Omega-3 fatty acids are called essential fats because the body cannot produce them; they must be consumed from foods in order to survive. Fish are the primary dietary source of omega-3, although some plants also contain omega-3 fatty acids as well.
Two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The role of EPA and DHA in the prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) has been extensively studied. The form of omega-3 in plants is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is less potent on CV health than EPA and DHA, but still provides health benefits.
How are Omega-3 fatty acids beneficial?
Here's how omega-3 fatty acids may protect you from cardiovascular disease:
- Lower risk of sudden death. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of sudden death caused by cardiac arrhythmias and all-cause mortality in people with existing cardiovascular disease.
- Reduce blood clot formation. Omega-3 fatty acids act as a natural anticoagulant by altering the ability of platelets in the blood to clump together.
- Inhibit the growth of plaque. Omega-3 fatty acids help keep the lining of the arteries smooth and clear of damage that can lead to thickening and hardening of the arteries.
- Decrease triglycerides. High blood triglycerides are associated with an increased risk for heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease the rate at which triglycerides are produced in the liver.
- May increase levels of the good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Because omega-3 fatty acids lower triglyceride levels, they may also increase HDL, the “good” cholesterol that protects against the development of heart disease.
- Have anti-inflammatory properties. The development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is thought to involve your body’s inflammatory response. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the production of substances that are released during the inflammatory response and in doing so, prevent substances from accumulating and sticking to the lining of the arteries.
- May lower blood pressure. Several studies have examined the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on blood pressure. Those who eat fish tend to have lower incidence of high blood pressure.
Cold-water varieties of fish like mackerel, tuna, salmon, sardines and herring contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and have many health benefits. To benefit from omega-3 fats, the American Heart Association recommends most people consume two meals of fish every week (about 6-8 ounces of fish).