Omega-3 fatty acids in foods and supplements can keep your lungs healthy

ITHACA, NY —Omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in foods such as fish and are also a popular dietary supplement, show promise in maintaining lung health, according to a new study. The researchers gathered evidence from a large and multifaceted research project among healthy adults supported by the National Institutes of Health. This work provides the most compelling evidence for this association and highlights the importance of including omega-3 fatty acids in one’s diet, especially as many Americans fail to meet current nutritional guidelines.

We know a lot about the role of diet in cancer and cardiovascular disease, but the role of diet in chronic lung disease is somewhat understudied, says corresponding author Patricia A. Cassano, Ph.D., director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, in a news release. This study adds to growing evidence that omega-3 fatty acids, which are part of a healthy diet, may also be important for lung health.

In recent years, there has been growing interest in gaining a clearer understanding of whether nutritional interventions can contribute to or influence the prevention of lung disease. Previous projects have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may help, likely due to their well-established anti-inflammatory actions. However, robust studies on this association have been lacking so far.

The research team put together a two-part study investigating the link between blood omega-3 fatty acid levels and lung function over time. The first part involved researchers conducting a longitudinal observational study involving 15,063 Americans from the NHLBI Pooled Cohorts Study, which is a large collection of NIH-funded studies intended to help researchers study the determinants of personalized risk for chronic lung disease.

Image of the body with the lungs
(Image by kalhh from Pixabay)

Study participants were all generally healthy at study entry, and most showed no evidence of chronic lung disease. The cohort consisted of a racially diverse group of adults, with a mean age of 56 years, of whom 55% were female. Participants were followed up for an average of seven years and, in some cases, up to 20 years.

This longitudinal study showed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in a person’s blood had an association with a lower rate of lung function decline. The study authors saw the strongest associations for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in high levels among fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines. DHA is also available as a dietary supplement.

The second part of the project involved researchers analyzing genetic data from a large European patient study (over 500,000 participants) from the UK Biobank. Certain blood genetic markers have been studied as an indirect measure, or proxy, for dietary omega-3 fatty acid levels. This was done to evaluate their correlation with lung health. Subsequent results showed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, were associated with better lung function.

Omega-3 fish oil supplements
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One noteworthy caveat of the current study is that it only included healthy adults. The researchers are now collaborating with the COPDGene study to examine blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids in relation to the rate of lung function decline among people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, including heavy smokers, to ascertain whether the same beneficial associations are found.

We’re starting to turn a corner in nutrition research and really moving toward precision nutrition for the treatment of lung disease, adds study first author Bonnie K. Patchen, Ph.D., nutritionist and member of the Cassanos research group at Cornell. In the future, this could translate into personalized dietary recommendations for people at high risk for chronic lung disease.

For now, the study authors point out that the US Department of Agriculture Dietary guidelines for Americans recommends eating at least two servings of fish a week, a feat most Americans fail to achieve. In addition to fish and fish oil, other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include nuts and seeds, vegetable oils and fortified foods.

This large population-based study suggests that nutrients with anti-inflammatory properties may help maintain lung health, concludes James P. Kiley, Ph.D., director of NHLBI’s Division of Lung Diseases. More research is needed, as these findings raise interesting questions for future prospective studies on the link between omega-3 fatty acids and lung function.

The study is published in the American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine.

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