The Breath of Life: How Omega-3 Fatty Acids Promote Lung Health

Omega-3 fish oil supplements concept

A comprehensive study funded by the National Institutes of Health suggests a positive relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and lung health. Research underscores the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in dietary intake, given the limited intake by many Americans. The two-part study involved a large group of healthy adults and revealed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood may be associated with a slower decline in lung function.

Omega-3 fatty acids, prevalent in fish and fish oil, hold promise for maintaining lung health, according to a comprehensive study supported by the National Institute of Health.

Omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in fish and fish oil supplements, look promising for maintaining lung health, according to new evidence from a large, multifaceted study of healthy adults supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study provides the strongest evidence to date for this association and highlights the importance of including omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, especially given that many Americans don’t meet current guidelines. Funded largely by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the NIH, the study results were published in American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine.

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, said corresponding author Patricia A. Cassano, Ph.D., director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. 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.

Growing interest in nutritional interventions

Recently, there has been growing interest in whether nutritional interventions could play a role in the prevention of lung disease. Previous studies have suggested potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, primarily due to their well-established anti-inflammatory actions. However, until now, there has been a dearth of robust studies examining this connection.

To find out more, researchers developed a two-part study investigating the link between omega-3 fats acid blood levels and lung function over time. In part one, the researchers conducted a longitudinal observational study involving 15,063 Americans from the NHLBI Pooled Cohorts Study, a large collection of NIH-funded studies that helps researchers study the determinants of personalized risk for chronic lung disease.

Details and results of the study

The participants studied were generally healthy at the start of the study, and most had no evidence of chronic lung disease. They comprised a racially diverse group of adults, with an average age of 56, and 55% were female. The researchers followed the participants for an average of seven years and up to 20 years.

The longitudinal study indicated that higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids corresponded with a slower decline in lung function. The strongest associations were observed for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in high concentrations in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines. DHA is also available as a dietary supplement.

In the second part, the researchers analyzed genetic data from a large study of European patients (over 500,000 participants) from the UK Biobank. They studied genetic markers in the blood as an indirect measure, or proxy, for levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet to see how they related to lung health. The results showed that higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, were associated with better lung function.

Looking ahead: precision nutrition for lung disease

One caveat of the current study is that it only included healthy adults. As part of this ongoing project, the researchers are 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 determine 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, said 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 researchers point out that the US Department of Agriculture Dietary guidelines for Americans recommends that people eat at least two servings of fish a week, which most Americans can’t 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, said 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.

Reference: Studying the Associations Between Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Lung Function Decline, and Airway Obstruction by Bonnie K. Patchen, Pallavi Balte, Traci M Bartz, R. Graham Barr, Myriam Fornage, Mariaelisa Graff, David R Jacobs Jr, Ravi Kalhan, Rozenn N Lemaitre, George O’Connor, Bruce Psaty, Jungkyun Seo, Michael Y Tsai, Alexis C Wood, Hanfei Xu, Jingwen N Lemaitre , George O’Connor, Bruce Psaty, Jungkyun Seo, Michael Y Tsai, Alexis C Wood, Hanfei Xu, Jingwen, Sina AG harib, Ani Manichaikul, Kari North, Lyn M Steffen, Jose Dupuis, Elizabeth Oelsner, Dana B Hancock and Patricia A Cassano, Accepted, American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine.
DOI: 10.1164/rccm.202301-0074OC

This study was supported by NHLBI award R01HL149352 and National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases award T32DK007158. The NHLBI Pooled Cohorts study was supported by NIH/NHLBI awards R21HL121457, R21HL129924, and K23HL130627. For full details on funding information, see the journal article.

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