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Fish Oil May Damp the Fires of Crohn’s Disease
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New study shows the effects of omega-3s and antioxidants

by Craig Weatherby

Crohn's disease is one of several types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): the generic term for inflammation in the intestines. Some six million Americans have IBD, and about 500,000 suffer from Crohn’s disease (also known as ileitis or enteritis).

According to a 2004 survey of people with Crohn's disease, 60 percent between the ages of 18 and 34 have been hospitalized within the last two years, and more than half have required surgery within the past five years. Yet, more than half of people surveyed still find that their employers, families and friends underestimate the effect of the disease on their daily lives.

Crohn's disease (CD) affects men and women equally and usually occurs in the lower part of the small intestine, called the ileum, but it can affect any part of the digestive tract.

Doctors don’t know what causes Crohn's disease, but many believe the body's immune system reacts to a virus or a bacterium with ongoing inflammation in the intestine.  Most people with CD exhibit abnormalities of the immune system, but it remains unclear whether they are a cause or result.

No highly effective treatment exists for Crohn’s disease (CD), and corticosteroids, the leading therapy, can produce severe side effects.

Eskimos eat omega-3s and don’t get IBD

Past studies suggest that oil from fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA)—such as salmon—can reduce disease activity in CD patients. As the author of a 2004 review of the scientific literature put it: “…taken together, all these studies suggest the effectiveness of these new therapeutic approaches [i.e., treatment with supplemental omega-3 fatty acids], not only when the conventional treatment fails or it is not possible to treat chronically, but also, in some instances as first choice.”

The first evidence of the possible therapeutic value of omega-3 fatty acids was that Eskimos—who consume loads of omega-3s in the form of fatty fish and marine mammals—enjoy a very low incidence of inflammatory bowel disease.

New study supports efficacy of fish omega-3s

British researchers have conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial that confirms and expands on the results of a 2000 study that showed marked anti-inflammatory effects in patients who took fish oil with antioxidants.

The new trial lasted for 24 weeks, and the 62 participating CD patients received either capsules containing fish oil + antioxidants (vitamins A, C, and E and selenium) or placebo capsules containing olive oil.

The group that received fish oil plus antioxidants enjoyed two beneficial effects on the immune cells that keep inflammation going in CD:

  • Higher levels of anti-inflammatory EPA and DHA (omega-3s) in key immune system cells.
  • Lower levels of pro-inflammatory factors (omega-6 arachidonic acid, PGE2 and IFN-gamma) in key immune system cells.

This enlightening new research further explains why omega-3s—while not offering a cure—are often very beneficial for people with Crohn’s disease.


  • Belluzzi A. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFAs) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): pathogenesis and treatment. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2004 Sep-Oct;8(5):225-9.
  • Belluzzi A, Boschi S, Brignola C, Munarini A, Cariani G, Miglio F. Polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory bowel disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jan;71(1 Suppl):339S-42S. Review.
  • Belluzzi A, Brignola C, Campieri M, Pera A, Boschi S, Miglioli M. Effect of an enteric-coated fish-oil preparation on relapses in Crohn's disease. N Engl J Med. 1996 Jun 13;334(24):1557-60.
  • Belluzzi A. N-3 fatty acids for the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases. Proc Nutr Soc. 2002 Aug;61(3):391-5. Review.
  • Forbes A. Review article: Crohn's disease--the role of nutritional therapy. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2002 Jul;16 Suppl 4:48-52. Review.
  • Geerling BJ, Badart-Smook A, van Deursen C, van Houwelingen AC, Russel MG, Stockbrugger RW, Brummer RJ. Nutritional supplementation with N-3 fatty acids and antioxidants in patients with Crohn's disease in remission: effects on antioxidant status and fatty acid profile. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2000 May;6(2):77-84.
  • Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases. J Am Coll Nutr. 2002 Dec;21(6):495-505. Review.

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