Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Omega 3 -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

Omega 3

Reporter: Maryke Steffens

Producer: Gabrielle Betteridge

Researcher: Maryke Steffens


Related Info

20 July 2006

Just a few years ago, no one was paying much attention to a polyunsaturated fatty acid called
Omega-3. But now researchers are posing a momentous question: could a lack of Omega-3 be making us
sick? Studies going on right now are testing to see whether taking Omega-3 can reduce symptoms of
diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, ADHD, depression, and cardiovascular disease to name just a few. So
far preliminary results have been encouraging. Is this just the newest quick fix? Or is Omega 3
really a wonder oil?


Narration: In an ageing, sedentary population the risk of heart attack is very real. Heart disease
is the single largest cause of death for Australians. For many, by the time help comes, it's simply
too late.

But there may be a way to prevent this scenario from playing out across the country.

Maryke: Inside this is a fat called Omega It's touted as a treatment for diabetes, depression,
heart disease, ADHD, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer, not to mention a slew of other diseases.

Narration: This so-called 'wonder oil' has had bad press the latest being the proof that it works
just isn't there yet.

But Australian scientists are gathering evidence to show that it's SO essential that without it the
health of our entire generation and the next is at risk. Peter McLennan from the University of
Wollongong is a firm believer that a fish a day does keeps the doctor away.

Professor Peter McLennan: The best source of Omega 3's is fish, particularly oily fish, such as the
tuna we have here.

Maryke: Right well, I reckon I'm going to get some of this snapper fillet here, it looks good.

Narration: Omega 3 is vital to all the cells in your body as a building block for the cell
membrane. The membrane's job is to be the cell's gatekeeper, and if it's full of Omega-3, it
becomes better at controlling what goes in and out of the cell. But it turns out we're not eating
nearly enough to supply our cells.

Professor Peter McLennan: Half of the population is consuming 50mg of Omega 3 fatty acids or less
on a daily basis, yet the recommendations are that we should be consuming around 200 mg.

Narration: You can easily get that much in one piece of oily fish, but without it Peter believes
your heart can suffer.

Maryke: So Peter that's my heart beat there?

Professor Peter McLennan: Yes, each of those peaks represents one beat of your heart.

Maryke: So it's all looking pretty normal then?

Professor Peter McLennan: Looks good.

Narration: At the Smart Food Centre, Peter has found that this lack of Omega 3 could be putting you
at risk of dying after a heart attack.

Professor Peter McLennan: In the most serious cases the heart beat goes totally out of rhythm.

Maryke: What does that look like?

Peter McLennan: It looks like this here where the electrical activity is totally disordered.

Narration: This is called arrhythmia.

Professor Peter McLennan: It's the main cause of sudden heart attack deaths, when people die soon
after the onset of symptoms.

Narration: Peter is going to show me how fish oil can make a life-saving difference. What we're
looking at here is a rat heart muscle cell. If we stimulate it, mimicking a heart attack, we can
upset its steady beat.

Maryke: Well, actually it's not beating at all. It's sort of twitching a little bit.

Narration: In a human, this twitching would be deadly.

But stimulate heart cells from a rat fed Omega 3, and the heart remains stable.

Maryke: It's still beating like it was before.

Professor Peter McLennan: So that's what we've come to expect when we have cells from rats fed with
fish oil. They maintain their rhythm, even when we stimulate them quite hard.

Narration: If your heart cells have enough Omega-3 in their membranes, they can keep out the
molecules that stimulate irregular beats, and this could save your life after a heart attack.

Maryke: And how much do you need to eat?

Professor Peter McLennan: The evidence is telling us as little as two meals per week of fatty fish.

Narration: So if Peter's right, eating salmon or sardines can prevent illness. But can we take fish
oil one step further and use it like a drug? Meet Thomas. At 9, he's had ADHD for 3 years and he
and his mum Anne-Marie are also desperate for a break.

Anne-Marie: I think it really frustrates him. Basically he just annoys everyone. I mean I love him
to bits but it's like full on and he's there 24-7 and he's up and down, up and down.

Narration: It may seem unlikely that fish oil could help Thomas control his ADHD, but our brains
are literally swimming in fat.

Most of it's in the cell membrane, and high levels of Omega 3 allow the brain cells to transmit
electrical signals more effectively.

So could increasing your Omega 3 intake influence the very way we think and behave? At CSIRO Human
Nutrition in Adelaide, Natalie Sinn is attempting to find this out. She recruited 130 children with
learning and behaviour difficulties, and set them tasks to test their attention. After more than 6
months on 6 fish oil capsules a day, around half the children showed improvement.

Natalie Sinn: A lot of parents commented that their children were calmer. I had some people
commenting that their children had been in a special reading class and they no longer had to take
part in those classes. One mother said that her child was sitting up and reading at night for over
an hour and before he couldn't focus for longer than five minutes.

Narration: Thomas has also been taking fish oil capsules along with his other medication for the
last year.

Anne-Marie: This is him on the fish oil tablets, this is before he started taking them. So you can
see the difference in the writing.

Thomas: That's not straight and backwards, and that's the right way and neat.

Anne-Marie: He's not struggling when he's reading and he's not struggling when he's writing, so
they're not hard. So now he actually attempts with basically enthusiasm.

Narration: While the transformation for Thomas has been remarkable, Natalie found that Omega 3
didn't help 50 per cent of the children. Perhaps science could lend nature a helping hand by
redesigning the Omega 3 molecule to work even better?

Omega 3 and Diabetes

Maryke: So Tony this is your experimental set up here?

Tony Ferrante: Yes this is our model where we've been testing our omega 3 fatty acids.

Narration: Professor Tony Ferrante is using these diabetic rats to test artificial Omega 3s.

This oil was made in the lab, and its molecular structure was redesigned specifically to treat

Professor Tony Ferrante: What we wanted to do was to make them a bit more selective, a bit like
when you select a drug to actually hit a particular process.

Narration: Excessive urine is a symptom of diabetes, so the amount of urine produced by the rat
will tell us whether the synthetic Omega 3 is working.

Maryke: So this is our normal rat without diabetes, and this is our diabetic rat. And what about
our rat being fed Omega 3s?

Tony Ferrante: Well, it's very interesting. The results are quite remarkable. As soon as they are
receiving the Omega 3s we're going back to almost normal urine levels.

Professor Tony Ferrante:

In many ways it's a simple fat that you can take in your food and the results were actually
dramatic in these models.

Narration: Human trials are a long way off, and whether science can make significant improvements
on nature remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the evidence seems to suggest that Omega 3 fatty acids are a blockbuster drug in
their own right. So the best advice for the moment? Make sure you eat your fish.

Omega-3 content of typical fish (skin off) and seafood:

Canned sardines 2000mg per 100g

Atlantic salmon 1000-2000mg per 100g

Swordfish >1000mg per 100g

Whitebait 700mg per 100g

Canned tuna >600mg per 100g

Mackerel 400mg per 100g

Mullet 400mg per 100g

Bonito 400mg per 100g

Gemfish 400mg per 100g

Sardine 300mg per 100g

Tuna 300mg per 100g

Snapper 220mg per 100g

Warehou 200mg per 100g

Flounder 200mg per 100g

Blue Grenadier 175mg per 100g

Bream 150mg per 100g

Perch 150mg per 100g

Garfish 150mg per 100g

Whiting 100mg per 100g

Barramundi 100mg per 100g

Muscles 400mg per 100g

Oyster 350mg per 100g

Squid/octopus 300mg per 100g

Prawns 150mg per 100g

Lobster 100mg per 100g

(Fish skin and offal have 3 times the Omega-3 fatty acids found in the flesh.)

Source: Associate Professor Peter McLennan, Smart Food Centre and Graduate School of Medicine,
University of Wollongong

Story Contacts

Professor Peter McLennan

Graduate School of Medicine

University of Wollongong

Natalie Sinn

Research Associate

Nutritional Physiology Research Centre

University of South Australia

Professor Tony Ferrante

Professor and Head of Immunopathology

Professor of Immunopharmacology

Children, Youth and Women's Health Service

Adelaide Women's and Children's Hospital

Related Info

Better Health: Fats and Oils

CSIRO Marine Research Information Sheet: Omega Oils in Australia Seafood