1. Fish, Not Defibrillators
Each year, thousands of Canadians with no prior history of cardiovascular disease die of sudden cardiac death, which occurs when the heart starts beating erratically. To battle this problem, health officials are encouraging people to learn how to use defibrillators, which shock the heart back to a steady rhythm. But one study determined that even if every home and public place (such as airports and restaurants) in a community had defibrillators, only about 1 percent of sudden cardiac deaths would be prevented.
By contrast, raising blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids within a population would avert eight times as many deaths, according to an analysis in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. To get the necessary level of protection, people would need to take fish-oil supplements, the authors of this study say. However, one study of 20,000 men found that simply eating fish once a week slashes the risk of sudden cardiac death in half. Another study found that dining on fish just once or twice per month provides similar protection against strokes. Canada’s Food Guide recommends eating at least two servings of fish each week.
2. Nature’s Advil
You can help control inflammation and the destruction it can cause by eating more fish and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, nature’s own anti-inflammatories. Scientists first began to suspect there was something special about omega-3s when they noticed that heart disease is rare among people who eat a lot of seafood.
Researchers eventually showed that omega-3 fatty acids appear to stifle inflammation in several ways. For one, they prevent the body from using other fatty acids needed to create prostaglandins and other hormone-like compounds that cause inflammation. They also block and reduce the number of hostile white blood cells the immune system dispatches to inflamed regions of the body. Consuming more omega-3s may be the key to quelling these and other common conditions.
3. Do Away With Diabetes
Most people who develop Type 2 diabetes are overweight. Fat cells produce chemicals that contribute to insulin resistance, the hallmark of the disease. They also churn out proteins that cause inflammation. Several large studies, which included more than 50,000 subjects combined, found that women with the highest levels of chronic inflammation had a fourfold increase in their risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Scientists aren’t sure why, but inflammatory chemicals may interfere with the work of insulin, causing blood sugar to rise. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that population studies show that fish lovers have unusually low rates of Type 2 diabetes.
4. A Cure for Cancer?
Many oncologists now believe that excessive inflammation causes or speeds up the growth of many types of cancer. According to one theory, inflammation increases the rate at which cells “turn over,” which raises the odds that defective cells will emerge in their place, leading to the out-of-control cell growth that produces malignant tumours. In some cases, persistent inflammation from common infections may increase cancer risk. For example, it’s well known that some types of the human papillomavirus can cause cervical cancer, while stomach cancer primarily strikes people who have been infected with Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that cause ulcers. Other sources of chronic inflammation have been linked to malignancies, too. People plagued by inflammatory bowel diseases, for example, have an unusually high risk of colon cancer.
Scientists are still studying whether dampening inflammation by consuming more omega-3 fatty acids prevents cancer, but some tantalizing clues have emerged. For instance, high doses of fish oil block colon tumours from forming in lab animals, apparently by cooling inflammation. What’s more, eating fish three times a week halved the risk of prostate cancer in one study of nearly 48,000 males, while a Swedish study found that men who never ate seafood had double or triple the risk for the disease.
5. Breathe Easier
Since omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, consuming more fish may help prevent asthma attacks, at least in theory. Some evidence supports this idea. For example, an Australian study found that children who ate fish regularly cut their asthma risk by 75 percent. A study by Dutch researchers found a 50 percent reduction in asthma rates among children who had the highest intake of fish and whole grains.