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Omega-3: Can One 'Fatty' Acid Really Help Your Blood, Grow Your Brain, Prevent Heart Attacks, and Fight Alzheimer's?

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Pascal's Wager reminds us that if you're not sure of the existence of God, it's logically smarter to believe God does exist --- just in case He really does. That's how I feel about vitamins. I'm not convinced they really make a difference, but on the off-chance they do, I gobble a handful every morning.

I have no such ambivalence about Omega-3. I started paying attention to these fatty acids when I read Nina Planck's Real Food: What to Eat and Why, and was dazzled by the range of benefits they provide: heart health, brain growth, mental balance. Everything I've read since has confirmed my sense that almost everyone can benefit from Omega-3 supplements. (It goes without saying that you and your doctor need to talk before you embark on any medical treatment you read about on the Web, and particularly any suggested by a writer who flunked high school Biology.) I researched different brands, decided that the Omega-3 soft gels bearing the bearded image of Andrew Weil are probably the purest, and have been taking them religiously ever since.

If you've missed the barrage of media about Omega-3, here's the cheat sheet.

Once upon a time, most people lived near water. Fish were plentiful and relatively easy to catch. As it happened, fish contained a lot of fatty oil. And, as it happened, the human brain is about 60% fat. The fish fat helped brains stay healthy and grow bigger --- that's how fish came to be called "brain food."

Fifty years ago, the combination of factory farming and industrialized food processing began to change the American diet. It's still possible to get Omega-3s naturally, but fewer of us eat fish daily. And much of the seafood we eat comes from aquatic farms where impurities and chemicals find their way into the fish --- and, later, into us.

Still, we want our Omega-3. Among its benefits:

-- Disease protection. Omega-3 reduces inflammation, improves fats that circulate in the blood, slows the growth of abnormal cells, and reduces blood triglyceride levels.

-- Heart health. Omega-3 lessens the risk of a heart attack. Studies show benefits kick in as early as three months after starting an Omega-3 regimen. In a 1999 study of 11,324 patients with a recent myocardial infarction, a gram per day reduced cardiovascular death by 30% and sudden cardiac death by 45%.

--- Brain health. Omega-3 assists brain function and promotes neuronal growth. It is said to help control schizophrenia and Huntington's disease, retard Alzheimer's and lead to an increase of grey and white matter.

-- Balances Omega-6. Your body needs Omega-3 fats and Omega-6 fats, and the best ratio for you is a bit more Omega-3s to Omega-6s. But if you mostly eat food you bought from the center aisles of a grocery store --- pre-packaged, industrial food --- you're more likely to be getting 20 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats. Not good. Not good at all. But a supplement of Omega-3 can rebalance your system.

So...what's the best way to get your Omega-3?

Ideally, from natural food --- it's not hard to consume the equivalent of two grams of fish oil a day without taking a pill. Try "fatty" fish: salmon, herring, mackerel, sturgeon, and anchovies. Or a tablespoon of canola oil in salad dressing. Or walnuts --- a handful of walnuts has as much omega-3 as 3.5 ounces of salmon. Or broccoli, cantaloupe, kidney beans, spinach, grape leaves, Chinese cabbage or cauliflower. Highly recommended: flaxseed oil, or better, ground flaxseed, or protein from grass-fed animals.

Or you could take a pill. Though surely easier, this can be more unpleasant --- fish oil pills have a nasty way of "repeating," and it's entirely possible that you'll be reminded of that good thing you did in the morning as you go through your day. And a pill, if impure, passes along any mercury that may have been in the fish. I've known Andrew Weil for forty years, and have been impressed how long he waited to introduce products bearing his name. This makes me think he has very high standards when it comes to purity. I can personally attest that his Omega-3 Complex Softgels have no unpleasant aftertaste.

Children can take Omega-3 too. Our daughter thinks she's smart enough without pills, thank you, but if you have a more compliant child who's five or older, Nordic Naturals 3-6-9 seems like the brand to beat.

Results I can prove: sadly, none. I don't "feel" smarter, nor have others commented on my increasing brilliance. But when I have a blood test, the results keep improving. The only thing different? I've been taking Omega-3. If I'm wrong, I've wasted 17 cents a day on this soft gel. If I'm right, what a bargain!

[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]

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