Essential fatty acids in cardiovascular disease

Some studies have shown that those who regularly eat fish have lower rates of heart disease. Fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower blood levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. Fish oils can also interfere with the ability of blood to clot, which also protects against cardiovascular disease.

There are many population studies demonstrating that people who consume omega-3 fatty acid-rich diets have a reduced risk of heart disease. This was first noticed in countries such as Greenland and Japan where fish consumption is particularly high. Studies in other countries have found similar effects. In a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers in Holland investigated the relationship between fish consumption and coronary heart disease in a group of men in the town of Zutphen. Information about the fish consumption of 852 middle-aged men without coronary heart disease was collected in 1960. Essential fatty acids in cardiovascular diseaseDuring 20 years of follow-up, 78 men died from coronary heart disease. The results showed that compared to those who did not eat fish, death from coronary heart disease was more than 50 per cent lower in those who ate at least 30 g offish per day. However, not all studies have shown a reduced risk in those who regularly eat fish.

In a study reported in 1989, researchers examined the effects of dietary changes in the prevention of further heart attacks in 2033 men who had recovered from one attack. Some of the men were given various pieces of dietary advice, one of which was to increase the consumption of fatty fish to around two or three portions per week. Those advised to do this had a 29 per cent reduction in death from all causes and a 33 per cent reduction in death from heart attack compared with those who were not advised to eat fish. These beneficial effects may be due to the anti-arrhythmic effects of omega-3 fatty acids.

Researchers involved in the US Physicians Health Study investigated the links between fish consumption and the risk of sudden death from heart attack in 20,551 US male physicians aged from 40 to 84. The follow-up period was 11 years, and in that time there were 133 sudden deaths. The results showed that men who ate fish at least once per week had around half the risk of sudden cardiac death when compared with men who consumed fish less than once a month. Neither dietary fish consumption nor omega-3 fatty acid intake was associated with a reduced risk of total heart attack, nonsudden cardiac death, or total cardiovascular mortality. However, fish consumption was associated with a significantly reduced risk of death from all causes.

In a 1995 study, researchers at the University of Washington examined the links between risk of heart attack and the consumption of fatty acids from seafood, and assessed both directly and indirectly through examination of blood samples. The study involved 334 patients with primary cardiac arrest and 493 population-based control cases, matched for age and sex. The results showed that an intake of 5.5 g of omega-3 fatty acids (equivalent to one fish-containing meal a week) reduced the risk of heart attack by 50 per cent. Their results also showed a correlation between higher red blood cell levels of omega-3 fatty acids and reduction in risk of heart attack. Those with the highest levels had a 70 per cent reduction in risk compared to those with the lowest levels.


Omega-3 fatty acid supplements have been used to treat and prevent various types of cardiovascular disease. Supplements have been shown to have beneficial effects on cholesterol and triglyceride levels. In a 1994 study, researchers assessed the effects of fish oil supplements on 350 men and women aged from 30 to 54 years who were enrolled in a hypertension prevention trial. Once a day for six months, the participants received either a placebo or 6 g of purified fish oil, which supplied 3 g of omega-3 fatty acids. The results showed that the fish oil increased HDL cholesterol levels significantly. The effect was more marked in the women.

Supplements have also been shown to affect blood clotting through effects on platelets and to lead to a reduction in production of prostaglandins and other substances that damage artery walls. Other studies have shown that omega- 3 fatty acids reduce the build-up of white blood cells in atherosclerotic plaque. A 1997 Australian study showed that flaxseed oil improved the elasticity of artery walls. This tends to decrease with increasing cardiovascular risk and has also been shown to improve with increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish.

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