How fish oil may decrease inflammation

Recent work has discovered a mechanism that could minimize inflammation through fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids. A study which tested an enriched fish oil supplement found that certain anti-inflammatory molecules had increased blood levels.

Oil fish supplement
A new study sheds light on the inflammation-reducing properties of fish oil supplements.

The anti-inflammatory molecules are called advanced pro-resolving mediators (SPMs), which have a powerful effect on white blood cells and also regulate inflammation of the blood vessels.

Scientists also understood that by breaking down essential fatty acids like certain omega-3 fatty acids, the body makes SPMs. The relationship between supplement consumption and circulating SPM levels remained uncertain though.

Therefore, a team of researchers from the William Harvey Research Institute at Queen Mary University, London, United Kingdom, set out to explain the relationship by examining the impact of an enriched fish oil supplement in 22 healthy volunteers aged between 19 and 37.

The team carried out the research on Circulation Research as a double-blind , placebo-controlled experiment. Therefore, neither the participants nor those who gave them the doses and tracked them knew who was supplemented with fish oil and who was given placebo.

“We used the molecules as our biomarkers to show how our body uses omega-3 fatty acids and to determine if the production of these molecules has a beneficial effect on white blood cells,” says Jesmond Dalli, senior study author, who is a professor of molecular pharmacology at the William Harvey Institute.

Enriched fish oil increased blood markers

The study tested against placebo on three doses of enriched fish oil supplement. The researchers were using blood samples from the participants for processing.

— patient received five samples over 24 hours — at baseline, and then 2, 4, 6, and 24 hours after taking their supplement or placebo dose.

The researchers found that taking the enriched fish oil supplement raised levels of SPMs in blood. The findings showed an rise in circulating blood levels of SPMs by “time and dose-dependent.”

The studies also showed that supplementation resulted in an rise in dose-dependent immune cell attacks on bacteria, and a decrease in cell activity that encourages blood clotting.

Inflammation is the immune system’s protective response and is important for health. The response can be caused by numerous factors, including damaged cells, toxins and pathogens such as bacteria.

Many of the immune cells that are activated during inflammation may also damage the tissue, so it is necessary for inflammation to subside to allow for healing once the danger is over. Stopping the inflammation is where anti-inflammatory drugs, including SPMs, play a part.

When inflammation continues, however, and is persistent, then it destroys it instead of protecting health. Inflammation has been linked to heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other severe health conditions.

Although it remains uncertain if such molecules are reducing cardiovascular disease, a research press release states that they are doing “supercharge macrophages, specialized cells that destroy bacteria and eliminate dead cells,” as well as making “platelets less sticky, potentially reducing blood clot formation.”

Work has also shown that the molecules play a role in regenerating tissues. As Prof. Dalli points out, “these molecules have multiple routes.”

Beware of unregulated supplements

An earlier 2019 NEJM study showed that a prescription formula containing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may reduce heart attacks and strokes — and deaths related to these events — in people who are or are already at high risk for cardiovascular disease. EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid, present in fish oil.

Nonetheless, Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, who is a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a medical professor at Harvard Medical School, both in Boston, MA, and who led the research, says there is no reliable evidence that over-the-counter supplements may have the same effect.

Two formulations have been approved in the United States by federal regulators: one containing EPA, and one combining EPA with another omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

The American Heart Association ( AHA) recently issued a medical warning that cautions customers to avoid omega-3 supplements that are unregulated.

An earlier AHA advisory had indicated that while these supplements that marginally decrease the risk of death after a heart attack or heart failure, there is no evidence to exclude heart disease first.

Prof. Dalli says further studies are needed to determine if people over the age of 45 will experience the same effects from enriched fish oil supplements as they saw in the younger volunteers.

Compared to healthy people, those living with chronic inflammation have lower rates of SPMs, he says , adding that the enzymes that create them in these individuals do not function as well.

He says this is the kind of information that researchers will need to remember when formulating disease-treatment supplements. Also, ensuring that the body breaks down the supplements into protective molecules will be critical.

“We’re still far away from having the magic formula. Each person will need a specific formulation or at least a specific dosing, and that’s something we need to learn more about.”

Prof. Jesmond Dalli

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