Life Extension Magazine September 2012
Groundbreaking Study Reveals New Mechanism Behind Fish Oil's Health Benefits
By Logan Bronwell
By now most people know that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil have remarkable health-protecting benefits. In fact, the science behind it is so strong that Big Pharma has jumped on board with expensive fish oil prescription drugs.1
But if you've ever been tempted to pay top dollar for Big Pharma's knockoffs,2-4 a 2012 study shows once and for all that a quality fish oil supplement provides everything you need for powerful protection against some of the most dreaded diseases of aging.
This landmark study found that the components in fish oil not only stop inflammation in its tracks—they actively treat inflammation that is already present. But better than that, the researchers discovered the secret behind fish oil's super-nutrient status.5
After nearly a decade of intense research and discovery, scientists uncovered a newly characterized class of inflammation-regulating molecules that add an entirely unique dimension to the benefits of fish oil.6
In this article, we'll explore how these molecules contribute to—and expand—the already impressive array of health benefits obtainable from omega-3 fatty acids.6,7 Then we'll look at compelling studies that demonstrate how fish oil can help you avoid or reduce the chronic inflammation that contributes to all of the diseases of aging.
How to Activate Your Body's Inflammation "Stop Signs"
It is well known that a diet rich in omega-3s reduces the body's overall burden of inflammation, a fact that gained relevance as scientists discovered the growing role of chronic inflammation in causing the diseases (or symptoms) of aging.7
Although many studies have demonstrated the vast array of health benefits of omega-3s, scientists have only begun to uncover exactly how they function in the body in order to produce these results.
Researchers at the University of California-San Diego have published a groundbreaking study to show how fish oil works inside a cell to produce its anti-inflammatory effects. This discovery is so profound that it's likely to change the way we think about inflammation for years to come.
While studying acute inflammation in animals, scientists noticed the production of small molecules released in response to inflammation, especially in the presence of high levels of omega-3 fats.8,9 These molecules had a dual set of actions.6 First, they sent out a "stop signal," quickly putting a stop to runaway inflammation.2 Next, they triggered the active resolution of inflammation.6
In other words, having enough omega-3s in your system provides your body with the tools necessary to combat and resolve acute inflammation almost as soon as it is triggered.6,10,11
It is important to note that acute inflammation is beneficial to the body. Without it, wounds and infections would never heal. The pro-inflammatory mediators that produce inflammation are essentially cellular "battle troops" that attack and destroy invaders (such as microorganisms or cancer cells). After the temporary inflammation takes care of the problem, your body releases a set of molecules that shuts off the inflammation before it can get out of control. It's yet another one of your body's systems of checks and balances. These post-inflammatory molecules eradicate dead and dying tissue, mop up excessive inflammatory waste products, and promote healing.2,6,10
These specialized molecules are called pro-resolution molecules. The first of these pro-resolution molecules to be studied were called lipoxins. Later, other members of the family, called resolvins and protectins (think "resolve and protect") were discovered. Each of these molecules provides different but overlapping functions in actively resolving acute inflammation.7
The whole system works beautifully under normal conditions of acute inflammation. But with chronic inflammation, something goes wrong. Instead of controlled resolution, inflammation continues to jog along at a reduced, but still active level.6 This chronic, out-of-control inflammation occurs as a result of reduced levels of pro-resolution molecules.
Studies have shown that people with diseases that involve chronic inflammation have reduced levels of pro-resolution molecules.12-14 Other studies have revealed that these molecules are sharply reduced with age. In fact, it is this deficiency that is now recognized as one of the chief reasons that we increasingly suffer from chronic inflammation as we grow older.15
Fortunately, by restoring levels of pro-resolution molecules to normal levels, many inflammatory processes can be rapidly resolved and healing can begin.10
The best way to restore those levels is by taking fish oil to boost your body's omega-3 content, since pro-resolution molecules are produced in response to a high omega-3 concentration.6 The resolvins and protectins are directly formed from the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Interestingly, beneficial lipoxins are formed from arachidonic acid, but require high omega-3 concentrations for their production.6,16
Big Pharma wants to modify these molecules, patent them, and sell them for huge markups. But by simply supplementing with their precursors, the EPA and DHA in fish oil, you'll be giving your body what it needs to create these molecules directly in the cells where they're needed the most.5,6 And as you'll see, by doing so, you can directly impact some of the most common diseases of aging by battling age-induced inflammation.
The skyrocketing obesity epidemic is evident everywhere you look. Chronic, low-grade inflammation is now recognized to be one of the devastating consequences of excessive body fat.17 Fat tissues are not inactive storage depots; rather, they are biologically active factories pumping out a steady stream of inflammatory mediators.18
Those mediators ultimately trigger many of the signs of metabolic syndrome, including insulin resistance, elevated lipids, hypertension, and fatty liver infiltration.17
In addition to that, it is becoming clear that high-fat diets and obesity result in decreased levels of at least one of the pro-resolution molecules: protectins.14 This "resolution deficiency" contributes to the persistence of the fat-induced inflammatory state.
Fortunately, supplementation with fish oil rich in omega-3s can reverse these processes, boosting levels of all the pro-resolution molecules.17,19
Studies show that these novel substances are at the root of omega-3s' ability to improve insulin sensitivity.20 They switch on genes for cellular energy sensors, glucose transport molecules, and the protective cytokine adiponectin, all of which contribute to lower blood sugar and decreased liver fat stores.21,22
In one remarkable study, high levels of omega-3s completely protected mice against experimentally induced diabetes, retaining normal insulin production and producing no inflammatory cytokines in their fat tissues.23 Not surprisingly, elevated levels of lipoxins and resolvins were found in their bodies.
Human studies abound on the benefits of fish oil in preventing or minimizing the effects of metabolic syndrome. Here are a few highlights from recent literature: