By on February 3, 2015


Jackson Hole, Wyoming – February is the month devoted to heart health and for some good reasons. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease causes 17.3 million deaths per year, making it the primary cause of death in the United States with one in four people dying from a heart attack or a stroke.

So let’s examine the benefits of omega-3 oils and their importance and accessibility for overall heart health. In coming weeks, I will cover a broader spectrum of cause and treatments for cardiovascular disease.

Past generations of Americans endured the taste of cod liver oil for their health. Today, we have evidence that the omega-3 oils found in your grandmother’s cod liver oil prevent and even reverse heart disease (the good news is that modern fish oil supplements taste much better). Omega-3 oils help maintain the elasticity of the artery walls, they are anti-inflammatory, anti-arrhythmic, anti-thrombogenic, reduce blood pressure and triglycerides. That’s a lot of benefits in one daily tablespoon.

Need more? A number of studies have shown that omega-3 oils are important for memory in patients with Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder, asthma, hyperactivity in children, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, colitis and more.

Omega-3 oils can be obtained from plant or animal sources, but getting enough in your diet isn’t easy. The medical consensus is that 85 percent of people are deficient in omega-3 oils.

There are different types of omega-3 oils, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Plant sources are found in flax seeds, walnuts and hemp seeds and they are all ALA. Animal sources include fish and grass-fed beef. These are in the form of EPA and DHA. The quality of the fish and beef sources is important or you may be consuming heavy metals, pesticides or oxidants.

I know organic food is expensive, but as I frequently tell my patients, avoiding this kind of exposure is worth the money. A 2001 Iowa State University study showed that grass-fed beef has a higher concentration of omega-3s than fish. It’s likely that game meat does too.

Once ingested, omega-3 oils convert into prostaglandins that have an anti-inflammatory affect throughout the body and inhibit the production of inflammatory prostaglandins. DHA converts to EPA and DHA using the enzyme delta-6 desaturase. This critical enzyme is inhibited by certain viruses, trans-fats, advancing age greater than 40, and deficiencies in some B vitamins and minerals. Because of these facts it is beneficial for children to consume flax oil, (which also tastes better), but most adults should be taking fish oil.

Fish oil supplementation has been around longer than flax oil. My first experience with flax oil was with my uncle, a naturopathic physician in Australia. We went to a farm and picked up a barrel of oil. It was expensive and not readily available in the health food stores at that time. He used it in his practice and recommended a tablespoon of flax oil three times a day for every patient. Although flax oil is not what I recommend for heart disease in adults, it has many other beneficial effects.

If you are on medications, check with your doctor prior to starting a supplement program.

In Wyoming, eating enough fish to absorb adequate levels of omega-3 is difficult. Ingesting a trustworthy source of fish oil is a great choice for many people here.

Monique Lai, ND, is a naturopathic doctor and natural health expert with a family practice in Jackson Hole.

About Dr. Monique Lai

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