Written by Leonard Smith, M.D.
Heart disease is the number-one cause of death in the United States. Coronary heart disease (CHD), also known as atherosclerosis, is the most common form of heart disease, killing more than 385,000 people each year.1 CHD rates in Japan are much lower than in the United States and other developed countries. One possible explanation for this difference is the high intake of omega-3 fatty acids by the Japanese, who average 1,000 mg per day compared to 100 mg per day in the Standard American Diet (SAD).2
The process of atherosclerosis that occurs in people with coronary heart disease involves a progression from endothelial dysfunction (damage to the artery wall), immune activation and inflammation. These physiological changes lead to deposits of fats, minerals (including calcium), and oxidized LDL, all contributing to plaque development with a calcified arterial wall with a fibrous cap. Finally, rupture of the fibrous plaque leads to blood clotting that can occlude (block) a coronary artery, which then causes a heart attack.
The deposition of calcium in atherosclerotic plaques is now recognized to play a large role in formation of advanced plaques (read: more dangerous plaques) in the arteries. The amount of calcium in the arteries correlates with the amount of atherosclerosis. The greater amount of calcification in the arteries, the greater is the likelihood of artery blockage.3
The deposition of calcium in the arteries occurs in much the same way as it does in bone. Researchers are trying to figure out how to prevent, halt, and reverse this process, and they are finding that omega-3 fatty acids have a protective effect. In a recent study published in the journal Heart, higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were found to account for the lower incidence of coronary artery calcification seen in Japanese men compared to white men in the United States.4
Omega-3 fatty acids are well known to have a wide range of beneficial effects on the heart, including suppression of inflammation, improvement of endothelial function (remember that endothelial dysfunction is the earliest stage of atherosclerosis), reduction of blood clots, and improvement of plaque stability (remember that rupturing of the fibrous cap portion leads to heart attack).
The researchers conclude, "Higher doses of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than that used in recent randomized clinical trials of [omega-3] on cardiovascular disease [which are around 1,000 mg daily] may potentially have beneficial effects on cardiovascular disease."
Omega-3 fatty acids—particularly EPA and DHA—are good for the heart, simple as that. If you are not taking them and are not eating salmon and sardines a couple times per day, every day, then you should consider a high-concentration, purity-guaranteed fish oil supplement.
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