Fish Breath: Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Respiratory Support

Sardines are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.

At this point, you are probably well aware of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Those polyunsaturated lipids with names that sound more like government agencies (ALA, EPA, and DHA) than something that your trusted medical professional would suggest you supplement into your daily diet, have been shown to have a wide spectrum of health benefits. A freshly published review confirmed what should be common knowledge by now, that there is very strong evidence that omega-3 intake is associated with several positive health outcomes in regards to cardiovascular health. Nothing astonishing, but a recent study published in the grand-daddy of them all, The New England Journal of Medicine, may have expecting mothers making a beeline to the local GNC®, with promising evidence that omega-3 supplementation may have respiratory-supporting benefits for their children.

Interestingly enough, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and respiratory support isn’t a new idea. This study found that omega-3 supplementation may reduce need for medication use, proinflammatory mediator generation, and airway hyperresponsiveness after exercise. Another study found evidence that supplementing with ALA-rich perilla seed oil may be beneficial for those suffering from asthmatic symptoms. Other studies have shown that omega-3 supplementation fostered immune system responses that theoretically could decrease asthma and allergy symptoms. But, nothing to date had suggested that omega-3 supplementation may have a quasi-epigenetic effect: that a pregnant mother’s intake of omega-3s may influence her yet-to-be-born child’s respiratory health.

In the study, 736 pregnant women at 24 weeks of gestation were randomly assigned to a control (olive oil) group or the experimental group, which received 2.4 g of fish oil per day, for the remainder of the pregnancy. The participants all had a history of asthmatic symptoms and many were on forms of corticosteroids to address the symptoms. Following childbirth, there was a three year, double-blind (neither the participants nor the researchers were aware of the group assignments) follow-up period. During the follow-up period, the researchers assessed several metrics of respiratory health, including persistent wheeze or asthma, lower respiratory tract infections, eczema, and allergic sensitization. Children birthed to the mothers in the experimental group had a decrease in asthma symptoms and persistent wheezing of 30.7%. The offspring of the experimental group also showed a statistically significant decrease in lower respiratory tract infections and a reduction in IgE antibodies, allergen-producing antibodies that are synthesized by immune system cells. Not surprisingly, subgroup analyses suggested that the positive effects were strongest in the children born to women who had the lowest blood levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), suggesting that the protective benefits are likely derived from reaching a specific (yet unknown) threshold of omega-3 fatty acid intake. Also of interest, the data showed that the children of the participants receiving corticosteroid treatment had less of a beneficial effect from the omega-3 supplementation (determined by measured level of IgE antibodies), lending to the existing theory that corticosteroid treatment may diminish one’s natural ability to combat respiratory inflammation. Although more research needs to be conducted, researchers posited that these effects are likely due to the well documented ability of omega-3s to regulate inflammation, specifically what is referred to as eosinophil activities, the actions of specific white blood cells that play a role in a variety of respiratory conditions.

So, should we all expect the American Academy of Pediatrics to make a public service announcement suggesting that all pregnant mothers complement their prenatal vitamins with a side of fish oil? Not so fast. As the study exhibits, it appears that those with already high levels of blood EPA and DHA did not experience the same level of inflammatory-mediating benefits, as their ability to properly respond to eosinophil activities had likely already reached its zenith. If you have a specific dislike for fatty fish and green vegetables, omega-3 supplementation may be an effective means to support proper respiratory system function for both you and your future progeny. Otherwise, breathe easy and throw a few more pieces of salmon on the grill.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.