Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Connection Between Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Inflammation

Research concerning omega 3 fatty acids and inflammation indicates that these fats may prevent chronic inflammation, relieve the symptoms of conditions related to chronic inflammation and possibly prevent life threatening diseases linked to chronic inflammation. Here we look at the importance of omega 3 fatty acids and the best sources for including them in the daily diet.

To clearly understand the relationship between omega 3 fatty acids and inflammation, it is important to understand that inflammation is a normal immune system response to injury or illness. But, when inflammation occurs that is not due to injury or illness, it is associated with pain, as in conditions such as rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. In addition, chronic inflammation has now been linked to many life threatening diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Understanding the importance of omega 3 fatty acids and the best sources for adding them to the daily diet is crucial for good health at all ages.

The options for treating chronic inflammation are limited and come with health risks and side effects. Researchers looking for new alternatives have been pleased with the results of clinical and laboratory studies related to omega 3 fatty acids and inflammation.

Currently there are two common choices for treating inflammation. Drugs that suppress immune system responses are one treatment choice, but suppressing immune system activity can lead to frequent infections and other health problems. Anti-inflammatory drugs may relieve pain, but they act by suppressing the activity of a group of molecules known as eicosanoids.

Eicosanoids are produced within the human body from omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. You may wonder why the body needs eicosanoids. The simplest answer is that they signal activity in various systems of the body, including the immune system and central nervous system. Some stimulate the production of hormones, responsible for many functions including growth and healthy sexual function.

All functions of the human body have a natural balance. Some eicosanoids stimulate the constriction of blood vessels, while others stimulate dilation. Some stimulate blood clotting, which is important for proper healing after an injury. Others inhibit blood platelets from sticking together and forming clots within the blood vessels that can lead to heart attack or stroke. Some stimulate inflammation. Others inhibit inflammation or have anti-inflammatory activity.

Omega 3 derived eicosanoids are mostly anti-inflammatory. Omega 6 derived eicosanoids are mostly inflammatory. Most of the fats in the typical Western diet are omega 6 fats. Scientists and other experts believe that this type of diet leads to chronic inflammation, because of the absence of countering anti-inflammatory omega 3 eicosanoids. This is why many health organizations publicize the importance of omega 3 fatty acids and the best sources of these in the human diet are fish and fish oils.

Research related to omega 3 fatty acids and inflammation has shown that omega 3 supplementation decreases the breakdown of cartilage that occurs in arthritis. Further research indicates that omega 3s not only counter the inflammatory affects of omega 6s, but decrease the production of inflammatory eicosanoids by competing with omega 6s for the enzymes needed to create them. Patients in clinical studies have reported reduction in pain, greater flexibility, less morning stiffness, higher energy levels and other benefits.

The bad news is that the dietary sources of omega 3 fatty acids are few. Most foods contain far more omega 6 than omega 3 fatty acids, which is why most people consume too many omega 6 fats and not enough omega 3 fats. Fish is the only common food that provides reasonable amounts of omega 3s, but even eating a serving of fish every day would not provide the recognized Adequate Intake of 1000mg per day. People also have to be concerned about mercury and other contaminants in fish, but molecularly distilled fish oil supplements are a safe alternative.

Because nutritionists recognize the importance of omega 3 fatty acids and the best sources of them, a daily fish oil supplement is commonly recommended. Recommendations vary for various conditions, but 1000mg per day should be sufficient for healthy people. Consumers should avoid fish oils that contain vitamin A (such as cod liver oil), as this vitamin can be toxic at high dosages. Research concerning omega 3 fatty acids and inflammation is still on-going and will likely continue for years. Thus far, the only negative side effects are diarrhea at high dosages and increased bleeding at dosages over 3000mg per day.

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