Study: Omega-3s may help protect GI tract

Study: Omega-3s may help protect GI tract

The nutritional advantages of omega-3 fatty acids continue to develop in a variety of ways, with the latest research indicating that EPA and DHA may protect the body from gastrointestinal problems, according to researchers who presented their findings at a conference held in Stockholm, Sweden.

At the 11th Congress of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids, researchers from the University of Columbia revealed some of their determinations about how the foods that people eat ultimately impact the amount of protection they have from the risk of various conditions, specifically those related to the intestine, such as colitis, which is inflammation of the colon.

After feeding lab mice with nutrients rich in omega-3s, some of which had been infected with the type of GI bacteria that leads to colitis, researchers discovered that mice with the highest levels of EPA and DHA saw an increase of anti-inflammatory microbes, helping to limit the amount of immune cell damage. Meanwhile, those mice with high levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids had more intestinal damage than the omega-3 group.

Deanna Gibson, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, pointed out that inflammation isn't all bad.

"While too much inflammation isn't good in the context of autoimmune disease, we also need inflammation to survive against infections," said Gibson. "These observations suggest that excess omega-6 PUFA intakes may be harmful to gut health. Conversely, while omega-3 PUFA supplementation promotes beneficial microbes in the gut, thereby decreasing inflammation, this advantage under normal conditions may be problematic in the presence of harmful bacteria."

Vegetable oils to avoid
Jing Kang, M.D., professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, said that a smart way of reducing omega-6 intake is by decreasing how much food you eat from sources that are high in this nutrient – such as safflower oil, certain salad dressings and margarine – along with using a high quality fish oil supplement.

"For management of certain health conditions, a high quality, concentrated omega-3 supplement is also practical," said Kang.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ulcerative colitis is a disorder that affects only the top layers of the colon rather than the entire organ. Symptoms include loose stool, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, loss of appetite and fatigue. Though most ulcerative colitis conditions are mild, serious cases may require more extensive treatment.