The Nation's Health + [Omega-3 fatty acids]

Omega-3 fatty acids: My bread contains 900 mg omega-3

Phyllis is the survivor of a large heart attack (an "anterior" myocardial infarction involving the crucial front of the heart) several years ago. Excessive fatigue prompted a stress test, which showed poor blood flow in areas outside the heart attack zone. This prompted a heart catheterization, then a bypass operation one year ago.

FINALLY, Phyllis began to understand that her unhealthy lifestyle played a role in causing her heart disease. But lifestyle alone wasn't to blame. Along with being 70 lbs overweight and overindulging in unhealthy sweets every day, she also had lipoprotein(a), small LDL particles, and high triglycerides. The high triglycerides were also associated with its evil "friends," VLDL and IDL (post-prandial, or after-eating, particles).

When I met her, Phyllis' triglycerides typically ranged from 200-300 mg/dl . Fish oil was the first solution, since it is marvelously effective for reducing triglycerides, as well as VLDL and IDL. Her dose: 6000 mg of a standard 1000 mg capsule (6 capsules) to provide 1800 mg EPA + DHA, the effective omega-3 fatty acids.

But Phyllis is not terribly good at following advice. She likes to wander off and follow her own path. She noticed that the healthy bread sold at the grocery store and containing flaxseed boasted "900 mg of omega-3s per slice!". So she ate two slices of the flaxseed-containing bread per day and dropped the fish oil.

Guess what? Triglycerides promptly rebounded to 290 mg/dl, along with oodles of VLDL and IDL.

A more obvious example occurs in people with a disorder called "familial hypertriglyceridemia," or the inherited inability to clear triglycerides from the blood. These people have triglycerides of 800 mg/dl, 2000 mg/dl, or higher. Fish oil yields dramatic drops of hundreds, or even thousands of mg. Fish oil likely achieves this effect by activating the enzyme, lipoprotein lipase, that is responsible for clearing blood triglycerides. Flaxseed oil and other linolenic acid sources yield . . .nothing.

Don't get me wrong. Flaxseed is a great food. As the ground seed, it reduces LDL cholesterol, reduces blood sugar, provides fiber for colon health, and may even yield anti-cancer benefits. Flaxseed oil is a wonderful oil, rich in monounsaturates, low in saturates, and rich in linolenic acid, an oil fraction that may provides heart benefits a la Mediterranean diet.

But linolenic acid from flaxseed is not the same as EPA + DHA from fish oil. This is most graphically proven by the lack of any triglyceride-reducing effects of flaxseed preparations.

Enjoy your flaxseed oil and ground flaxseed--but don't stop your fish oil because of it. Heart disease and coronary plaque are serious business. You need serious tools to combat and control them. Fish oil is serious business for triglycerides. Flaxseed is not.