A peek into current omega-3 research: May 2021
By Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN
What is the relationship between levels of omega-3 and omega-6 among elderly men and women who experience an ischemic stroke vs those who don’t? How much and which fatty acids do adult Japanese have in their blood when they eat a traditional Japanese diet? Do these values differ by age? Does taking fish oil along with exercise slow the rate of cognitive decline in seniors? A new study suggests that it does.
Is it feasible to do a full-scale study using fish oil among prison inmates to measure the impact of omega-3 nutrition on reducing aggressive behavior? The answer is yes. In fact, a pilot study published almost 20 years ago that gave fish oil and multiple vitamin supplements to prison inmates showed a 26% reduction in offenses, compared to those taking placebo.
How much DHA omega-3 do football players need to protect their brains from damage related to head injuries? This question is explored in a research study that gave 3 doses of DHA to football players over an entire playing season. Football players are typically larger, with more muscle mass. Does their body size impact how much omega-3 they need for joint and heart health, as well as brain protection?
The first study demonstrating that fish oil has an effect on acute respiratory distress was published just over 20 years ago. In an Intensive Care (ICU) setting, feeding fish oil to respiratory patients lessened the infection and reduced the number of days in ICU. This seminal work is helping scientists understand how fish oil is making a difference in people with COVID-19.
Compounds made from EPA and DHA omega-3 are integral to resolving inflammation that occurs as a result of tissue injury (e.g., hit your thumb with a hammer), a cut, or infection. This relatively new field of study, called resolution physiology, is helping scientists understand how our bodies heal. Medicine is effective at reducing pain symptoms, but that’s only part of the story. We also need to understand how our tissues recover; that is, how our cells and tissues return to homeostasis. In fact, a host of cell signaling molecules called resolvins and neuroprotectins derived from EPA and DHA are produced in our bodies, in nano-seconds, targeted for tissue resolution. And yes, supplementing with fish oil can increase our ability to produce these molecules in our body. Our bodies make these compounds from EPA and DHA in fish oil.
As a constituent of human eye tissue, brain and nerve cells, DHA omega-3 is a critical nutrient for healthy pregnancy. In fact, low DHA levels are associated with increased risk for preterm birth. A minimum daily intake of 200 – 300 mg DHA is the international intake recommendation during pregnancy and lactation. Is 200 mg per day sufficient for pregnant women to reach a healthy omega-3 level of during pregnancy? Well, it depends on a woman’s regular diet and supplement habits before she conceives. In the USA, most women of childbearing age consume about 60 mg DHA, so she has a way to go to reach a healthy range for both herself and developing child. The need for DHA in human development is so great that women are left depleted if undernourished during pregnancy. An animal study looked at whether muscles can become a source of DHA in deficient pregnant women, and a preliminary study suggests the answer is yes. If women deliver preterm babies, can they supplement with omega-3 and increase their breast milk levels? The answer is yes.
Though omega-3s are good for heart and circulatory health, there’s a rumor being perpetuated that DHA in fish oil increases LDL-cholesterol. When put to the test and evaluated in over 4,000 generally healthy middle-aged men and women – the population concerned with cholesterol levels – researchers found that routine fish oil supplementation does not have an adverse effect on LDL-cholesterol. In fact, over a couple years of taking fish oil, LDL levels went down a bit. Let’s end that rumor.
These are a few areas of research inquiry being investigated today. This work and much more research is being presented at the 2021 International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) meeting.
Gretchen Vannice is the Director of Nutrition Education and Research for Wiley Companies. She is a globally recognized expert, author, and speaker in omega-3 research and education.
Disclaimer: This information is offered for educational purposes only. It is the opinion and scientific interpretation of the author. It is not intended as medical advice of any kind. The educational information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, mitigate, or cure any disease nor has this been reviewed or approved by the FDA.
Scientific References are available upon request.