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Make Your Heart Happy With Omega-3s

By DR. WILLIAM S. HARRIS

Omega-3 fatty acids -- specifically EPA and DHA -- are nutrients that are needed for the heart to function optimally and are essential to a healthy life.

Salmon omega-3

Adequate omega-3 levels make the heart more resistant to irregular and potentially fatal rhythm disorders. Below are four key benefits they have on your heart health:

Lower blood pressure. Research indicates that a relatively high intake of omega-3 fatty acids, typically from supplements, can significantly lower blood pressure in patients with hypertension. They can be as effective in lowering blood pressure as other lifestyle interventions, including restricting sodium and alcohol intake and increasing physical activity.

Lower triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of blood fat (cholesterol is another type of fat), and elevated levels of triglycerides are associated with increased risk for heart disease.

Decrease risk for coronary heart disease. Recent meta-analyses have shown that omega-3 intake reduces the risk of cardiac death by 9 percent. In addition, higher omega-3 levels make the blood vessels more healthy and pliant (i.e., not stiff).

Reduce the risk from sudden cardiac death. Approximately 84,000 deaths per year could be prevented in the U.S. if everyone consumed as little as 250 milligrams of omega-3s each day. The current average American intake is about 100 milligrams per day, but millions of people don't get any omega-3s in their diets.

So how can you make sure you're getting enough omega-3s? You can take a simple blood test to find out your "Omega-3 Index" that can be administered by yourself or by a doctor.

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If you're deficient, don't fret. Getting omega-3s in your diet is easy. The best omega-3-packed foods include "oily fish" -- salmon, herring, mackerel, albacore tuna, sardines and even oysters. Eating two ounces of salmon will give your body about 1,000 milligrams of EPA and DHA. 

If you can't get enough fish in your diet, supplements from your local drugstore are a good way to get omega-3s. A goal to aim for is about 500 to 1,000 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day.

A few things to consider when shopping for the right supplement:

Capsule size: Usually, the larger the capsule, the more omega-3s it contains. Typical pills are 1,000 milligrams (one gram) of fish oil. In that one gram, there's typically a total of 300 milligrams of EPA and DHA, which means it's a "30 percent" product, since 30 percent of the oil is omega-3.

Capsules range in size, but you have to decide what size you can stomach -- there are some capsules that go up to 70 percent! Obviously, you need more of the smaller pills to get the same dose of one larger capsule, but some folks have a tough time swallowing bigger pills.

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Contaminants: There is very little to worry about when it comes to pollutants in fish oil capsules. The process of concentrating the omega-3 fatty acids from crude fish oil prior to encapsulation removes virtually all of the organic pollutants. Mercury is not a problem either.

Capsules vs. liquids: The most common liquid form of omega-3 is cod liver oil. It is relatively low in EPA and DHA (20 percent or so), but since it's typically taken by teaspoon, you still get about 1 gram per teaspoon, the equivalent of three standard capsules. You can find other forms of liquid fish oil that are more concentrated, but these are usually flavored to mask the fishy taste. 

Side effects: The primary one is a "fishy burp." This can be avoided by taking fish oil with meals or at bedtime. Usually, the more concentrated (purified) the product is, the less the fishy burp.

--Dr. Harris

Readers -- Do you think you get enough omega-3s in your diet?  Have you discussed the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids with your doctor? Do you take fish-oil supplements? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Dr. William S. Harris is an internationally recognized expert on omega-3 fatty acids and how they can benefit patients with heart disease. He obtained his Ph.D. in human nutrition from the University of Minnesota and held post-doctoral fellowships in clinical nutrition and lipid metabolism with Dr. Bill Connor at the Oregon Health Sciences University. He has been the recipient of five NIH grants for studies on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) on human health, has more than 190 publications relating to omega-3 fatty acids in medical literature and was an author on two American Heart Association scientific statements on fatty acids.

Dr. Harris is a senior scientist at Health Diagnostic Laboratory, a professor in the Department of Medicine, Sanford School of Medicine, University of South Dakota, and the president and CEO of OmegaQuant. 

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