Updated 24 June 2014

Fatty acids lower blood pressure

A recent review of new research in the field of hypertension (high blood pressure) provides insight into the role that essential fatty acids may play in controlling this disease.

A recent review of new research in the field of hypertension or high blood pressure reported in the May edition of the Arbor Clinical Nutrition Updates, provides insight into the role that essential fatty acids may play in controlling this disease.

What are essential fatty acids?
I have previously told readers about these long chain polyunsaturated acids, which are regarded as essential for normal development before birth and for the first year of life, and in adults to prevent a wide variety of degenerative diseases. Basically these long chain polyunsaturated acids are divided into 2 groups, the omega-6 and the omega-3 fatty acids. Of the two, omega-3 fatty acids are generally regarded as the most important group because modern, western diets tend to be deficient in omega-3. In addition, our western eating habits tend to provide us with large quantities of omega-6, thus making the need for omega-3 even greater. This is due to the fact that both types of omega fatty acids compete with each other for uptake in the human body. Nutritionists, therefore, advise that we should be increasing our omega-3 fatty acids intakes.

Early nutrition is important
A study was conducted with 147 infants receiving formula (either plain formula, or formula enriched with essential fatty acids) and 88 infants who were breastfed (breast milk contains essential fatty acids), for the first four months of life. Researchers found that some aspects of blood pressure were improved by breast-feeding, or including essential fatty acids in the formulas.

When the blood pressure of these youngsters was measured at the age of six years, the following results were recorded:

  • the children who had been breast-fed and those who received formula supplemented with essential fatty acids, had similar blood pressure readings at the age of 6
  • the children who received formula supplemented with essential fatty acids had significantly lower diastolic and mean bp readings than the children who received formula which had not been supplemented.
  • The researchers concluded that breast-feeding and supplementation of infant formula with essential fatty acids, can help children to have better blood pressure readings in later life.

Heart disease, bp and essential fatty acids
Hypertension is one of the factors that has a negative effect on patients suffering from heart disease. Japanese researchers did a simple study to determine if supplementing the diet of coronary heart disease patients with essential fatty acids would improve their blood vessel dilatation (the more arteries can expand, the lower bp will be). After three months of taking essential fatty acids, the patients had improved blood flow and blood vessel dilation compared to their baseline values.

Other studies have indicated that by lowering saturated fat and increasing essential fatty acids in the diet, the blood pressure of both healthy and hypertensive individuals can be lowered.

The most significant findings have linked omega-3 fatty acid intake to lower bp levels. It therefore seems plausible that patients with high blood pressure could use essential fatty acid supplements, such as EPA and DHA (the 2 most important omega-3 fatty acids) to assist in controlling their blood pressure.

Long-term effects
The most interesting result of these studies is the finding that by breast-feeding your baby or making sure that the formula of breast milk substitutes contains EPA and DHA, you can influence the child’s health for many years to come. By ensuring that infants get sufficient essential fatty acids, future blood pressure increases can be controlled. It is indeed a sobering thought that the diet infants eat just after birth can influence their health and lives for many years, if not the rest of their lives. There is a growing body of evidence that nutrients, which the foetus and infants are exposed to, can have a vital influence on their subsequent health, including blood pressure.

Although this research is still in its early stages, it will be interesting to see if giving children essential fatty acids will help them to grow into healthy adults who don’t develop blood pressure problems.

While we wait to see what this line of investigation comes up with, pregnant and breast-feeding mothers should take care to take supplements that contain omega-3 (Salmon oil capsules) and eat plenty of fish (a rich source of omega-3). People with high blood pressure and/or heart disease should also consider using EPA and DHA supplementation.

If you have any diet queries, post a question or message on The Message Board. I am here to assist you with your Diet and Food Choices, so let’s interact. – (Dr I.V. van Heerden, registered dietician)

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Dr Jacomien de Villiers qualified as a specialist physician at the University of Pretoria in 1995. She worked at various clinics at the Department of Internal Medicine, Steve Biko Hospital, these include General Internal Medicine, Hypertension, Diabetes and Cardiology. She has run a private practice since 2001, as well as a consultant post at the Endocrine Clinic of Steve Biko Hospital.

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