Omega 3 Fats Can Boost Heart Health In Smokers

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential dietary fats which the body cannot make on its own. Made mainly by cold water algae, they also occur in cold water oily fish such as sardines, wild salmon, herring, mackerel and tuna that feed on these plants. Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA) are the long-chain forms found in fish, fish oil supplements, and algae extract. Our body can readily use these forms of omega-3, so these are our best dietary sources of these essential fats.

Alpha-linolenic acid or ALA is the short-chain form of omega-3 fats found in walnuts, flax seed, canola and soybean oil and green leafy vegetables. Omega-3 fats found in plants are not what we need, so the body's enzymes transform them into forms the body can use.

Omega-3 fats are converted within the body into biologically active substances called eicosanoids that make blood thinner, prevent clotting, slow down cell growth, relax smooth muscles, suppress the inflammatory response and suppress pain.

30 years ago, researchers noted that Eskimos have a very low incidence of heart attacks, even though their diet relies heavily on whale blubber. They found that the Eskimo diet contains a high amount of omega-3 fats. Further, a recently concluded meta-analysis examined 11 studies with over 39,000 patients with various cardiovascular problems who were administered omega-3 dietary supplements for a year. Omega-3 fats were found to significantly reduce their risk of death due to cardiovascular disease and all other causes. Not only that, omega-3 fats have been shown to be more effective than statin drugs (32% reduction vs. 22% with statins) in reducing heart disease-related deaths.

Omega-3 fats are beneficial for heart health, including in people at risk for or who have heart disease, and who need to lower their triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are the main constituents of vegetable oils and animal fats and high triglyceride levels have been linked to atherosclerosis.

Flax seed is very rich in short-chain plant omega-3s. Hens fed a diet rich in flax seed yield eggs rich in omega-3 fats, which are also a good dietary source. Flax seed contains phytoestrogens, which have been shown to lower blood pressure (BP). It also lowers the risk of blood clots and cardiac arrhythmias. Almonds, walnuts, black and kidney beans, wheat germ, and soybean and canola oils are also good sources of plant omega-3 fats.

Along with short-chain plant omega-3s, almonds contain heart-healthy calcium, selenium, vitamin E, magnesium, fiber, mono- and polyunsaturated fats and plant sterols. Almonds also lessen after-meal surges in blood sugar. They may protect against diabetes and cardiovascular disease by lessening the increase in cholesterol-damaging free radicals and the ensuing inflammatory response that accompanies large elevations in blood sugar. In a recent study, almonds also appeared to provide antioxidants to mop up free radicals that result after a meal.

Along with short-chain plant omega-3s, walnuts contain folate, vitamin E, magnesium, fiber, heart-favorable mono- and polyunsaturated fats and plant sterols. High levels of the non-essential amino acid homocysteine are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Folate intake regulates homocysteine levels in the blood and may reduce heart disease risk.

Cigarette smoking causes almost 1 in every 5 deaths in the US each year. Chemicals in tobacco smoke harm blood cells and can also damage the heart and blood vessels, increasing risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease. When combined with other risk factors such as unhealthy blood cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and overweight or obesity, smoking raises the risk of heart disease even further.

Smoking causes dysfunction of endothelial cells that line artery walls and makes arteries stiffer, a risk factor for heart disease. In a recent randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, cross-over study, 20 healthy smokers were given a 12-week oral treatment with 2 grams/day of omega-3 fats. Omega-3 treatment was seen to blunt smoking-induced arterial stiffness significantly, improve endothelial function and make arteries more elastic in healthy smokers, along with having an anti-inflammatory effect.

In a recent case control study published in 2012, omega-3 fatty acids and lifestyle factors were determined in 24 Korean patients (mean age 59.9 years, 57.6% male) with acute ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) along with 68 healthy controls without acute STEMI, all of whom were taking statins. The results showed that acute STEMI cases were more likely to be smokers and to have a lower omega-3 index, even though they were being treated with statins. An omega-3 index of at least 11% and abstinence from smoking were associated with cardioprotection.

Omega-3 supplements of up to 1 g per day are recommended for cardioprotection, especially if omega-3 is not easily available in the diet. When looking for a supplement, the issue is not so much omega-3 but EPA and DHA and making sure to get plenty of long-chain omega-3s.


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