These days, many people are taking fish oil supplements, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, either on their own or on physicianís advice. Driving this trend is accumulating data from observational and clinical trials that these lipids actually reduce risk of heart disease. However, there are several other wide-ranging benefits of consuming these special fatty acids. These include boosting immunity, anti-inflammatory properties, protection against arthritis, asthma, psoriasis, PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) and certain types of cancer. Where anti-depressant medications have failed, it is worth trying omega-3 fats through supplements or fish. Intake of omega-3 fats has also been found to help patients of schizophrenia, manic depression, mood instabilities and bipolar disorders.
Role of omega-3 supplements in inflammatory conditions like allergies and asthma, sinusitis, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions has been confirmed in several studies.
Asthma is an increasing global health burden, especially in the urban world. Even in adverse conditions of heavy pollution and smoke, results of consuming omega-3 fatty acids have been encouraging. In Japan, most children are heavily exposed to second-hand smoke and low-quality air. Yet, Japanese children have a rate of 0.7 per cent compared to a worldwide average of nearly 5 per cent. The benefits seem to be accruing out of the oily fish, rich in omega-3 fats. Several studies confirm that consuming high amounts of oily fish may protect against childhood asthma and improve lung function. Additionally, children consuming fish oil capsules had fewer asthma symptoms and responded better to medications than the placebos.
Many studies also report that adults with asthma who regularly eat oily fish have better lung function, less wheezing, breathlessness and fewer episodes of waking up with chest tightness. So much so, research also suggests that levels of these fatty acids during pregnancy can influence immune development and may be a protective measure to reduce prevalence of childhood asthma.
Fish oil supplements may help in several ways including reduction in levels of leukotrienes, the damaging molecules that are to blame for increased mucus production, airway constriction and inflammation of asthma. This property also helps in warding-off allergic rhinitis (runny and stuffy nose). They also help in maintaining integrity of cell walls and strong cell membranes that help keep out allergens and irritants which can trigger unpleasant inflammatory reactions.
Fish oil supplements can be divided in to two categories. The one which is extracted from the liver called fish liver oil like cod, halibut, tuna and shark. The other is extracted from the fish body ó like anchovies etc. Fish liver oils are good sources of vitamin A &D but have a low concentration of omega-3 fats. These are quite inexpensive. Fish body oils are rich in omega-3 fats but low in vitamin A & D. These are therefore superior as a source of omega-3 fats. Most healthy people who eat fish twice a week, generally do not need to take fish-oil supplements. But, if you have an existing health condition that omega-3s can help, you will need to take supplements to get therapeutic amounts. Usually a daily dosage of 3000-5000 mg is advised to get the benefits of fish oil supplements. Taking fish oils in very high doses may be counter-productive for certain individuals. Be careful when buying and using these supplements:
Fish oil is available in health food stores as soft gel capsules. Look for a high-quality brand, which ensures that a product meets standards for strength and purity. The two most potent forms of omega-3 are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Look for a brand that contains both.
Itís better not to save money by buying fish oil supplements in bulk, because they can go rancid. Also, store these in refrigerator to maximise their shelf life.
Cod liver oil is not a replacement for omega-3 supplements and is best taken under medical supervision.
For people who experience side effects such as belching, flatulence, diarrhea, or slightly fishy body odor, it is advisable to take smaller doses or just take them at bed time.
Therapeutic amounts of fish oil supplements can interfere with blood clotting, so seek medical advice before taking these supplements if you are taking blood thinners like aspirin.
People with bleeding disorders, uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetics, fish allergy and those under-going surgery must keep away from these supplements.
People with high fasting triglycerides should also be careful, if they also have high LDL (bad) cholesterol, as therapeutic doses can increase LDL.
In case, you are vegan or vegetarian, flaxseed oil of high quality is a good option. Flaxseed oil should be taken with food as it enhances absorption by the body. It tends to get rancid, so always keep it refrigerated. Its therapeutic amounts range from 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon once or twice a day. This nutty and buttery-flavoured oil can be added to salads or sprinkled on food, but remember not to cook with it as itíll lose its important nutrients. Donít use it, if it has a rancid taste.
ó The writer is
Clinical Nutritionist & Founder, www.theweightmonitor.com, Centre
for Dietary Counselling, Founder-Whole Foods India & Founder
President-Celiac Society For Delhi.