Dirty air is bad for everyone. Linked to higher risks of heart attacks and strokes in adults, air pollution from highways, industrial factories and wood smoke has even been found to cause behavioral problems in children born to mothers with high exposure.
Most of the time, the only way to counteract the damage that particulate matter can do to your heart and brain is to move away from it — not always a practical solution. Now, scientists have found that omega-3 fish oils can fight damage caused by dirty air.
In a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute for Environmental Health Scientists gave 29 healthy middle-aged adults either omega-3 fish oil supplements or a placebo of olive oil supplements. After four weeks of supplementation, the test subjects were placed in enclosed chambers for two hours while being exposed to pollution levels similar to those you might be exposed to in an average urban environment. Their blood was tested before and after the exposure.
After exposure to pollution, the people on fish oil supplements experienced much lower heart rate variability, a marker for cardiovascular damage, and other markers of cardiac distress, than the people taking olive oil supplements. At the same time, although both groups had similar LDL (bad) cholesterol and lipid (blood fat) levels before exposure, those levels spiked in the olive oil group but remained steady in the fish oil group.
The effects of air pollution on heart health have become so pervasive that an entire medical field, called environmental cardiology, has cropped up to treat them. And most environmental cardiologists previously believed that the best way to protect against the damages of air pollution was to ward off heart disease entirely, for instance, eating healthfully, eliminating cigarettes and exercising to reduce both weight and stress levels. This study shows that adding fish oil supplements to that list will help keep you from succumbing to air-pollution-induced heart problems.
Read more: Fish or fish oils for healthy heart?
The participants in this study took 3 grams of fish oil per day every day for four weeks, which is an average dose for most over-the-counter supplements. However, not all supplements are created equal, particularly with fish oil.
It's important to choose high-quality products to prevent exposure to contaminants such as mercury and PCBs:
• Consult independent tests. Although most fish oils used in supplements come from species that aren't high in mercury and PCBs, that doesn't mean a few poisoned poisson don't make it into the mix. The Environmental Defense Fund surveyed 75 fish oil manufacturers to see if they purify their fish oils to remove PCBs and mercury, and published a list of the healthier supplements. Alternately, consult the third-party supplement-testing service ConsumerLab.com, which conducts annual tests on fish oils and looks for contaminants that could undermine the health benefits of your fish oil supplements.
• Read labels wisely. Concentration of the different omega-3s in the fish oil can vary, according to tests from ConsumerLab. The most beneficial fatty acids are EPA and DHA. In this study, the effective dose contained 410 milligrams of EPA and 274 milligrams of DHA.
• Don't confuse price with quality. Just because a brand costs more doesn't mean you're getting a better-quality product. In ConsumerLab tests, some of the best-quality supplements with the lowest levels of contaminants cost just 6- to 10 cents per serving.
• Don't be duped by meaningless claims. "Pharmaceutical-grade," "contaminant-free" and "tested in FDA-approved laboratories" do not carry weight. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve analytical labs, although some labs could be FDA registered and inspected.