By Kevin DiDonato MS, CSCS, CES
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to promote many positive health benefits.
In fact, they could exert potential benefits on heart, eye, and brain health. They have also been shown to possess anti-inflammatory effects as well.
However, the exact mechanism for why omega-3 fatty acids promote such great health benefits is still unknown.
Now, according to a new study published in PNAS, could provide new insight into how omega-3 fatty acids work in your body.
Let me explain…
Mechanisms of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, according to this study, possess both anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective effects in your body.
However, as they point out, the exact mechanism for how they exert their benefits is not very well understood.
They do believe that omega-3 fatty acids act on many different levels, therefore making it a very complex nutrient in your body.
The authors of this study aimed to see how omega-3 fatty acids prevent the inflammatory cascade in your body.
Inflammation is a natural process that can protect your body from injury or damage. However, when the inflammatory process continues, this could cause an increased risk for injury and damage to cells.
Plus, chronic inflammation has been shown to be the start to many different diseases from heart disease to cancer, and most diseases in between.
The researchers tested three fatty acids on mice macrophages to see what effects they displayed.
Macrophages are a type of white blood cell, that when activated, may release pro-inflammatory cytokines which may stimulate the inflammatory cascade.
They subjected the cells to concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, and to arachidonic acid (AA).
Arachidonic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid commonly found in your diet that may increase the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines from your cells.
When the macrophages were exposed to the fatty acids, they found that toll-like 4 receptors and purinergic receptor activation increased, which stimulated the release of 22-carbon chain fatty acids.
They also showed that by releasing these 22-carbon chain fatty acids, they saw an inhibition of the COX pathways.
The COX pathways have been shown by research to increase the production of pro-inflammatory molecules.
Simply stated, when stimulated, the cell released fatty acids from its membrane that interact with certain pathways in your body. These pathways may create a response where molecules that cause inflammation may be released, therefore increasing chronic inflammation in your body.
However, they showed that when the cells were exposed to omega-3 fatty acids, they inhibited the COX pathway, therefore reducing the production of inflammatory molecules.
They also showed that supplemented macrophages shifted the metabolism of AA (omega-6 fatty acid) to the lipoxygenase pathway, which increased the metabolism of leukotrienes and other pro-inflammatory molecules.
Lipoxygenase is a type of enzyme that breaks down fatty acids into leukotrienes and other mediators that may increase inflammation.
However, the researchers did note that lipoxygenase may also produce anti-inflammatory molecules (resolvins) from both DHA and EPA (omega-3 fatty acids).
The researchers also showed that DPA, which is created by the elongation of EPA to a 22-carbon chain fatty acid, could inhibit COX pathways as well.
They concluded that EPA may exert anti-inflammatory effects indirectly through the elongation of EPA to the 22-carbon chain fatty acid DPA.
Although this research is new and needs even further research to verify their findings, it could provide data on the mechanism of omega-3 fatty acids and your body.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Your Health
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to possess cardio-protective and anti-inflammatory benefits in your body.
However, the exact way that omega-3s work in your body is still very unclear.
Up until now, research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids could act on many different levels and in many different ways.
Now, according to the results of this study, omega-3 fatty acids could exert its effects by altering the way your cells handle specific nutrients and if those nutrients release pro- or anti-inflammatory molecules.
Including more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet could alter the metabolism of specific nutrients (omega-6 fatty acids), which could promote decreased chronic inflammation and may reduce your overall health risks.
Norris, P. Dennis, E. Omega-3 fatty acids cause dramatic changes in TLR4 and purinergic eicosanoid signaling. PNAS. 2012. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1200189109.