Other Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Arthritis

Taking a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids is beneficial to patients with arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis as they slow down the development of the joint disease. Fish oil supplementation is, therefore, a valuable support to the conventional drug treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Studies have shown that patients taking fish oil supplements for rheumatoid arthritis require fewer pain medications. In a recent study, a significant reduction in the patient-reported intensity of joint, duration of morning stiffness, number of painful and/or tender joints including consumption of painkillers (NSAIDs) has been reported with omega-3 fatty acids.

Bronchial Asthma

Asthma has been defined as a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways. Due to their anti-inflammatory properties, research suggests that omega-3 fatty acid supplements may decrease inflammation and improve lung function in patients with asthma. One clinical trial of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in children with asthma found that those who took fish oil supplements rich in EPA and DHA for 10 months had improvement in their symptoms compared to children who took a placebo pill.

An Australian study showed that eating oily fish more than once per week protects children against asthma. Omega-3 fatty acids are also useful in reducing exercise-induced asthma.

Diabetes

Earlier studies have reported a lower prevalence of impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes in populations who took large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids found mainly in fish. People with type 2 diabetes are known to be at increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Diabetics typically have high levels of fats (TGs) in the blood, low levels of good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol) and abnormal LDL (low-density lipoprotein) composition. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish lower TGs, reduce abnormal heart rhythms, lower blood pressure and improve blood clotting regulation. Clinical studies have shown that consumption of omega-3 fatty acids has cardioprotective effects in persons with type 2 diabetes without adverse effects on glucose control and insulin activity.

Fish oil may be useful in treating dyslipidemia in diabetes. Fish oil supplementation improved plasma VLDL cholesterol, VLDL TGs, and total TGs while having a transient deterioration in LDL cholesterol in patients with noninsulin-dependent diabetes (NIDDM). Furthermore, fish oil supplementation had no significant deleterious effect on glycemic control. Plasma LDL cholesterol was temporarily increased in the fish oil group at 6 weeks, but the effect was no longer present at 12 weeks. A diet rich in fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids reduces the chances of children with a family history of diabetes to develop the disease. In type 2 diabetic patients, supplementation with 1.7 g/day to all patients for a further six months produced no deterioration of glucose control after one year of treatment. Preliminary evidence suggests increased consumption of n-3 PUFAs with reduced intake of saturated fat may reduce the risk of conversion from impaired glucose tolerance to type 2 diabetes in overweight persons.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

The term ‘inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) refers to two chronic diseases that cause inflammation of the bowels or intestines: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Omega-3 fatty acids have the most potent immunomodulatory activities, and among the omega-3 PUFA, those from fish oil (EPA and DHA) are more biologically potent than ALA. Hence, these fatty acids may inhibit an increase of proinflammatory markers. When added to standard medication, such as sulfasalazine, omega-3 fatty acids may reduce symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In children with Crohn’s disease, omega-3 FAs (EPA and DHA) together with mesalazine treatment (5-ASA) effectively maintained disease remission. Children who were given omega-3 fatty acids also suffered fewer relapses.

Menopause

Omega-3 fatty acids relieve depressive symptoms related to menopause. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition presented the first evidence that EPA supplementation is effective for treating common menopause-related mental health problems and improves depressive symptoms. Middle-aged women were grouped into two and were randomly administered either daily supplements of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA+DHA) or placebo (sunflower oil) for eight weeks. At the beginning of the study, all of the participants were classified as having mild-to-moderate depression and about one-quarter of them had experienced major depressive episode. Omega-3 fatty acids significantly improved the condition of women suffering symptoms of psychological distress and mild depression at the end of the study. The researchers also noted that the difference in the observed results between the two groups was remarkable especially keeping in view that omega-3 fatty acids have very few side effects and are beneficial to heart health.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Hot Flashes

Supplementation with EPA omega-3 fatty acids reduced frequency of hot flashes (HF) and also improved the HF score relative to placebo. At the start of the study, the number of daily hot flashes experienced by the women was 2.8 in a day. There was a significant decrease in the number of daily hot flashes over the 8-week study, with a greater decrease observed among women consuming EPA. The number of hot flashes declined by 1.58/day in the EPA group versus 0.5/day decrease in the control group. The quality-of-life also improved in both groups.59

Menstrual Pain

Menstrual pain or dysmenorrhea is the most common gynecologic complaint and the leading cause of short-term absenteeism among adolescent schoolgirls. In a clinical study of nearly 200 Danish women aged between 20 and 45 years, a strong association was observed between increased menstrual pain and a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish.

In a study, adolescents suffered less menstrual pain while taking fish oil supplementation; the amount of painkillers taken during the menstrual periods also declined by more than 50%.

Mental Health

The brain is one of the organs in the body with the highest level of lipids (fats). Omega-3 fatty acids are important components of nerve cell membranes. DHA, in particular, is involved in various nerve cell processes. Omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish in the human diet may be effective in the prevention of stress and other disease conditions including depression, and dementia.

Depression

In a review of evidence of omega-3 fatty acid in depression, four of seven trials showed significant improvement of depression with at least 1 g/day of EPA. Results from a trial have also shown therapeutic benefits with omega-3 fatty acids in depression during pregnancy. In a Finnish study, the risk of depression and suicidality was much lower in those who frequently ate fish.

Bipolar Disorder

Scientists in Taiwan compared omega-3 supplementation (10 capsules per day, each containing EPA 440 mg and DHA 220 mg) with usual treatment in patients diagnosed with a major depressive disorder for a duration of eight weeks and concluded that omega-3 PUFAs could improve the short-term course of illness. Patients on omega-3 supplementation experienced a significantly greater decrease in the Hamilton Depression Scale score than did those in the control group. In another clinical study of 30 people with bipolar disorder, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA 9.6 g/day) in addition to usual treatment for four months could maintain mood stability; also, patients experienced fewer mood swings and recurrence of either depression or mania than those who received a controlled drug.

Schizophrenia

Preliminary clinical evidence suggests that people with schizophrenia experience an improvement in symptoms when given omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the antipsychotic drug requirement in first episode patients with schizophrenia and may be an effective adjunct to antipsychotics. But, a recent study observed no additional benefits of EPA supplements than placebo in improving symptoms of schizophrenia.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have low levels of EFAs including EPA and DHA. In a clinical study of about 100 boys, learning and behavioral problems (such as temper tantrums and sleep disturbances) were more common in boys with lower omega-3 fatty acid levels than those with normal omega-3 fatty acid levels.

Autism

A child diagnosed with autism who received 540 mg of the omega-3 fatty acid daily in the form of EPA for four weeks experienced a complete end to his previous anxiety about everyday events as reported by his parents and clinician. His overall quality-of-life was also improved. In another trial, most parents of 18 children with autism who had been given fish oil supplements for six months described improvements in overall health, cognition, sleep patterns, social interactions and eye contact. A recent trial reported reduced hyperactivity and reduced stereotypy (repeated movements like hand-flapping) in children who received 1.5 g of fish oil per day, as compared to children who received placebo.

Eating Disorders

Omega-3 fatty acids have also been researched in eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. In a pilot study of EPA supplementation in the treatment of anorexia nervosa in seven young patients, three recovered and four improved.

Cognition

Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may have an inverse relationship with the risk of dementia and cognitive decline. People who have diets rich in fish would have a significantly lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements may slow cognitive decline in some patients with very mild Alzheimer’s disease, though they do not appear to affect those with more advanced cases. A study by researchers at Tufts University in Boston found that people with the highest blood levels of DHA had a 47% lower risk of developing dementia and a 39% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The study analyzed the blood of 899 men and women with an average age of 76. All participants were free of dementia at the beginning of the study, and underwent neuropsychological testing after giving their initial blood sample. In patients with mild cognitive impairment, a significant improvement in the cognitive portion of the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale (ADAS-cog) was noted.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a disease in which the bones become weak and are more prone to fractures. It is also called as the ‘silent disease’ as bone is lost with no signs. Such fractures are common in the hip, spine and wrist. Osteoporosis can strike at any age but is most common in older women.

An expanding body of evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial to bone health. They may help increase calcium levels in the body, deposit calcium in the bones and enhance bone strength. Studies have also indicated that individuals who lack essential fatty acids (particularly EPA and gamma-linolenic acid [GLA], an omega-6 fatty acid) are more prone to develop loss of bone than those with adequate levels of these EFAs.

In a study of elderly women with osteoporosis, those who were given EPA and GLA supplements had considerably less bone loss over a period of three years than those who were given a placebo. Many of these women also experienced an increase in bone density during this time. In young healthy men, an 8-year study showed that omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA was positively associated with an increase in bone mineral and, hence, with peak bone mineral density (BMD). The study by Weiss et al has observed a negative association between a higher omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids ratio and bone density at the hip in both sexes.

Weight Management

Omega-3 fatty acids may facilitate weight loss. They do so by

  • Modulating metabolism of fats by stimulating lipolysis or breakdown of stored fat.
  • Increasing production of leptin, an appetite-controlling hormone that also has an important fat-burning role.
  • Decreasing lipogenic enzymes that check storage of fat in the body.

By helping regulate blood sugar levels in the body, a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help keep hunger in check, thus aiding weight loss. In overweight and obese volunteers, there were fewer hunger sensations in the omega-3 fatty acid group immediately after the test dinner and after 120 minutes. Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition by reducing body fat. In a study, 66% of young European overweight adults consumed less than the generally the recommended intake of fish.

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