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The omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are BIG news in nutritional medicine. And for the best reasons. First, they directly save lives by protecting against heart attack, including the lethal arrhythmias. They’re safe to take long-term, they’re affordable, and their anti-inflammatory properties ensure protection for all our organs. The scientific evidence is now incontrovertible (read awesome) that DHA/EPA are essential for good health and long life.

DHA and EPA are such awesome nutrients that agencies and institutions historically hostile to nutrition have gone on record to support their use. The American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), even the good ol’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are all praising DHA and EPA. And the way the research is going, don’t be surprised when the cancer establishment and the weight loss folks also sign on.

Cell Membrane Nutrients—Essential to Life Itself
DHA and EPA are fatty acids—long, stretched out molecules with their carbon atoms linked all in a row and carrying also multiple hydrogens and a few oxygens. Both these molecules have unsaturated, carbon-carbon double bonds (DHA has 6, EPA has 5). They are present in all our cells, where they help build the dynamic membrane systems that do just about everything important for life.

The cell is the basic unit of life. Within all cells, the majority of life processes occur in or upon the membranes. DHA and EPA are part and parcel of larger phospholipid molecules that are the structural and functional building blocks for all cell membranes. This makes them crucial to the survival, growth, renewal and assorted life functions of our cells, and by extension to our tissues and organs and our body as a whole.

The DHA and EPA content of our cell membranes responds to our dietary intake so that we have power over the omega-3 content of all our cell membranes. From the huge amount of research conducted over the past three decades, here’s some of what DHA and EPA do for our health:

  • Support brain development and maintenance from conception to the end of life;
  • Support and protect the heart muscle, coronary circulation, and all blood vessels against atherosclerosis, and contribute to blood pressure maintenance;
  • Support healthy anti-inflammatory balance in the brain, intestines, joints, all other organs;
  • Help maintain positive mood, including lifting depression and calming manic activity;
  • Help keep children calm while optimizing their cognitive performance;
  • Very likely contribute to cancer prevention (more studies needed);
  • Probably assist with weight maintenance (more studies needed);
  • Improve skin quality through enhanced blood flow and other means;
  • Overall, increase quality of life and extend disease-free lifespan.

Lifesaving Benefits for the Heart and Circulation
With heart and blood vessel diseases still the number 1 cause of death, and coronary heart disease killing half a million people annually in the United States alone, DHA/EPA’s proven cardiovascular benefits make them a salvation for public health. In late 2004, the United States FDA approved one of their famously grudging qualified health claims: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”

The evidence supports the following cardiovascular benefits for DHA/EPA:

  • Prevention of first or second heart attack, including sudden cardiac death;
  • Protection against cardiac arrhythmia, improvement of heart rate variability;
  • Prevention of coronary artery re-blockage (from atherosclerosis reoccurrence);
  • Reduction of clotting risk from inappropriate platelet behavior;
  • Slowing of atherosclerosis by improving the vessel lining (endothelium);
  • Improvement of insulin sensitivity, and lowering of circulating triglyceride levels;
  • Reduction of triglyceride surge after a meal (linked to heart attack risk).

Essential to Brain Development, Cognition and Mood
The human brain doesn’t work to its full potential without omega-3s. The dynamic properties they give to cell membranes are especially necessary for our nerve cells, which are the largest and busiest cells in the body. DHA/EPA give a fluidity to cell membranes that allows for efficient conduction of the electrical stimuli and for overall high efficiency within the brain.

High brain demand for DHA/EPA begins in utero, even as the fetal brain is being mapped out. Demand rises as the brain grows exponentially in the third trimester, and it continues after birth as the baby’s circuitry becomes consolidated through environmental experience. After years of scandalous neglect, omega-3s are finally in infant formulas, though breast is still best and the mother should generously endow her milk with DHA/EPA.

As the child grows and matures, the high demand continues, since DHA/EPA are necessary for learning, memory and other cognitive functions, and mood and appropriate self-control. The brain’s demand for DHA/EPA continues throughout life. Population (epidemiologic) surveys and other clinical studies indicate that adults in middle age or older who have more DHA/ EPA in their cell membranes have a lower risk not just for heart attack or stroke, but for suffering accelerated brain decline and progression to dementia.

DHA/EPA are very effective in managing mood disorders: clinical depression, manic depression (bipolar disorder), and, to a lesser extent, schizophrenia. They’re also good for developmental disorders such as AD(H)D and dyslexias, and have the potential to help autistic kids. The intakes required for these disorders are on the order of grams per day, amounts that can only be fully obtained by taking concentrated supplements.

Cell Membrane Nutrients—Allied with Phospholipids and Antioxidants
The phospholipids that are the major cell membrane building blocks, especially PS (phosphatidylserine) and GPC (glycerophosphocholine) both have stellar records as dietary supplements for memory, learning, mood, and stress relief. Both these nutrients have a biochemical synergy with DHA, whereby they move these molecules into the nerve cell membrane and hold them in position to enhance membrane fluidity and related membrane dynamics. PS-DHA (from combining PS+DHA) and PC-DHA (from GPC+DHA) are key molecular components of the brain’s billions of circuits. Phospholipids also hold EPA in place for it to be a precursor to messenger substances (“eicosanoids”).

Healthy cells have a complement of antioxidants that sit in their membranes to protect them against spontaneous disintegration. The membrane antioxidants work in natural synergy with the omega-3s in the membrane. Being especially endowed with unsaturated bonds these fatty acids, are especially prone to oxidative (“free radical”) destruction without the antioxidants close by to protect them. Within the active membrane milieu, DHA and EPA are in natural synergy with the membrane’s antioxidants as well as its phospholipids.

The most important membrane antioxidants are vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, and the various carotenoids. Membrane antioxidants also regulate the production of messenger substances from EPA in the membrane. These eicosanoids (prostaglandins, thromboxanes, leukotrienes) are formed by controlled oxidation of EPA, a fragile process kept in favorable balance by having adequate antioxidants in the membrane.

Just as in the membrane, DHA/EPA supplement products also need membrane antioxidants close by. They’re safe to store and consume as dietary supplements only when they’re well protected against spontaneous oxidation. Good omega-3 supplements have generous amounts of antioxidants added in, and they are certified free of pollutants by independent lab analysis. Incidentally, the shorter chain alpha linolenic acid cannot adequately substitute for DHA/EPA.

DHA/EPA Omega-3s Have Something for Everyone
Just as every thinking family has a bottle of vitamin C around, now they will have a high-quality DHA/EPA supplement. The pregnant mother needs generous intakes to nurture her fetus, throughout pregnancy postpartum depression has in fact, been linked to omega-3 deficiency. The newborn needs it to build and mature all the organs. Older kids need the omega-3s to help them function in school and avoid behavioral problems. But their parents need them also, maybe more so.

All adults should be taking DHA/EPA, not just to protect them against heart attack or stroke but to help them stay energetic, positive and balanced as they deal with the stresses of work and family. Women with menstrual or menopausal problems and men with fertility problems also stand to benefit. The grandparents need it for their arthritis, their intestinal problems, to help prevent osteoporosis, to feel good, period. There’s also fast accumulating evidence that DHA/EPA supplements help fend off memory loss. They may help for weight control, and likely lower the risk of some cancers. DHA/EPA have something important to offer everyone.

While the omega-3 DHA/EPA are undoubtedly “good fats,” the omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid, arachidonic acid) are often called “bad fats.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding, because they also are essential for healthy cell function. The real “bad fats” come from a diet that is very high in saturated fats and cholesterol, or especially from the hydrogenated (“trans”) fats that come from processed foods. The former can make our cell membranes too rigid; the latter pollute our cell membranes. Both threaten the membranes’ omega-6 to omega-3 balance, which is the key functional measure. It’s not the quantity of fats that we consume, but their quality that brings problems.

For optimal health, our cell membranes must have both omega-6s and omega-3s. To get your membrane Omega-3 Index, check out http://reglab.saintlukes-org (St. Lukes Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri) or (Great Smokies Diagnostic Laboratory, Asheville, North Carolina).

How Much Should We Take?
DHA/EPA are practically vitamins, since we have to obtain virtually all our needed supply from our diet. They seem to work best when taken together in a 1:1 ratio. The shorter-chain alpha-linolenic acid is not a useful additive, since it is not efficiently converted to EPA and then DHA. Our diet has been losing these since the early 1900s, when industrialized food processing came into vogue. Certain spreads and other foods enriched in omega-3s are now available, but caution is required to ensure that their other ingredients are helpful. For example, one heavily promoted spread carries trans fats that are liable to defeat its stated purpose.

Currently, the typical Western diet provides 100 mg EPA+DHA per day or less. The most reliable minimum intake figure for protection of the heart and circulation is 850 mg per day of DHA+EPA. This is likely the lowest daily intake necessary for adults to maintain their health. To get this amount from the diet alone would require eating one large serving of salmon every day. The USDA’s and others’ recommendations that Americans consume two meals per week of oily fish—salmon, trout, or herring—would still fall short of 850 mg per day.

From the clinical-scientific knowledge base, the 850 mg daily intake from one meal every day is still at the low end of intakes needed for full benefit. Also, most salmon available in the stores is contaminated with mercury or other toxic heavy metals, or with petrochemical pollutants. Wild salmon is better, but is very hard to find and is expensive. The unavoidable alternative is to take dietary supplements rich in DHA/EPA.

Will the Codex-WTO Conspiracy Take Away Omega-3s?
Codex Alimentarius is the body of government representatives and nongovernmental organizations charged by the United Nations’ World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization to establish international guidelines on food law. Unfortunately, the committee handling dietary supplements has not been operating openly and through consensus. If this committee’s biased recommendations are accepted by the Codex Commission, and the U.S. government accepts Codex Alimentarius, it could impose restrictive standards on the types and potencies of dietary supplements available to the American public.

Causing further concern is that the Codex Commission signed agreements with the World Trade Organization (WTO) that give WTO the right to use any Codex document as international trade standard. So if the Codex Commission adopts the proposed restrictive guidelines, the U.S. or another country could get dragged into court for violating GATT or NAFTA Free Trade policies. Pharmaceutical interests are highly influential in the Codex process, and the omega-3s are so good they could threaten the statins as well as aspirin and other anti-inflammatories. So let’s keep a wary eye on this Codex- WTO unholy alliance.

DHA and EPA—Pioneering a Golden Age for Nutrition
The Codex conspiracy may have something to do with the dietary supplement paradigm—a safe and affordable means for people to become healthy—overtaking the toxic pharmaceutical paradigm. The Old Order is scared by the writing on the wall: Anything Drugs Can Do, Nutrients Can Do Better. DHA/EPA are leading the charge—no pharmaceutical does as much as they do. But they are just one example of the versatility of nutrients for human health.

Society needs the freedom to consume nutrients over a wide range of dosages. Typically there’s a great range of difference between intake of a nutrient to prevent deficiency symptoms, and taking higher amounts to build optimal health. Nutrients such as vitamin C, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ), and folic acid (folate) remain safe and are increasingly effective as their intakes are increased. Take vitamin C, for example. Vitamin C’s safe and effective intakes range from less than 100 mg to more than 100,000 mg, at which level it’s a lifesaving antiviral. CoQ at 400 mg may well protect against cancer, in addition to helping the circulation, brain and other organs. With folate, the higher our intakes the lower our risks for various cancers.

Similar to these nutrients, DHA/EPA have a broad intake range: a few hundred milligrams a day for most kids, less than 1 gram for healthy people, more than 1 gram for heart attack survivors, and up to 10 grams for mood disorders. Society needs to have access to these and all the other nutrients in their safe dosage forms and potencies. DHA/EPA are opening the door to a Golden Age for nutrition. Let’s protect them, so that we and our children’s children can benefit from them.

Doctor Parris Kidd

Dr. Kidd has been a contributing editor and science advisor to Total Health magazine since 1996. His columns include interviews with Dr. Andrew Weil, cancer treatment pioneers Drs. Nick Gonzalez and Linda Isaacs, Dr. Dharma Khalsa, Dr. Barrie Tan, and environmentalist Erin Brockovich. Other columns such as Why You Should Take Vitamins became instant classics. Dr. Parris Kidd’s website provides detailed information on his professional reviews, seminars, books and other career accomplishments.