A healthy heartbeat is stimulated by electrical pulses that arise from within the heart itself, spread throughout the heart in a coordinated pattern, and cause cardiac muscle contractions that send blood pulsing through the body’s network of arteries and veins. Ideally, this system works without problems. When there is a problem with this electrical system, however, an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, may develop.
The main fatty acid in the Western diet is linoleic acid, found mostly in vegetable oils. However, epidemiologic studies many years ago showed that people with a high intake of fatty fish, like the Japanese, have less cardiovascular disease than those who consume Western-type diets (Lee KW et al 2003). Fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, and albacore tuna, and their oils are good sources of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (Calder PC et al 2002). The most important omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which when ingested are immediately available for use in the body.
Extensive scientific studies, both animal and human, have shown that supplementing the diet with fish and their oils has a beneficial effect on the heart, particularly in preventing cardiac arrhythmias (Nair SS et al 1997). The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils appear to stabilize the electrical activity of the heart muscle, reducing susceptibility even to ventricular arrhythmias and ultimately decreasing the risk of sudden cardiac death (Lee KW et al 2003; Kang JX et al 2000).
The GISSI-Prevention study of more than 11,000 people taking a purified form of omega-3 fatty acids as a supplement has shown a significant decrease in the occurrence of sudden cardiac death among the participants (Lee KW et al 2003; De Caterina R et al 2002; Richter WO 2003). The efficacy of this preparation was greater than that of pravastatin, a commonly prescribed statin drug. Remarkably, the reduction in fatalities was seen even in patients who were already taking preventive medications such as aspirin and statin drugs (Lee KW et al 2003; Richter WO 2003). Beneficial effects may be seen within 90 days of starting omega-3 therapy and may continue progressively with longer use, leading to their recommendation as a “promising additional measure for secondary prevention” (Richter WO 2003).
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