More than 11 percent of the US population—27 million Americans—suffers from heart disease. It kills 600,000 people per year. There are many reasons why it’s so common. But most cases can be whittled down to one collective cause: the American lifestyle. Poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, excess stress, and other harmful habits set the stage for a variety of conditions that increase risk of heart disease—most notably, inflammation.
Acute inflammation normally occurs after an injury or infection. During this process, blood vessels dilate, allowing white blood cells to flood the area. Once healing is complete, the swelling goes away.
With chronic inflammation, the body initiates the same response, but it continues indefinitely and spills over to affect your circulation. If this process occurs in your coronary artery, you have heart disease. If it happens in your joints, it can turn into arthritis. If it affects the lining of your airways, you can develop asthma or hay fever; and in your brain, Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why scientific research has shown links between this type of chronic inflammation and almost every major killer including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes.
Diet, Inflammation, and Heart Disease
The link between diet, inflammation, and heart disease makes sense when you compare how our ancestors ate to how most Americans eat today.
For centuries, diets consisted primarily of plants (fruits, vegetables, and legumes), game meats, and fatty fish. These animal sources were rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
But in the past 50 years, with the rise of nutritionally-lacking processed foods, eating patterns have shifted. These junk food items contain ingredients that actually promote inflammation, such as omega-6 fatty acids (found primarily in vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, and sunflower oils) and sugar. In fact, the amount of omega-6s we ate 50 years ago represented about 1.5 percent of our calories. Today, it’s 8–10 percent. No single nutrient has increased as much as this one.
The body converts “short-chain” omega 6s found in those foods to “long-chain” omega 6s. Once this happens, two detrimental events can take place, both of which cause inflammation. First, the long-chain omega-6s are converted to messages that signal the body to increase both local and whole-body inflammation. Second, the omega-6s lower the body’s capacity to make protective, anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Both of these processes have been associated with increases in heart disease.
Cut Inflammation—and Heart Disease—With Omega-3s
Two of the best things you can do to lower your risk of chronic inflammation and heart disease are to cut back on omega-6 fatty acids and consume more omega-3s.
Ideally, your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be as close to 2:1 as possible. But with vegetable oils so common in the standard American diet, even the most diligent dieter tends to consume way more omega-6s than necessary. (Some peoples’ ratios run as high as 15:1!)
Tip the scales toward an anti-inflammatory diet—similar to how our ancestors ate. Focus on plant-based foods and anti-inflammatory long chain omega-3-rich foods, including wild-caught fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, and albacore tuna. And as an extra insurance policy, take an omega-3 supplement every day.
The vast amount of research on omega-3s and heart health is extremely compelling.
We talk about meta-analyses a lot. This is just a fancy statistical technique in which scientists can combine data from many studies and often hundreds of thousands of patients, instead of just looking at results from one study in isolation. Consequently, this type of analysis is very convincing.
In one meta-analysis of 13 studies including 222,000 participants showed that consuming only one fish meal per week compared to one fish meal per month reduced risk of death from heart disease by 15 percent. Those who ate the most fish (five or more times per week) enjoyed a 40 percent decrease in risk.
Another meta-analysis of 25 studies examined omega-3 and omega-6 content in tissue samples of heart disease patients. These researchers discovered that omega-3s were consistently and dramatically lower in patients experiencing heart-related events. They concluded that these findings “add further support to the view that long-chain [omega-3 fatty acids] are cardioprotective.”
Some research has even suggested that measuring omega-3 levels in the blood can be useful in predicting heart disease risk or death. Researchers noted that such omega-3 blood analyses “compare very favorably with other risk factors for sudden cardiac death.”
A study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) offered some clues as to how omega-3s work in the body to offer such protection.
Scientists have discovered a technique called telomere shortening as a measure of how fast you are aging. Telomeres are regions on the end of chromosomes that protect the chromosome, and their size decreases with age. Progressive shortening of telomeres leads to a lot of really bad outcomes that affect health and lifespan, including cancer and heart disease. Importantly, the rate of telomere shortening and, theoretically, aging can be either increased or decreased by diet and exercise. So reducing the rate of telomere shortening is strongly correlated with the onset of age-associated diseases and increased lifespan.
Investigators analyzed telomere length over five years in 608 patients with coronary artery disease and found that individuals with higher levels of omega-3s appeared to preserve telomere length. People with the lowest blood levels experienced the fastest rate of telomere shortening over five years. In fact, there was about a 60 percent difference between those with highest and lowest amounts of omega-3s. This suggests that omega-3s may not only have protective effects for disease, but also influence the rate at which we age.
With few side effects to speak of and a multitude of anti-inflammatory heart and potential anti-aging benefits, making omega-3s part of your daily diet may be one of the smartest things you can do.