Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fats: Therapeutic Potential for Inflammatory Diseases

The number of people suffering from some form of inflammatory disease in the UK is currently unnervingly high. Recent statistics show that in the UK alone 150,000 people suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, 1 in 1,500 suffer from Crohn’s disease, 2.5 million have some form of cardiovascular disease, and 9 million are affected by arthritis – and these are just to name a few. Experts have linked the high numbers of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, asthma and irritable bowel disease to certain factors of Western diet and lifestyle.

Current medical interest in omega-3 fatty acids also stems from observations of the different prevalence of some chronic diseases in the Greenland (Eskimo) population in which inflammatory diseases are significantly less common, relative to Western populations. In comparison, increased nutritional intake of marine fish, providing increased supply of omega-3 fatty acids, was highlighted as the main factor responsible for such differences here. Fish oils are the most abundant source of long-chain omega-3 PUFAs (polyunsaturated fats) such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Changes in food processing methods, diet and lifestyle over the past century have dramatically decreased our intake of omega-3, and increased our intake of short-chain omega-6 (mainly in the form of vegetable oils, which should be replaced with olive oil). According to scientists it is absolutely vital to have the correct balance; a significant excess of one type over the other can have a detrimental impact upon health. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 being in the region of 2:1, the average diet is now quite significantly out of balance at an average of approximately 25:1. Indeed leading medical researcher and fatty acid specialist, Professor Puri of Hammersmith Hospital, London, suggests that deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids may be responsible for increases in the rates of inflammatory disorders.

The means by which omega-3s exert their anti-inflammatory actions is somewhat complex, but nevertheless extremely effective. After consumption, omega-3 PUFAs can be incorporated into cell membranes and reduce the amount of arachidonic acid (omega-6) available for the synthesis of proinflammatory eicosanoids such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes, thereby providing an obstacle to the production of inflammatory agents. The potent anti-inflammatory EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) specifically encourages the omega-6 pathway to produce anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, making purified supplements such as Vegepa and OmegaForce suitable for people trying to combat inflammatory problems.

A recent review of the research relating to the therapeutic benefits of omega-3s reports considerable research into numerous conditions, including arthritis, coronary artery disease, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and sepsis, all of which have inflammation as a key component of their pathology. Many of these placebo-controlled clinical trials of fish oil in chronic inflammatory diseases reveal significant benefits, including decreased disease activity and a lowered use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), which although give short-term relief to sufferers, come with a host of serious side effects long-term, including gastrointestinal and cardiovascular complications.

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