Hamaad Ahmad Muin, Medical Student, Czech Republic
In the Holy Quran, Allah says:
وَهُوَ الَّذِيۡ سَخَّرَ الۡبَحۡرَ لِتَاۡكُلُوۡا مِنۡهُ لَحۡمًا طَرِيًّا وَّتَسۡتَخۡرِجُوۡا مِنۡهُ حِلۡيَةً تَلۡبَسُوۡنَهَا ۚ وَتَرَي الۡفُلۡكَ مَوَاخِرَ فِيۡهِ وَلِتَبۡتَغُوۡا مِنۡ فَضۡلِهٖ وَلَعَلَّكُمۡ تَشۡكُرُوۡنَ
“And He it is Who has subjected[to you]the sea that you may eat therefrom fresh flesh, and may take forth therefrom ornaments which you wear. And thou seest the ships ploughing through it, [that you may thereby journey]and that you may seek of His bounty and that you may be grateful.” (Surah an-Nahl, Ch.16: V.15)
This verse is incredibly interesting as Allah speaks about the ingestion of fresh meat from the sea as a blessing he has endowed mankind. “Fresh” signifies praise too and if we look at groups of people in history who lived close to the sea, we begin to understand the benefits of consuming seafood provides to our health.
Over 40 years ago, scientists discovered that Greenland natives, the Inuit, had high levels of Omega-3 in their blood. They lived close to the ocean, so their diet majorly stemmed from fresh seafood. When screened for disease, it was discovered the Inuit had almost no heart disease. “The Inuit diet” stems from them which some people adopt today.
To be clear, Omega-3 is a fatty acid, and to be more specific, a polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA). In humans, there are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats in our bodies. Despite the negative connotations the term “fats” have associated with them and contrary to popular belief, fats are essential to a healthy diet. They are an integral part of our cell membranes and provide organ support, give us energy and keep us warm.
Normally, the human body can produce the fats it needs itself. However, in the case of Omega-3 fatty acids, humans must obtain them purely from their diet. We cannot produce them from raw materials.
So where do Omega-3 fatty acids come from and how do we get them from our diet?
ALA is found in significant amounts in flaxseeds, soybean oil, rapeseed oil and walnuts. Dietary sources of EPA & DHA include cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, shellfish and herring.
In any case, this article will mainly focus on the enormous benefits EPA & DHA offer, as they almost exclusively are sourced from aquatic animals. There is deep wisdom in the Quranic reference to the provision Allah gave us in seafood.
Lowers risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases
In our rapidly developing world, people are living longer, hence we are witnessing a higher incidence of neurodegenerative diseases. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), currently, more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which contributes to up to 60-70% of cases.
One research paper showed that people over 65 with high levels of Omega-3 DHA in their red blood cells decreased their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by 50%! Furthermore, compared to people with low DHA levels, these people had an estimated extra 4.7 years of life free of Alzheimer’s disease.
DHA presence in the brain holds a critical role in maintaining the blood-brain barrier (a barrier held between blood vessels and the brain tissue). This barrier is vital to provide a clear pathway for the absorption of nutrients from our blood to our brains. A high presence of DHA prevents the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. Roughly 50% of all dementias commence with the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier, thus this is essential in the prevention of these neurodegenerative diseases. (Red Blood Cell DHA Is Inversely Associated with Risk of Incident Alzheimer’s Disease and All-Cause Dementia: Framingham Offspring Study – by Aleix Sala-Vila et al, www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/14/12/2408)
Improves heart health
The idea that Omega-3 might be good for the heart initially began when scientists researched the excellent heart health of the Inuit. Their diet provided high levels of EPA & DHA in the blood.
A 2021 meta-analysis of 17 scientific studies showed that those people with the highest blood levels of combined EPA & DHA were up to 17% less likely to die from all causes of premature death and were also up to 21% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. (Blood n-3 fatty acid levels and total and cause-specific mortality from 17 prospective studies – William S. Harris et al, www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-22370-2)
Having high levels of triglycerides can dramatically increase a person’s risk of heart disease. In one randomised controlled trial, high doses of an EPA-based drug decreased levels of triglycerides by up to 18% and reduced a person’s risk of a major cardiovascular event by 25%. (Results from EVAPORATE Trial Suggest that Cardioprotective Benefits of Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) are Related to Plaque Reduction and Stabilization – Thomas M Das, MD et al, www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/articles/2020/09/21/19/13/results-from-evaporate-trial)
Optimises cognitive function
Cognitive function refers to a person’s mental abilities including a myriad of skills such as memory and learning, language, social cognition and a person’s visual and motor function.
Some studies have shown that adults who supplemented with combined EPA & DHA excelled in tests of executive function with improved white matter structural integrity and increased grey matter volume in their brains. White matter is the part of the brain containing nerve cell fibres and grey matter is the part of the brain containing nerve cell bodies. Therefore, an increase in their microstructural integrity and volume is indeed optimal for higher cognitive function. Additionally, Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (a protein growth factor which increases long-term memory and learning) also increased with EPA & DHA supplementation. (Long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids improve brain function and structure in older adults – A Veronica Witte et al, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23796946/)
Health of unborn children when taken during pregnancy
Another randomised controlled trial showed that pregnant mothers who took fish oil supplementation during their third trimester improved the health of their child during the first five years of their life. The child had a lower risk of lower respiratory tract infections, persistent wheezing and asthma in the first 5 years of their life. (Fish Oil-Derived Fatty Acids in Pregnancy and Wheeze and Asthma in Offspring – Hans Bisgaard et al, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28029926/)
Another similar study was conducted in which pregnant women were given fish oil and placebos during their third trimester. The pregnant women who took fish oil had sons with larger total brain volumes, increased total grey matter, and larger corpus callosum (a structure in the brain connecting the two hemispheres) when compared to the placebo group. (Randomized controlled trial of brain-specific fatty acid supplementation in pregnant women increases brain volumes on MRI scans of their newborn infants – E Ogundipe et al, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30392581/)
Dr Rhonda Patrick who has published multiple research papers on Omega-3 in high-quality scientific journals speaks highly of fish oil supplementation during pregnancy. Dr Patrick mentions in one place, “It is my personal opinion. based on the evidence I have reviewed over the years, that supplementing with fish oil is one of the best things a mother can do while pregnant and breastfeeding.”
Reduces cancer risk
Further, Omega-3 can also be combined with other vitamins and behavioural changes to enhance a person’s health.
One randomised clinical trial showed that Omega-3 and vitamin D supplementation when combined with regular exercise significantly reduced an adult’s cancer risk by 61%. Each of these 3 actions individually does decrease cancer risk to a degree. However, when combined (as this study showed) they can dramatically decrease an adult’s cancer risk.
Combined Vitamin D, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and a Simple Home Exercise Program May Reduce Cancer Risk Among Active Adults Aged 70 and Older: A Randomized Clinical Trial – Heike A. Bischoff-Ferrari et al
The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa when talking about physical health said:
“A strong believer is better and is more lovable to Allah than a weak believer” (Sahih Muslim)
This not only refers to the strong believer’s physical strength but also indicates a person’s overall physical health. Therefore, as Muslims, we must take care of our own physical and mental health so that we can best carry out the rights we owe to God and His creation. It is by reflecting on the Quran and pondering over Allah’s creation that we can find ways to better our health as well. In this case, the benefits of Omega-3 – abundantly found in seafood – can dramatically help in our overall health (provided your physician approves of it for your own health situation).
The Holy Quran refers to “fresh” seafood as a provision for mankind and when we delve deeper, we can see the benefits.