Cardiovascular disease, a broad category of conditions that affect the heart and circulatory system, is the number one killer in the world – claiming the lives of nearly 18 million people every year. Identifying ways to protect the heart is important, especially as the body ages and risk increases. Recent evidence suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Reducing inflammation is key to the broader impact of omega-3 on human health.
"People with the highest blood levels of combined EPA and DHA were 10-17% less likely to die prematurely and were 9-21% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, compared to those with the lowest levels."- Dr. Rhonda Patrick Click To Tweet
Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mainly in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood. The human body can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, but the process is very inefficient, with most healthy adults converting only about 5 to 10 percent to EPA and 2 to 5 percent to DHA.
EPA and DHA play particularly important roles in heart health because they participate in pathways involved in the production of hormones that regulate blood clotting and inflammation, help maintain healthy heart rhythms, and influence the contraction and relaxation of arteries.
Over the past several decades, studies investigating the heart-health effects of omega-3s have been inconsistent, with some studies showing benefits, and others not. Some of these inconsistencies are due to differences in study designs, especially when the studies are based on dietary records, which are often inaccurate. However, studies based on blood concentrations of omega-3s can provide a more accurate measure of exposure – and risk.
A recent meta-analysis investigated links between omega-3 blood concentrations and the risk for all causes of premature death. They found that compared to people with the lowest blood concentrations of EPA and DHA (combined), those with the highest blood concentrations were as much as 17 percent less likely to die from all causes of premature death and were as much as 21 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease – a robust level of protection.
This episode was fiscally sponsored through The Film Collaborative and a grant from a generous anonymous donor.
One of the key drivers of cardiovascular disease is inflammation. Inflammation promotes the production of small, dense lipoprotein particles. These small particles circulate in the plasma, where they can bind with toxic molecules called lipopolysaccharides, promoting plaque formation and subsequent blockages – the hallmarks of atherosclerosis. Avoiding chronic exposure to inflammation may be one of the single most important things we do for our health as we age.
It turns out that byproducts of omega-3 fatty acid metabolism, called specialized pro-resolving mediators, or SPMs for short, reduce inflammation. The three families of omega-3-derived SPMs – the resolvins, protectins, and maresins – promote apoptosis, regulate leukocyte activity, and reduce the production of proinflammatory molecules. Omega-3 fatty acids promote dose-dependent increases in blood SPM levels that persist for up to 24 hours.
Other drivers of cardiovascular disease are triglycerides – the primary component of very-low-density lipoproteins.Having high triglycerides (200 to 499 mg/dL) or very high triglycerides (higher than 500 mg/dL) can increase a person's risk of developing cardiovascular disease. But high-dose prescription omega-3s can reduce triglycerides by 30 percent or more, reducing the risk of experiencing a major cardiovascular event – such as a heart attack – by 25 percent.
In this short episode, Dr. Rhonda Patrick describes the heart-health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and describes some of the mechanisms by which these essential nutrients work.
Early heart research
How to design better trials
Mortality and aging
SPMs and inflammation
Profound reduction in triglycerides
FoundMyFitness Members get access to exclusive content not available anywhere else, including a transcript of this episode.
You wouldn't believe how cool being a premium member of the world's best cross-disciplinary science-focused website and podcast really is.
A ring-shaped protein found in blood plasma. CRP levels rise in response to inflammation and infection or following a heart attack, surgery, or trauma. CRP is one of several proteins often referred to as acute phase reactants. Binding to phosphocholine expressed on the surface of dead or dying cells and some bacteria, CRP activates the complement system and promotes phagocytosis by macrophages, resulting in the clearance of apoptotic cells and bacteria. The high-sensitivity CRP test (hsCRP) measures very precise levels in the blood to identify low levels of inflammation associated with the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
A broad category of small proteins (~5-20 kDa) that are important in cell signaling. Cytokines are short-lived proteins that are released by cells to regulate the function of other cells. Sources of cytokines include macrophages, B lymphocytes, mast cells, endothelial cells, fibroblasts, and various stromal cells. Types of cytokines include chemokines, interferons, interleukins, lymphokines, and tumor necrosis factor.
A pro-inflammatory cytokine that plays an important role as a mediator of fever and the acute-phase response. IL-6 is rapidly induced in the context of infection, autoimmunity, or cancer and is produced by almost all stromal and immune cells. Many central homeostatic processes and immunological processes are influenced by IL-6, including the acute-phase response, glucose metabolism, hematopoiesis, regulation of the neuroendocrine system, hyperthermia, fatigue, and loss of appetite. IL-6 also plays a role as an anti-inflammatory cytokine through inhibition of TNF-alpha and IL-1 and activation of IL-1ra and IL-10.
A type of polyunsaturated fat that is essential for human health. Omega-3 fatty acids influence cell membrane integrity and affect the function of membrane-bound cellular receptors. They participate in pathways involved in the biosynthesis of hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions. Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mainly in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood. The human body can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, but the efficiency of the process varies between individuals.
A proinflammatory cytokine. TNF-alpha is produced by a wide range of cells, including macrophages, lymphocytes, glial cells, and others. TNF-alpha signaling inhibits tumorigenesis, prevents viral replication, and induces fever and apoptosis. Dysregulation of the TNF-alpha signaling pathway has been implicated in a variety of disorders including cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.
Listen in on our regularly curated interview segments called "Aliquots" released every week on our premium podcast The Aliquot. Aliquots come in two flavors: features and mashups.