From Sea to Lungs: The Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids


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“These healthy fats (omega-3s) not only supply energy but have also been linked to numerous health benefits.”

The importance of omega-3 fatty acids in our diet and in supplements, in particular their potential benefits for heart and brain health has been a topic of discussion for years. In addition to an extensive literature on this topic, a groundbreaking study has recently shed light on another crucial health benefit of these fatty acids: their role in maintaining lung health.

Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly referred to as omega-3s, are a class of fatty acids which can be distinguished into several molecules based on their unique chemical structure. These healthy fats not only supply energy but have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects linked to numerous health benefits, including improved heart and brain function, enhanced immune system responses, reduced blood pressure, and balanced hormone levels. The three primary omega-3s are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Our bodies cannot produce omega-3s themselves, making it necessary to receive them through our diet or in form of supplements. ALA is especially found in algae and nuts, seeds, and soybeans. On the other hand, marine sources like shellfish, salmon, tuna and small fatty fish such as mackerel and sardines are rich in both DHA and EPA. The high level of omega-3s in seafood is a consequence of the consumption of omega-3 rich algae by small fatty fish and the enrichment of omega-3 stores in larger fish, in particular wild salmon through their feeding off the smaller fish. While both land and marine-based omega-3s are vital, marine-based fatty acids are considered most important for our health. For vegans or those who don’t consume fish for other reasons, algae-derived supplements or fish oil can be an alternative source. Based on extensive research, The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish per week.

“The Patchen et al. study indicates that omega-3s can reduce lung inflammation and counteract the decline in lung function due to age or other factors.”

The recent study, led by Bonnie K. Patchen at the Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, and published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, has highlighted the association between omega-3s and lung health. While it has been known that omega-3s can prevent cardiovascular diseases, their benefits for other chronic medical conditions continues to be explored. The Patchen et al. study indicates that omega-3s can reduce lung inflammation and counteract the decline in lung function due to age or other factors.

“Higher relative levels of ALA, EPA, and DHA were associated with a reduced decline [of lung function], suggesting a potential protective effect of these fatty acids.”

The longitudinal study performed over 7 years in 15,063 participants with an average age of 56 years found that higher omega-3 fatty acid blood levels were associated with an attenuated decline in lung function and improved well-being. The largest effect was seen for the omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). An increase in DHA of 1% of total fatty acids was associated with significant attenuations of a commonly used lung function test (forced expiratory volume or FEV) and a 7% lower incidence of airway obstruction. DHA associations persisted across sexes and smoking histories and in Black, White, and Hispanic participants, with associations of the largest magnitude in former smokers and Hispanic participants.

To further validate their findings, the team also studied genetic data from the UK Biobank, reinforcing the protective role of omega-3s for lung health. Using an analytical technique called Mendelian randomization, they aimed to explore a causal relationship between omega-3 blood levels and lung function. Mendelian randomization is a method of using variations in genes of known function to examine the causal effect of a modifiable exposure on disease. They found that while EPA, DPA, DHA, and total omega-3 fatty acids were positively associated with lung function, ALA demonstrated a negative relationship, emphasizing the specificity of EPA, DPA and DHA.

“This study has provided compelling evidence about the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and lung health.”

This study has provided compelling evidence about the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and lung health. Even though the findings do not prove a causal relationship between omega-3 consumption, it highlights the importance of including these fatty acids in our diet. The Mediterranean diet, a highly researched diet and described in detail in Dr. Mayer’s new recipe book Interconnected Plates, is known to be rich in omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to its omega-3 content, foods which are part of the Mediterranean diet with anti-inflammatory properties, such as tomatoes, spinach, kale, nuts, strawberries, cherries, and blueberries, may also play a role in maintaining lung health.

It is worth noting that the study primarily involved healthy adults. The research team intends to expand their studies of omega-3 levels to individuals with compromised lung function, including heavy smokers and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Such research could assist in the creation of a personalized diet for individuals at a higher risk of chronic lung diseases, and for slowing of preexisting lung disease.

While the benefits of omega-3s for heart and brain health have been well-established, their role in lung health as described in the is now coming to the forefront. As research continues, it becomes increasingly clear that these fatty acids are more critical for our overall health than previously thought.

Richard Tirado a recent graduate from UCLA, where he majored in Biology and minored in Anthropology.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD