if a disaster knocks you off the grid for long enough, the
medicines eventually run out no matter how well you’ve prepared. This is
especially true for drugs which you can only stockpile in limited quantities,
simply because they’re too expensive. One item that isn’t too expensive is fish
oil, commonly available in supplements or in FDA-approved prescription items.
The scientific data shows that they can reduce triglycerides in your blood, a
factor in coronary artery disease, and perhaps help in other ways.
First, what is fish oil? Fish oil is the fat or oil that’s
extracted from fish tissue. Squeeze a fish, get some oil. Most of it comes from
“oily” fish, such as herring, tuna, anchovies, salmon, and mackerel. It’s sometimes
produced from the livers of other fish, an example being the time-honored cod
The World Health Organization (WHO) doesn’t recommend fish
oil supplements, but it does recommend eating 1–2 portions of fish per week.
This is because the omega-3 fatty acids in fish are thought to provide many health
benefits, including a level of protection against a number of diseases. The FDA
has approved fish oil products like Lovaza and Vascepa as a good way to fight
high triglycerides and total cholesterol levels, especially in those who don’t
incorporate fish in their diet.
Back to that in a minute. It’s been a long time since I’ve
talked about triglycerides and cholesterol, so let’s take a moment to discuss
We’ve all heard about bad cholesterol, but cholesterol is
made by all animal cells and is an essential structural component of cell
membranes. It is also a prerequisite for all steroid hormones, bile, and even
vitamin D. That means you can’t produce them without cholesterol as a building
block. Cholesterol was first discovered in gallstones in the 18th century, we
called it “cholesterine” then.
In vertebrates, liver cells typically make the greatest
amounts. It’s absent in almost all prokaryotes, you might ask what’s a
prokaryote? Well, if you’ve got a copy of our book Alton’s Antibiotics and
Infectious Disease, you know that I’m talking about bacteria and even earlier
organisms like archaea, so I guess you can say that bacteria are immune to
heart disease (mostly because they don’t have hearts, haha, a little
microbiology humor there).…nothing? I guess you have to be a microbiologist…
Anyway, The latest FDA-approved fish oils like Lovaza and
Vascepa, are mostly about triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat found
in your blood. When you eat, your body converts calories it doesn’t need to use
right away into triglycerides. The triglycerides are stored in your fat cells
to be released later to get energy between meals.
So since we need cholesterol and triglycerides to live,
what’s the problem?
If your diet is full of bad fats and carbohydrates and you
eat a lot more calories than you burn, you may have high triglycerides. If your
triglyceride level is too high, it may lead to thickening of the artery walls
from the formation of plaques (also known as atheroscleroisis). This increases
the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease. Extremely high
triglycerides can also cause an inflamed pancreas, also known as
LDL stands for low density lipoprotein and it’s what known
as “bad” cholesterol. This is because having high levels of it can lead to
plaque buildup in your arteries and result in heart disease and stroke. HDL (high
density lipoprotein) or good cholesterol absorbs bad cholesterol and carries it
back to the liver, which flushes it from the body.
LOWERING TRIGLYCERIDES AND CHOLESTEROL
So what are some ways to lower triglycerides and cholesterol?
Let’s start with lifestyle changes:
Choose healthier fats. Avoid trans fats or foods with
hydrogenated oils. Trade saturated fat found in meats for healthier fat found
in plants, such as olive and canola oils. Instead of red meat, try fish high in
omega-3 fatty acids — such as salmon. I prefer the actual fish to fish oil
supplements. Supplements are most useful if you have a proven deficiency
or just can’t get to a natural source of the nutrient in the supplement.
Other things you can do:
Exercise regularly. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical
activity on frequently during the week. Regular exercise can lower
triglycerides and boost your “good” cholesterol.
Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates. These can increase
triglycerides. In excess, they are, in fact, poison.
Lose weight. If you have triglyceride issues, Cut some
calories so that less are converted to triglycerides and stored as fat.
Limit how much alcohol you drink. Alcohol is high in sugar
and calories and has a significant effect on triglycerides.
If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, see a doctor before the
you-know-what hits the fan. Your doctor might suggest medications like:
Statins or Fibrates. These prescription drugs lower
triglycerides and cholesterol, especially in those with diabetes or a history
of blocked arteries. A well-known example of a statin is atorvastatin (Lipitor).
A fibrate might be something like fenofibrate: Tricor. These drugs, however,
can negatively affect your liver, kidney or have other effects, though, so
regular monitoring by a professional would be appropriate.
Niacin is over the counter and may help. Niacin can lower
your triglycerides and (LDL) the “bad” cholesterol. The problem is
that niacin can cause significant side effects.
One particularly strange one happened to a friend of mine, he called me
one day to say that he turned red and had itching all over. I went to see him,
and sure enough, he was beet red, flushed, and very uncomfortable, it took
hours for it to go away. Everyone’s a little bit different, but if this happens
to you, skip the niacin or at least lower the amount you take.
I started this article talking about fish oil: Is it useful for triglycerides and cholesterol?
Regarding Vascepa, the latest fish oil approved by the FDA,
some studies have shown to the FDA’s satisfaction that VASCEPA can lower very
high triglycerides without raising bad cholesterol (LDL-C). Other fish oils and
even the prescription fish oil supplement Lovaza do that too, but Vascepa
differs in that it doesn’t contain something called DHA, a substance that has
some good effects but is also known to raise bad cholesterol. Lovaza, and
non-prescription fish oil supplements that lower triglycerides do contain DHA,
docosahexaenoic acid, that’s a tongue twister, and could raise bad cholesterol.
Vascepa theoretically eliminates that dilemma,
Although Vascepa lowers your total cholesterol and
tryglcerides, It is not known whether Vascepa will really lower your risk of
developing heart disease or stroke . These studies usually take many years of
follow-up to see if those who use Vascepa or Lovaza live longer and have less
heart attacks and strokes than the general population. That’s not been proven
so far. Also, this stuff ain’t cheap, although the Vascepa website has coupons
you can use. What’s more, too much fish oil can impair your blood’s ability to
clot. Don’t take more than 3 g daily.
One thing you should know about fish oil is that it can oxidize and lose its beneficial effects if stored poorly. Light, oxygen exposure, and heat can all contribute to oxidation of fish oil. Keeping it cold and dark in a refrigerator can help keep fish oil’s benefits intact longer, although it doesn’t keep more than a few months after expiration.
Note: If your expired fish oil supplements smell bad or appear slightly discolored, don’t take them. Taking rancid, expired fish oil supplements can cause gastro-intestinal side effects and cause you to feel ill.
You should also be aware that fish oil can contain mercury,
especially from imported fish from the ocean. Unless you’re a glass
thermometer, mercury isn’t good for you; its existence is supposed to be made
public by the manufacturer. To be in compliance with U.S. requirements, the
amount of mercury is required to be within safe levels, but is it?? With
Vascepa and Lovaza, which are produced under strict supervision and held at a higher
standard than non-prescription brands, it probably is.
In any case, if you have bad cholesterol and high
triglycerides, consider making dietary changes like eating less fats and
carbohydrates and more protein, like fish. Also, get your sugar, BP, and other
issues under control.
Bottom line about fish oil in survival scenarios? Instead of squeezing fish to get oil, you’re probably a lot better off just cooking and eating them. Believe me, you could do worse than incorporating fish into your diet. By the way, you can also get your omega-3s from other natural sources, especially ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil. Alternate sources of omega-3s also include chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil, pumpkin seeds, and soy oil. If you’re off the grid, though, and can’t access any other source of omega-3s, fish oil supplements might be useful if you could store them appropriately.