A new study published in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity has found that high intake of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) can lower inflammation in healthy, but overweight, middle-aged and older adults, suggesting that regular use of high-EPA supplements can help protect against and treat certain illnesses.1
The study was designed to determine if EPA in supplements would decrease levels of inflammatory products in 138 sedentary, overweight but generally healthy individuals. Subjects were aged between 40 and 85 years and randomised to receive either 2.5 grams of fish oil (containing approximately 2g EPA), 1.25 grams fish oil (containing approximately 1g EPA) or a placebo capsule containing no EPA.
After just four months of EPA supplementation there was a statistically significant decrease in TNF-a, and a modest decrease in interleukin IL-6 at both doses. TNF-a and IL-6 are proteins, also known as cytokines, produced by the body during an inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal reaction to infection and we are designed to have some basal cytokine levels and to produce more when the body needs to prime itself ready to react to and fight off serious infections.
If the body doesn’t recognise when the ‘crisis’ is over and continues to produce these products, then this leaves the body in a state of ‘silent inflammation’. The production of TNF-a is, in fact, critical to most chronic illnesses and over-production is linked to many inflammatory diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease and neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. In addition, elevated levels of TNF-a are also linked to conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, depression and autism.
Balancing healthy levels of pro-inflammatory products to avoid progression to a disease state is therefore critical for long-term health. A key influencer in the production of inflammatory products by the body is the intake of omega-6 fatty acids that lead to the production of arachidonic acid (AA), the ‘godfather’ of inflammation. A high level of AA within cell membranes provides the platform from which many of the inflammatory cytokines are produced. Reducing the amount of AA within the body, either by reducing intake of omega-6 or by blocking its uptake into cells, can have a balancing effect on the way the immune system works.
AA is primarily found in animal products and specifically those that have been fed on grains rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the precursor to AA. Swapping to organic grass-fed produce and also reducing the consumption of commonly available culinary vegetable oils (such as sunflower oil or corn oil) that are rich in ALA in favour of virgin olive oil or coconut oil can have beneficial effects on immune function.
In addition, increasing levels of omega-3 fatty acids, known to be relatively low in western style diets, can further displace AA and is the theory behind the basis for this study. “Omega-3 fatty acids may be both protective, so that inflammation doesn’t go up, and therapeutic, by helping inflammation go down,” said Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. Interestingly, choosing an oil especially rich in EPA rather than docosahexaenoic acid (DHA – another omega-3 found in fish oil) appeared to be a key factor in the design of the study. The author describes basing this decision on the strength of evidence supporting the stronger anti-inflammatory effects of EPA over that of DHA.
What this study shows is that taking a daily dose of EPA at just 1g has the ability to reduce the risk of developing a myriad of inflammatory based conditions and diseases. Whilst reducing the intake of specific omega-6-containing foods is beneficial, it is important not to avoid all sources of omega-6. For example, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found in plant oils such as organic cold-pressed evening primrose oil, gives rise to a series of products that also oppose those derived from AA. Therefore because GLA is anti-inflammatory, when combined with EPA (as in Vegepa E-EPA 70), the two become ideal partners to maintain a healthy immune system and combat ‘silent inflammation’.2
- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Hwang BS & Glaser R. (2012) Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation in healthy middle-aged and older adults: A randomized controlled trial. Brain Behaviour and Immunity [Epub ahead of print]
- Barham JB, Edens MB, Fonteh AN, Johnson MM, Easter L, Chilton FH. (2000) Addition of eicosapentaenoic acid to gamma-linolenic acid-supplemented diets prevents serum arachidonic acid accumulation in humans. Journal of Nutrition 130:1925-31.