Do You Need Fatty Acids to Battle Inflammation?

By Jennifer Carofano. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

At last, scientists are urging us to increase our intake of fat — in specific, more fatty acids. Since the human body does not naturally manufacture essential fatty acids, you musteat them in foodor take supplements. In fact, clinical benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish, some plants and nut oils, have been linked to healthier brains and hearts, cancer prevention and longevity.

The typical American diet tends to contain more of other fatty acids (e.g., Omega-6 and linoleic acids), but it’s especially important to have the proper ratio of fatty acids in your diet for optimal benefits. For example, Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce cell inflammation, while many Omega-6 fatty acids may promote inflammation.

Not getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids? “Symptoms of fatty acid deficiencies in adults include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings and poor circulation,” says biochemist Donald Jump, Ph.D, professor at the School of Biological and Population Health Sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore.

“Omega 3 fatty acids have been extensively evaluated for their capacity to reduce the effects of inflammation,” explains Jump. “In our studies, we wanted to determine the overall impact of the Western diet and Omega-3 fatty acids on fatty liver disease.”

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD, is the buildup of extra fat in the liver (i.e., more than 5 to 10 percent of the organ’s total weight) that isn’t caused by alcohol consumption. NAFLD is now the most common cause of chronic liver disease in children and adolescents, which parallels the obesity epidemic. According to the American Liver Association, up to 25 percent of the U.S. population has NAFLD.

Unfortunately, this disease can progress to something called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which is associated with chronic inflammation and dramatically increases the risks of cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer. NAFLD and NASH are now the top causes of liver disease in Western countries.

Dr. Jump’s research partially aims to prove how the fats you eat interact with your body, particularly the liver, and then impact how genes work to promote or defend against chronic disease. Genes that are turned on and off and their impact on inflammation are a large part of this research.

Risk factors for NAFLD include diabetes, high cholesterol, sedentary behavior and being overweight or obese. More research is needed, but Omega-3 fatty acids and may prove useful for NAFLD, in addition to losing body weight.

Fish Oils And Fatty Acids

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are two main Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils and healthy fish oil supplements. One breakthrough study, done in conjunction with researchers from Oregon State University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., looked at the effect of DHA on mice by using metabolic testing methods.  

After feeding the mice a high-fat, high-sugar “Western” diet, the study revealed that the addition of Omega-3 fatty acids significantly improved cellular inflammation in the rodents. “In particular, DHA was effective in reducing the effects of liver inflammation associated with fatty liver disease,” Jump says. “DHA may reduce the protein damage induced by high levels of sugars and cholesterol, a common problem in diabetes.”

Next Steps

  • The American Heart Association urges all healthy adults to eat two to three servings of fatty fish every week (e.g., salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, etc.) to glean adequate amounts of Omega-3s and other essential acids. This will improve brain function; reduce incidence of heart attack and stroke; and improve your vision too.
  • Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in local lakes, rivers and other coastal areas before consumption.
  • Talk to your doctor before adding extra fatty acids to your diet. Jump advises to look for Omega-3 supplements that contain the highest levels of DHA.

For Caregivers  

  • Along with obesity and metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease seems to be a problem that’s emblematic of our times.
  • Given the emerging research on Omega-3 fatty acids and an increasing number of areas such as heart disease and brain health, it’s possible fish oil could benefit caregivers and care recipients alike.
  • Talk to your doctor about the benefits of fish oil for yourself and your loved ones. 

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