Can Fish Oil Treat Asthma? Signs Point to Yes

If you have asthma, you may want to start popping fish oil supplements. Here's why.

Can-Fish-Oil-Treat-Asthma-iStock/keeweeboy, iStock/moranaFThere’s nothing fishy about new research suggesting that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish may help millions of people with asthma breathe easier.

A recent study, which appeared in the February 2017 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation–Insight, adds to a growing body of evidence showing that omega-3s have a role to play in alleviating the symptoms of many diseases, including asthma.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease in which airways become inflamed, causing symptoms that may include shortness of breath, chest tightness, chronic coughing, and trouble sleeping due to coughing or wheezing. In allergic asthma, the immune system produces too much immunoglobulin E (IgE) in response to a trigger, causing inflammation of the airways that makes it harder to breathe and can result in an asthma attack, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

In the new study, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York, collected blood from 17 people with asthma and isolated their B immune cells in the lab. They compared the results to that of 17 people who did not have asthma. Most participants were taking steroids by mouth or inhaler depending on the severity of their asthma. Everyone in the study responded to the omega-3 fatty acids to some degree as evidenced by a reduction in IgE antibodies. There was a catch, however. People who were taking oral steroids, however, were less sensitive to the omega-3 treatment, the study showed. When corticosteroids are used steadily, they can impair some of the body’s natural ability to fight asthma-related inflammation, the researchers note.

In mild to moderate asthma, omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the production of IgE and improve asthma symptoms, the study authors conclude.

These findings dovetail with a New England Journal of Medicine study in late December 2016 showing that children born to women who took fish oil during the last three months pregnancy were about 30 percent less likely to develop asthma and asthma symptoms. “There has been a lot of interest in omega-3 fatty acids and breathing diseases,” says Pamela L. Zeitlin MD, PhD, the Silverstein Chair of the Department of Pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver. “The mechanism isn’t completely worked out yet but when fatty acids get absorbed, they exert anti-inflammatory effects in the blood and the lungs.”

The American Heart Association recommends eating a variety of fish at least twice a week, especially fish containing omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, trout, and herring, or these other fish options. A serving size is 3.5 ounce cooked or about ¾ cup of flaked fish. If you’re not a fish fan, you can still get omega-3 fatty acids from flaxseed oil and walnuts or these other foods.

Even if you eat foods rich in omega-3s, supplements can be considered a home remedy for asthma, Dr. Zeitlin says. But more isn’t better, she warns. “Research has shown that the benefits are greatest in people who are deficient and consume more omega-3s.” The best way to make sure your asthma symptoms are under control is to see your doctor regularly and take your medications as directed. Eating salmon every week couldn’t hurt. Find out how to spot the symptoms of asthma in adulthood.

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Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.