega-3 phospholipids whom I recently interviewed, when you look at the uptake and distribution of EPA and DHA you see something rather strange.
After eating a meal of salmon or taking a krill or fish oil, the fatty acid level in your plasma (blood) will remain elevated for more than three days afterward. “Your body works on its distribution, redistribution, and re-redistribution for three days. That’s hardly consistent with being “just food,” he says.
On the other hand, the short-chain omega-3s (ALA) are rapidly absorbed, peaking a couple of hours after ingestion. Within 10 hours, they’re gone. This suggests your body is using them very differently.
According to Hoem, the short-chain fatty acids are simply food — they’re a source of energy — while the long-chain fatty acids, those with 20 and more carbons, especially EPA and DHA, are structural elements. So EPA and DHA are not just “food;” they’re elements that actually make up your cells, and those are two completely different functions. To learn more about this, please keep your eye out for Hoem’s interview, which is scheduled to run shortly.
EPA and DHA are extensively distributed throughout your body, including your heart and brain. In fact, research shows there are specific transporters in your blood-brain barrier, the placenta (in pregnant women), and likely also in your liver, which transports these molecules in a very precise way into the cell membranes where they belong.
The Difference Between Fish- and Krill-Based Omega-3
The next area of confusion relates to the different types of marine-based omega-3. Fish and krill are two sources that provide both EPA and DHA. However, there are important differences between these two marine sources of omega-3s. One of the most important differences between fish and krill oil is the fact that krill oil is bound to phospholipids.
Fatty acids are water insoluble, so they cannot be transported directly in their free form in your blood — they require “packaging” into lipoprotein vehicles. Most fatty acids are typically bound to esters, which do not travel efficiently in your bloodstream. The phospholipids in krill oil seem to be partially different in this regard. Barleanu2019s Organic ... Buy New $30.79 (as of 04:25 EDT - Details)
- Fish oil is bound to triglycerides and methyl esters
- Krill oil is bound to triglycerides and phospholipids
Phospholipids are also one of the principal compounds in high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which you want more of, and by allowing your cells to maintain structural integrity, phospholipids help your cells function properly. (You can learn more about this in the video above.)
There’s also a synthetic form of marine omega-3, which is bound to ethyl esters. This is simply a fatty acid that has been sliced off from its triglyceride source and then ethylated with ethanol. Pharmaceutical omega-3 supplements are typically made this way, and research shows ethyl esters, unless taken in conjunction with a meal, may simply pass through your body without being absorbed whatsoever.
Other Advantages of Krill Oil Over Fish Oil
Research also shows krill oil has a number of other advantages over fish oil, including the following:
Butter Is Not Linked to Heart Disease
Besides omega-3 fats, you might have heard some of the good news about saturated animal fats like butter and lard being far healthier than previously believed. Recent research has again acquitted butter, finding it does NOT increase your risk for heart disease.26 As reported by STAT:27
“Researchers combined the data from nine studies looking at the relationship of butter consumption with various health outcomes. They found that eating butter didn’t significantly change people’s incidence of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease or stroke.
The study did find a small link between butter and overall mortality — each daily tablespoon of butter was linked to a 1 percent increase in mortality risk. On the other hand, the same amount of butter was associated with a 4 percent lower risk of diabetes.”
Butter, as you probably know, has long been demonized for being high in saturated fat. But as butter consumption declined, being replaced instead by processed vegetable oils that were thought to be healthier for the heart, heart disease rates actually increased.
Today, we recognize that trans fats are far more harmful to your heart than saturated animal fats ever were, and butter is again gaining favor. An interesting article in The Atlantic28 dating back to 2012 describes the history behind the misguided advice to avoid saturated fats, and “how Procter & Gamble convinced people to forgo butter and lard for cheap, factory-made oils loaded with trans fat.”
Citizen Petition to Lift Interstate Ban on Raw Butter
In related news, the Farm-to-Consumer Defense Fund and Organic Pastures Dairy Company have organized a citizen’s petition to lift the interstate ban on raw butter. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it has the authority to ban the sale of raw butter under its power to regulate communicable disease — a claim Pete Kennedy, attorney for Farm-to-Consumer Defense Fund, says is “not only ridiculous but illegal as well.” As noted in a recent article announcing the petition:29
“FDA’s assertion of this power in banning raw butter is dubious for two reasons: first, the ban violates the Federal Food and Drug Cosmetic Act (FFDCA); and second, FDA is trying to prohibit a food in interstate commerce that has little or no record of making anyone sick.
FDA’s butter ban is illegal according to a statute in the FFDCA that governs standards of identity for food. Standards of identity are requirements prescribing what a food product must contain to be marketed under a certain name in interstate commerce.
For instance, the standard of identity for milk in final package form requires that it be pasteurized or ultrapasteurized and that it contain not less than 8 ¼ percent non-fat milk solids and not less than 3 ¼ percent milkfat. FDA’s long-held position is that the pasteurization requirement can be part of the standard of identity. Standards of identity are intended to promote honesty and fair dealing for the benefit of consumers.
Congress has given FDA power to issue regulations establishing standard of identity requirements for most foods, but there are exceptions and one of those is butter.
The FFDCA specifically prohibits FDA from establishing a standard of identity for butter; Congress has passed a law defining butter that serves as a standard of identity for the product. That definition does not require butter to be pasteurized. The petition asks FDA to obey the law and abide by the statutory standard of identity for butter.”
To help, I encourage you to make a donation to the Farm-to-Consumer Defense Fund. If you’re not already a member, you may also consider becoming one.
Sources and References
- 1 WebMD June 27, 2016
- 2 Medical News Today June 27, 2016
- 3 Biosciencetechnology.cm June 29, 2016
- 4 Lancet 1999; 354:447-55
- 5 Am J Gastroenterol. 2005 Dec;100(12):2674-80
- 6 BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2010;11:136
- 7 Journal of the American College of Nutrition 2007 Feb;26(1):39-48
- 8 J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl). 2012 Apr;96(2):295-306
- 9 J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Oct 14;57(19):9339-45
- 10, 11 Alternative Medicine Review 2003 May;8(2):171-9
- 12 Alternative Medicine Review 2007 Sep;12(3):207-27
- 13 Lipids Health Dis. 2008 Aug 29;7(1):30
- 14 Urol Res. 2011 Feb;39(1):59-67
- 15, 20 Omega-3 Institute, Differentiation of ALA (plant sources) from DHA + EPA (marine sources) as Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Human Health
- 16 Alwaysomega3s.com, Fact: Not all omega-3s are created equal
- 17 SFH.com, EPA and DHA Explained
- 18 Harvard Nutrition Science, Omega-3s
- 19, 21 Authority Nutrition, DHA: A Detailed Review
- 22 Lipids January 2011
- 23 Frontiers in Genetics July 12, 2011
- 24 BioMed Research International 2015, Article ID 645984
- 25 Mitochondrial Disease News August 31, 2015
- 26 Time Magazine June 29, 2016
- 27 STAT June 29, 2016
- 28 The Atlantic April 26, 2012
- 29 Farm to Consumer Defense Fund June 23, 2016