Take a new look at fish oils.
When most people think about fish oils or omega-3 fatty acids, the conversation generally centers on the impact they have in regard to cardiovascular health. The “qualified health claim” granted in 2004 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states, “supportive, but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA (omega-3) fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
Another discussion regarding fish oils centers on the clinical benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) regarding brain health, nervous system tissue, and vision. Health Canada even supports this view, permitting the claim: “DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, supports the normal development of the brain, eyes, and nerves.” Substantial research supports the cardiovascular benefits from triglyceride and cholesterol reduction, and decreased C- reactive protein, among other effects associated with DHA consumption.1-3
Moreover, the aforementioned benefits are only a small slice of the pie when you consider all of the potential benefits of the clinical application of omega-3 fish oils. A PubMed search for “omega-3” provides over 20,000 results with over 12,000 papers published in the last 10 years.
Condition-specific evidence supports the use of omega 3s for prevention, adjunct care, or first- line therapy in a large number of acute and chronic health conditions including (but not limited to):
- Rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmunity4-6
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia7-9
- Depression and other mood disorders10-13
- Child brain development14
- Bone health17
- Cancer and treatment side effects18-22
- Diabetes and metabolic syndrome23-25
- Overall immune function26,27
- Skin conditions28,29
- Systemic inflammation33
- Arthritis and musculoskeletal pain34
- Spinal cord injuries35
- Traumatic brain injuries36-40
The full list is even longer and still growing. How does omega-3 fish oil exert such widespread effects within the human body? It comes down to the cell membrane, the importance of which is often underappreciated. It literally separates the intracellular environment from the external world and is the gatekeeper through which all molecules pass prior to having an impact on cell function.
Cellular signaling, cell adhesion, ion conductivity, and cellular shaping are some of the processes in which the cell membrane participates. When cell membranes are healthy, this fascinating structure provides vast benefits in every corner of the body, but when the membrane is not healthy, overall health suffers.
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential component of the normal growth and development of human cell membranes throughout the body. The phospholipid bilayer will not operate appropriately in the presence of an omega-3 deficiency. The physical shape of the fats determines this function with the “kinked” nature of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) maintaining membrane fluidity.
Most cell membranes predominately use eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), but certain areas of the body require high levels of DHA for best efficiency. This is why the use of DHA is seen in supporting brain health, nervous system tissues, and eye health among other benefits.
In addition to acting as a barrier to the extracellular environment, cell membranes also act as a storage unit with on-demand access for essential fatty acids until they are needed to perform specific biochemical processes. The appropriate balance of EPA and arachidonic acid (AA) is crucial to the efficient operation of eicosanoids, signaling molecules with widespread effects (primarily in regard to inflammation).
During eicosanoid operations, some of the end products include resolvins, which are responsible for bringing an end to the inflammatory response, and protectins, which show neuroprotective properties (with a specific type known to inhibit influenza virus replication).41 There are additional physiological functions of the cell membrane, but eicosanoid modulation is one of the best understood.
Why is the effect of omega-3 fatty acids so important? In 2011, the Global Summit on Nutrition, Health and Human Behavior took place and developed a consensus statement: “Brain and heart disorders resulting from LC-Omega-3 (EPA+DHA) are the biggest challenges to the future of humanity,” and when consuming the western diet, a dietary intake greater than 1000 mg LC-Omega-3 is needed daily.42
This is because western diets do not adequately support the conversion of alpha linoleic acid, so it is recommended that the majority of this comes from EPA and DHA sources. The lack of healthy cell membranes is indeed a global problem, especially for those who are consuming a standard western diet.
As a doctor, you are responsible for the health of your patients. The importance of cardiovascular health and brain and nervous system tissue health is well understood by both doctors and patients, but many don’t realize the systemic consequences of unhealthy cell membranes.
With the ever-growing list of conditions associated with omega-3 deficiency, it is time to help your patients understand the importance of omega-3 fats, the huge variety of health problems that can result from deficiency, and the most effective options to support the essential functions of healthy cell membranes.
Christopher Oswald, DC, CNS, is a graduate of Northwestern Health Sciences university. He practices in Wisconsin, focusing on whole-body care for those suffering from head and neck pain. In practice he utilizes the combination of functional movement assessment and functional Medicine principles to identify the underlying causes, which guides his direction for the appropriate clinical care. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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