Scientists discover new ways in which fish fats fight inflammation; findings suggest that omega-3s might increase the efficacy (and reduce the risks) of aspirin and similar drugs
by Craig Weatherby
Omega-3s from fish play essential roles in immunity, including control of inflammation, as we explained in “Fighting Internal Fires with Fish Fats” and “Omega-3s’ Genetic Effects Bolster Health Benefits.”
To be sure, omega-3s do not possess the power or speedy action offered by non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen.
But chronic use of aspirin or other NSAIDs can have serious adverse side effects… especially gastric bleeding.
Chronic NSAID use is estimated to kill from 3,000 to 8,000 older Americans annually, and cause about 41,000 hospitalizations (Tamblyn R et al. 1997; Griffin MR 1998).
Indeed, gastrointestinal causes of hospitalization and death have increased in tandem with increased NSAID use, and anti-ulcer agents are prescribed twice as often in NSAID users.
Canadian researchers estimate that the cost of treating the adverse gastrointestinal side effects of NSAIDs may drain up to one-third of that nation’s public health care budget for arthritis.
It was hoped that the new class of NSAIDs called COX-2 inhibitors (e.g., Celebrex and Vioxx) would cause less gastric bleeding, but they’ve not proved to be much better in that regard, while causing heart problems.
So attention must be paid to safer ways to reduce chronic inflammation, and omega-3s have long been a subject of that search… with mixed but generally positive results.
Omega-3s aren’t potent enough to serve as effective analgesics for pain caused by inflammation.
Instead, the promise of increased omega-3 intake lies in these fats’ ability to moderate the chronic inflammation associated with cardiovascular disease, dementia, arthritis, and other conditions, which promotes and worsens these conditions over time.
Now, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have stumbled upon yet another way in which omega-3s moderate inflammation.
And this newly discovered property of omega-3s also seems to enable and enhance the anti-inflammatory effects of older and newer NSAIDs alike.
This could mean that omega-3s might reduce the doses of NSAIDs needed to control inflammation and related pain, thereby reducing their potential for adverse side effects.
Study finds more anti-inflammatory actions of omega-3s
Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine went on a molecular fishing trip and netted findings that add another way in which omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and hint at safer treatments for diseases linked to inflammation (Groeger AL et al. 2010).
According to senior author Bruce A. Freeman, Ph.D., their investigation was prompted by existing evidence indicating that omega-3 fatty acids from fish or supplements reduce inflammation and the risk of illness and death from cardiovascular and other inflammatory diseases.
As he said, “There is a lot of evidence that supports minimizing inflammation as a fundamental therapy for many diseases. What has been a provocative question for people familiar with these impressive clinical actions is how omega-3 fatty acids actually induce such beneficial pharmacological [anti-inflammatory] effects. This study has given us fresh and revealing perspective into that process” (UPSHS 2010).
In their study, the researchers examined metabolic byproducts of omega-3 fatty acids that are produced by activated macrophages… a type of immune cell that’s always present in inflamed tissue.
This “fishing expedition” led to their discovery that macrophage-type immune cells produce several derivatives of omega-3 fatty acids.
In turn, human cells converted these omega-3 derivatives into compounds called “electrophilic fatty acid oxidation products” (EFOX).
And they found that these omega-3 derivatives stimulate changes in cellular protein functions and the genetic expression patterns of cells… changes that produce a broad range of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Intriguingly, the Pittsburgh team found that an enzyme called COX-2 – which is a key target of NSAIDs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen – mediates the transformation of omega-3 fatty acids into EFOX.
Notably, cellular EFOX levels rose significantly in the presence of aspirin, suggesting another mechanism for that drug’s anti-inflammatory properties and associated analgesic effects.
As Dr. Freeman said, “Our new insights help explain in part the multitude of beneficial actions observed for both omega-3 fatty acids and aspirin, and the discovery of this new class of omega-3 fatty acid-derived anti-inflammatory mediators could point drug development activities in new and fruitful directions” (UPSHS 2010).
His comments reveal a common medical preoccupation with development of synthetic drugs and seem to overlook the potential for adding omega-3s to NSAID therapy as a way to increase the effectiveness of both… while reducing the use of NSAIDs and the risks associated with those potent drugs.
- Griffin MR. Epidemiology of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug-associated gastrointestinal injury. Am J Med. 1998 Mar 30;104(3A):23S-29S; discussion 41S-42S. Review.
- Groeger AL et al. Cyclooxygenase-2 generates anti-inflammatory mediators from omega-3 fatty acids. Nature Chemical Biology. Published online: 02 May 2010 | doi:10.1038/nchembio.367
- Tamblyn R, Berkson L, Dauphinee WD, Gayton D, Grad R, Huang A, Isaac L, McLeod P, Snell L. Unnecessary prescribing of NSAIDs and the management of NSAID-related gastropathy in medical practice. Ann Intern Med. 1997 Sep 15;127(6):429-38.
- University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences (UPSHS). Pitt pharmacologists go on a molecular fishing trip and hook prize catch. May 2, 2010. Accessed online at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-05/uops-ppg042910.php