GOED reveals latest science on omegas for immune health

By Olivia Brown

- Last updated on GMT

© vovashevchuk / Getty Images
© vovashevchuk / Getty Images

Related tags omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA Fish oil supplements Omega-3 fatty acid

GOED has revealed the significant role that DHA and EPA may play in immune health following a review of its scientific database, with new research suggesting their potential association with white blood cell biology as well as inflammatory resolution.

Human studies have found that EPA and DHA may play a protective role in acute lung injury, moderate allergies and allergic diseases, and may enhance immunity during pregnancy and in those with cancer. And animal-based research challenged the notion that fish oil is only immunosuppressive by suggesting immune-enhancing activities.

These were key findings highlighted from analysis of GOED's scientific database during its recent webinar titled “Illuminate the Science IV: EPA and DHA for Immune Health”.

The database is a specialised search tool compiling peer-reviewed research on EPA and DHA omega-3s in relation to an array of different health areas, enabling companies to understand the latest evidence in relation to their products, substantiate claims, and inform new product development.

Significant science

Kaitlin Roke, director of scientific communication and outreach for GOED, pointed out the significant scientific interest in the role of DHA and EPA omega-3s in immune health, with 381 human interventional studies noted to have investigated the relationship during this year.

Roke noted one relevant review article​ investigating the effects of omega-3s on immune cells, which concluded: “To our knowledge, from all the immune cells investigated to date, none of them has been inert to dietary omega-3 fatty acids.”

She emphasised the significance of the research: “This is saying that in almost every experiment, the immune cells are impacted to some extent. So now we just need to see what types of cells are changing and how?”

Yet, she underlined the challenges involved in concluding on the outcomes of intakes on immune cells and specific health areas, due to the variety of measurement methods being used.

She added that significant variation in study design also represents a barrier, with research often using different DHA and EPA concentrations, incubation times, proportions, and durations of supplementation.

Proposed mechanisms

It is known that the human body has two distinct immune responses to invading pathogens, viruses, or bacteria, including innate and adaptive immunity. Whilst adaptive immunity enables for a more specific response over a longer period, innate immunity causes a faster response resulting in generalised outcomes such as a fever and inflammation.

Roke noted that a previous webinar​ pointed out the significant role that DHA and EPA plays in the resolution of inflammation, resulting from the production of inflammatory cytokines, noting that this significant overlap between the two research areas adds further challenges to concluding specifically on immunity.

She explained: “When we think about how DHA and EPA are related to our immune health, there are a lot of theories and mechanisms which are originally supported from cell culture and animal research, of which some have been translated to human clinical studies.

“But the general baseline concepts repeated throughout the literature were that EPA and DHA may support a health immune system by lowering circulating levels of inflammatory markers, helping to resolve the inflammatory response using specialised pro-resolving mediators, incorporation into cell membranes including those of the immune system and lipid rafts, and altering gene expression.” 

Yet, she said that new research suggests EPA and DHA may influence adaptive immunity through their association with B and T cell biology.

She noted a previous study​ investigating the effects of six-weeks of omega-3 supplementation following exercise in a group of athletes, which enabled for the increased activity of the cytotoxic activities of natural killer cells which are released during the innate immune response.

A further study​ found that when pregnant women were supplemented with EPA/DHA during the third trimester, there was a 31% reduced likelihood of offspring asthma when compared to the placebo group.

She added that DHA-rich fish oil has been observed to enhance white blood cell activity in mice, challenging the existing concept that fish oil is only immunosuppressive.

“We typically think of EPA and DHA as being part of the resolution. But in this case, if it’s actually working to enhance immunity, does this mean that it plays a more active role over just a suppressive role?” she questioned.

Concluding on the state of current research, Roke said: “At this time, it’s difficult to characterise exactly what biomarker to look at, and how much EPA and DHA might be needed to elucidate an effect on immune health.”

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