Why omega-3 oils help at the cellular level: Findings suggest possibility of boosting their health benefit

May 15, 2012

For the first time, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have peered inside a living mouse cell and mapped the processes that power the celebrated health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. More profoundly, they say their findings suggest it may be possible to manipulate these processes to short-circuit inflammation before it begins, or at least help to resolve inflammation before it becomes detrimental.

The work is published in the May 14, 2012 online Early Edition of the .

The therapeutic benefits of omega-3 , which are abundant in certain fish oils, have long been known, dating back to at least the 1950s, when was found to be effective in treating ailments like eczema and arthritis. In the 1980s, scientists reported that eating a fish-rich diet enjoyed better coronary health than counterparts consuming mainland foods.

"There have been tons of epidemiological studies linking health benefits to omega-3 oils, but not a lot of deep science," said Edward A. Dennis, PhD, distinguished professor of pharmacology, chemistry and biochemistry. "This is the first comprehensive study of what fish oils actually do inside a cell."

The scientists fed mouse macrophages – a kind of white blood cell – three different kinds of fatty acid: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA). EPA and DHA are major polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, essential to a broad range of cellular and bodily functions, and the primary ingredient in commercial dietary supplements. AA is a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid prevalent in the human diet.

In high levels, fatty acids are toxic, so cells typically sequester them as phospholipids in their membranes. When stimulated, however, the fatty acids may be released, provoking a cascading inflammatory response. Acute or limited inflammation is, of course, a vital immunological response to physical damage or invasive pathogens. But chronic inflammation is harmful and a common element of almost every disease, from diabetes to cancer.

After supplementing the mouse macrophages with fatty acids, the scientists stimulated them to produce an inflammatory response. They discovered that omega-3 fatty acids inhibit an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX), which produces the prostaglandin hormones that spark inflammation. The action is similar to what happens when one takes an aspirin, which disrupts the COX-2 signaling pathway, thus reducing inflammation and pain.

On the other hand, Dennis and co-author Paul C. Norris, a graduate student in the chemistry and biochemistry department and the molecular pharmacology training program, discovered that omega-3 oils do not inhibit another group of enzymes called lipoxygenases (LOX), which are also produced by stimulated . One type of generated LOX enzyme in turn produces fat-signaling molecules called leukotrienes, which are pro-inflammatory. But Norris noted that LOX enzymes may also generate anti-inflammatory compounds called resolvins from EPA and DHA.

These observations, he said, are also helpful in identifying potential adverse effects from taking fish oil. Since possess overlapping functions with COX inhibitor drugs, with well-known side effects, using both in combination can produce unexpected consequences.

It is this parsing of what's happening inside cells that Dennis called "ground-breaking."

"We've been able to look inside a cell, see what fish oils do and determine that the process of inflammation at this level may be manipulatable," he said. "Now, we need to learn if we can fine-tune that process so we can use omega-3 oils to reduce the production of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins and boost the production of anti-inflammatory resolvins."

Explore further: Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids may cause memory problems

Related Stories

Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids may cause memory problems

February 27, 2012
A diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients commonly found in fish, may cause your brain to age faster and lose some of its memory and thinking abilities, according to a study published in the February 28, 2012, print ...

High percentage of omega-3s in the blood may boost risk of aggressive prostate cancer

April 25, 2011
The largest study ever to examine the association of dietary fats and prostate cancer risk has found what's good for the heart may not be good for the prostate.

Recommended for you

Image ordering often based on factors other than patient need: study

September 25, 2017
Do you really need that MRI?

Bone marrow concentrate improves joint transplants

September 25, 2017
Biologic joint restoration using donor tissue instead of traditional metal and plastic may be an option for active patients with joint defects. Although recovery from a biologic joint repair is typically longer than traditional ...

Researchers describe mechanism that underlies age-associated bone loss

September 22, 2017
A major health problem in older people is age-associated osteoporosis—the thinning of bone and the loss of bone density that increases the risk of fractures. Often this is accompanied by an increase in fat cells in the ...

Researchers develop treatment to reduce rate of cleft palate relapse complication

September 22, 2017
Young people with cleft palate may one day face fewer painful surgeries and spend less time undergoing uncomfortable orthodontic treatments thanks to a new therapy developed by researchers from the UCLA School of Dentistry. ...

Exosomes are the missing link to insulin resistance in diabetes

September 21, 2017
Chronic tissue inflammation resulting from obesity is an underlying cause of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. But the mechanism by which this occurs has remained cloaked, until now.

Thousands of new microbial communities identified in human body

September 20, 2017
A new study of the human microbiome—the trillions of microbial organisms that live on and within our bodies—has analyzed thousands of new measurements of microbial communities from the gut, skin, mouth, and vaginal microbiome, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.