Research suggests omega-3 fatty acids in seafood can reduce airway inflammation, helping relieve the symptoms of seasonal allergies and asthma. 07/30/2020
In the United States alone, some 50 million people suffer from allergies every year, with symptoms ranging from sneezing to stomach pains to life-threatening reactions. By 2025, one research group says, half of all Europeans will have some kind of allergy (EAAC, 2016).
It wasn’t always like this. Studies of tribal communities hint that allergy problems were rare for our ancestors, according to a report by BBC Horizon. Even now, young people are far more likely to report having allergies than are senior citizens (Food Matters, 2010). Scientists have spent decades trying to understand what’s causing this rise, and how we can prevent allergies in the first place.
Like so many other health problems, diet and lifestyle seem to play a large role with allergies, especially in adolescence. But while much of the public allergy discussion focuses on how we raise our children, there’s also growing evidence that even as adults, some foods can relieve allergy symptoms. Salmon in particular could help fight allergies and asthma thanks to the inflammation-reducing abilities of omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood generally, and in salmon in abundance (Miyata and Arita, 2015).
“If you were to come into my office with seasonal allergies and say to me, ‘Dr. Bill, I would like the best and safest medicine for my allergies,’ I would surprise you by scribbling on a prescription pad, ‘Eat 6 ounces of Alaskan salmon twice a week,’” William Sears, M.D., author of The Omega-3 Effect once told TIME Magazine.
Where Allergies Come From
Allergies happen when our bodies mistake something harmless, like peanuts or pollen, for something harmful, like disease-causing viruses or bacteria. As the immune system kicks into overdrive to fight the mistaken invader, called an allergen, it can restrict the airways, irritate the skin, or disrupt the digestive system. It feels like catching a cold or virus because, essentially, the body “thinks” it did.
So why are allergies becoming more common? Scientists are still trying to answer this question.
Researchers suspect a host of factors could be to blame. If you already have allergies, rising stress levels - a common experience in modern life and, for many, especially in 2020 - can make existing symptoms worse (Patterson, 2014).
But many researchers say the root of the problem may be our changing lifestyles. Until a century ago, most Americans lived in rural areas, often farming, and spent much of their time outdoors and surrounded by animals (U.S. Census). From an early age, their bodies were exposed to bacteria, dust, and pet dander. They also had far fewer allergies (Gross, 2015). In a 2015 study published in the journal Science, researchers showed that people who grow up on dairy farms rarely get asthma or allergies because they breathe in bacteria that reduce the reactivity of their immune systems for the rest of their lives (Schuijs et al. 2015).
Diet likely plays a major role, too.
Seafood for Allergies?
Most people usually think about what foods they should avoid eating to stave off allergic reactions. But scientists have also discovered a handful of foods that can actually help reduce allergy symptoms. And treating allergies with diet is an attractive option for some people because over-the-counter allergy drugs, like antihistamines, can cause drowsiness.
One of the most commonly used of these is bee pollen. It’s still scientifically unproven, but some users believe it can help treat their allergies via regular, low-dose exposures to the pollen that causes their seasonal allergy symptoms. The idea is that, over time, the body will regard the allergens as less of a threat.
Other foods, from ginger to turmeric, get allergy-fighting attention because they’re known for reducing inflammation. And there’s a growing body of evidence for the power of one the best-studied inflammation-fighting foods: wild-caught Alaskan salmon.
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The body can’t make these healthy, essential fats on its own. We have to get omega-3s from our diets, primarily seafood. In addition to other health benefits of omega-3s, these nutrients can reduce inflammatory reactions.
Two particular kinds of omega-3s, called EPA and DHA, seem to help us breathe easier.
Inside our bodies, omega-3s get turned into special molecules that help fight inflammation. These “SPMs” (specialized pro-resolving mediators) are thought to play a role in tamping down allergic reactions and asthma. There’s even evidence asthma might come from an imbalance between pro- and anti-inflammatory inflammation mediators, which are made via omega-3s (Miyata and Arita 2015). But can eating more omega-3s actually help reduce symptoms?
One study led by a team of German scientists found that the more EPA fatty acid found in people’s blood, the less chance they had of suffering from allergies (Hoff et al., 2005). And another study tracked young people’s diets and health across 20 years and found that those who ate more fish in early life were less likely to get asthma (Li et al. 2013).
More recent research came to a similar conclusion, finding that Omega-3s helped prevent the airways of people with asthma and some seasonal allergies from constricting (Adams et al. 2018). One group of researchers in Greenland even looked at the diets of asthma sufferers, eventually finding that people who ate fewer omega-3s were more likely to die of asthma (Miyata and Arita, 2015).
Some scientists have gone so far as to suggest a connection between modern society eating less seafood and the rise in allergies and asthma (Miyata and Arita, 2015).
However, not every study has found consistent results when it comes to adults eating omega-3s and allergies, which is why researchers are so interested in the subject. Part of the problem is that scientists are still trying to fully understand exactly how omega-3s regulate inflammation in the body, which makes it difficult to pin down exactly what role they play in avoiding allergies. So until the question is fully resolved, prescribing a salmon fillet to allergy patients will likely remain rare.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other reasons to enjoy eating seafood early and often. If it does indeed help keep allergies at bay, so much the better.
The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI). Advocacy Manifesto: Tackling the Allergy Crisis in Europe - Concerted Policy Action Needed. https://www.eaaci.org/documents/EAACI_Advocacy_Manifesto.pdf
Foods Matter. (2010). Mintel’s Allergy and Allergy Remedies UK. https://www.foodsmatter.com/allergy_intolerance/miscellaneous/articles/mintel_allergy_report_2010.html
U.S. Census. Urban and Rural Population: 1900 to 1990. https://www.census.gov/population/censusdata/urpop0090.txt
Amber M. Patterson, Vedat O. Yildiz, Maryanna D. Klatt, William B. Malarkey. Perceived stress predicts allergy flares. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 2014; 112 (4): 317 DOI: 10.1016/j.anai.2013.07.013
Gross, Michael. (2015). Why did evolution give us allergies? Current Biology. 25. 10.1016/j.cub.2015.01.002.
Schuijs MJ, Willart MA, Vergote K, et al. Farm dust and endotoxin protect against allergy through A20 induction in lung epithelial cells. Science. 2015;349(6252):1106-10.
Jun Miyata, Makoto Arita, Role of omega-3 fatty acids and their metabolites in asthma and allergic diseases, Allergology International, Volume 64, Issue 1, 2015, Pages 27-34, ISSN 1323-8930, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.alit.2014.08.003.
Li J, Xun P, Zamora D, et al. Intakes of long-chain omega-3 (n-3) PUFAs and fish in relation to incidence of asthma among American young adults: the CARDIA study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;97(1):173-8.
S Hoff, H Seiler, J Heinrich, I Kompauer, A Nieters, N Becker, G Nagel, K Gedrich, G Karg, G Wolfram & J Linseisen. Allergic sensitisation and allergic rhinitis are associated with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet and in red blood cell membranes. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition volume 59, pages 1071–1080 (2005)
Adams S, Lopata AL, Smuts CM, Baatjies R, Jeebhay MF. Relationship between Serum Omega-3 Fatty Acid and Asthma Endpoints. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;16(1)