By: Talking Nutrition Editors
The full webinar, ‘Omega-3 fatty acids and the immune system – a life course perspective’, is available to watch on demand here.
Omega-3s are typically associated with their well-known benefits for eye, heart and brain health, but not necessarily for other health benefits such as immunity, sports performance, quality of sleep and mood. In the recent webinar, ‘Omega-3 fatty acids and the immune system – a life course perspective’, Professor Philip Calder compared the immune system to a well-functioning orchestra. Like an orchestra, each cell in the immune system has its own role, coming together to eliminate pathogens and offer protection for the body. For this reason, the immune system is intricate and complex; all the cells must be functioning properly to provide an individual’s ultimate line of defense.
Omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have a role to play in this orchestra and are showing growing promise in supporting immune health.
We need to look at preformed dietary sources to complement the omega-3 supplies required to enhance immunity. EPA and DHA are found in oily fish, fish oils, lean fish oils, algal oils, krill oil and in concentrated pharmaceutical preparations, but these can vary widely in their omega-3 content and portion size. For example, mackerel can provide 3.09 g of omega-3s per portion, which is significantly higher than tinned tuna at 0.08g/portion. Globally, intake remains low as a result, with most people consuming less than 0.2g/day of omega-3s, unless fatty fish or supplementation forms a part of their diet. This is below the intake that is recommended.
With so many options now available, consumers can either choose to take standard, concentrated or pharma-grade capsules – or enjoy a plate of their favorite fish. The latest science, however, suggests EPA and DHA supplementation is not only dose-dependent, but also needs to be maintained over time to have the desired effect.
With an individual’s immune system evolving through the years, so do their omega-3 needs. Immune tolerance is built up in early life and is significantly affected by maternal nutrition – giving infants a positive start in life. For instance, the bacterial colonization of the gut starts early and continues to develop throughout the child’s life to support immunological responsiveness. Developing these responses is crucial to maintaining a balance between the two faces of the immune system: the defense against threatening organisms and the tolerance of self, food and non-threatening organisms. Without this delicate balance, children become more susceptible to infection and immune-mediated disease like allergies.
Learning to tolerate certain foods forms part of an infant’s immune system development. Research shows that omega-3s EPA and DHA play an important role in reducing allergic inflammation in the early years; a theory that has been explored in recent years. One key study found that the infants of mothers who took fish oil from week 25 of pregnancy were less likely to be sensitive to egg, have IgE-associated eczema or a food allergy.1 During the webinar, Prof. Calder shared some of his own published research on the link between omega-3 consumption and reduced infections in schoolchildren. In one study, Thai schoolchildren aged between 9 and 12 years consumed milk fortified with EPA and DHA for six months. The results indicated that the children were less susceptible to respiratory illnesses during this period, taking fewer sick days as compared to the placebo.2
The anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3s also extend beyond childhood, to support individuals’ immune health as they age. While inflammation is a key part of immune response, ongoing inflammation can negatively impact health and cause tissue damage. In the body inflammation occurs in two phases: initiation and resolution. Resolution is important to help prevent further infections and more tissue damage. Recent research shows that EPA and DHA produce specialized pro-resolution mediators (SPMs). These are vital factors in fighting ongoing inflammation in adulthood and can help promote tissue repair and healing.
A systematic review also indicated that EPA and DHA can decrease pain in patients with arthritis, in addition to providing other clinical benefits.3 In fact, higher EPA blood levels have even been shown to improve an individual’s response to the current treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.4 With research on EPA and DHA and their effect on inflammation gathering pace, there is significant potential for further studies on the impact of omega-3s on inflammatory diseases, such as cancer, cognitive decline and type 2 diabetes. Want to learn more about the role of omega-3s and immunity? Watch the full webinar, ‘‘Omega-3 fatty acids and the immune system – a life course perspective’ with Prof. Philip Calder on-demand.
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C. Furuhjelm et al., ‘Fish oil supplementation in pregnancy and lactation may decrease the risk of infant allergy’, Acta Paediatr., vol., 98, no. 9, 2009, 1461-7.
A. Thienprasert et al., ‘Fish Oil N-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Selectively Affect Plasma Cytokines and Decrease Illness in Thai Schoolchildren: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Intervention Trial’, J. Pediatr., vol. 154, no. 3, 2008, pg. 391-395.
M. Abdulrazaq, J.K. Innes and P.C. Calder, Effect of w-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on arthritic pain: a systematic review. Nutrition, 39-40, 2017, 57-66.
L. Jeffery et al., Plasma levels of eicosapentaenoic acid are associated with anti-TNF responsiveness in rheumatoid arthritis and inhibit the etanercept-driven rise in Th17 cell differentiation in vitro. Journal of Rheumatology, 44, 2017, 748-756.