Considering that the American Heart Association estimates that heart disease kills over 800,000 Americans every year, heart health should be on every American's radar screen. One way to be proactive when it comes to your heart health is to raise your high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. As cardiologist Dr. Peter P. Toth of the University of Illinois School of Medicine states, "...the higher your HDL, the lower your risk." Luckily, omega 3 fats can boost sagging HDL levels.
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All the talk of cholesterol and heart attacks may have turned you "cholesterol phobic." Fortunately, not all cholesterol is bad, according to Toth's February 2005 paper published in the journal "Circulation." Toth notes that high levels of HDL, commonly known as "good" cholesterol, are associated with a markedly lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Unlike its deadly cousin, low-density lipoprotein, HDL cholesterol actually cleans out plaque build up within cardiac arteries.
Fish Omega 3s
Fish contain high levels of two potent omega 3 fats: Eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. Research by Laura Calabresi and her colleagues at the University of Milano tested the influence of fish omega 3 fats on HDL levels in the blood. Their study, published in the February 2004 issue of "Metabolism," found that four weeks of fish oil supplementation boosted HDL by 8 percent.
If you're not a fan of fish, then consider flax seeds. These omega 3-rich seeds have the power to significantly increase HDL levels, according to research published in the September 2002 issue of "Obstetrics & Gynecology." Women given a daily dose of 40 g of flax seeds showed improvements in a number of cardiac risk factors, including raised HDL. When it comes to raising HDL, flax seeds don't contain much EPA and DHA. However, the special type of omega 3 fat they do contain, alpha linolenic-acid, seems to do the trick.
Omega 3 Sources
The best sources of EPA and DHA are cold water fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna--although almost any kind of seafood is high in omega 3 fats. If you're looking for plant-based omega 3s, go for flax seeds, tofu, beans and nuts.
The American Heart Association recommends that, despite the high levels of mercury in some fish, people should consume fish at least twice per week. You can minimize your risk of mercury exposure by choosing non-predatory seafood such as scallops, cod and catfish. Also, plant sources of omega-3s are generally mercury free.