Healthy fats found in fish and vegetable oils may help ease the inflammation that marks chronic lung disease, preliminary research suggests.
In a small study of adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Japanese researchers found that supplements of omega-3 fatty acids appeared to improve patients’ breathing difficulties - possibly by countering the airway inflammation seen in the disease.
Dr. Wataru Matsuyama and colleagues at Kagoshima University Hospital report the findings in the medical journal Chest.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, are found largely in oily fish, and to a lesser extent in flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil. Research has suggested that these fats - particularly fish oils - may help lower the risk of heart disease and other ills, possibly due to their anti-inflammatory effects.
COPD is a group of serious lung diseases that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Since airway inflammation is a major feature of these illnesses, Matsuyama’s team theorized that omega-3 supplements might improve patients’ symptoms.
To investigate, they randomly assigned half of the 64 patients to drink a liquid supplement rich in omega-3 fats each day; the other half drank a supplement containing omega-6 fats, another type of polyunsaturated fat found in many foods, including vegetable oils and meat.
After two years, patients in the omega-3 supplement group showed an overall improvement on tests that measured their breathing during a short bout of exercise. At the same time, levels of certain inflammatory proteins in their blood and mucus generally declined - suggesting that the improvements in lung capacity arose from the anti-inflammatory effects of the fatty acids.
Though larger, longer studies are needed to confirm the results, the researchers note that the findings are in line with American Heart Association recommendations to eat a diet rich in omega-3 fats for heart health.
“Taken together, we recommend nutritional support with omega-3 PUFAs for the nutritional treatment of COPD,” they conclude.
However, it’s important that people with COPD have a generally healthy diet as well, according to Matsuyama. Significant weight loss is a common complication of COPD and patients need not only omega-3 fatty acids, but an adequate diet overall to prevent this, Matsuyama told Reuters Health. That’s why study patients were given a high-calorie liquid supplement rather than a pill.
The researchers plan to do another study of a larger group of patients to see how omega-3 fats affect their long-term prognosis.
SOURCE: Chest, December 2005.
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Amalia K. Gagarina, M.S., R.D.