Omega-3 fatty acids combat health effects of air pollution


Aaron Orlowski

Published on
March 9, 2017

Fatty acids like those found in fish could mitigate some of the effects of air pollution on human health, according to research published last month.

Increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids lowered inflammation caused by air pollution in mice, and will likely do the same for people, according to the researchers. The fatty acids worked both before and after exposure to the types of fine particles found in air pollution.

People would need to consume three to four grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day to witness the anti-pollution benefits, the study’s lead author Jing Kang, the director of the Laboratory for Lipid Medicine and Technology at Harvard Medical School, told SeafoodSource.

“There may be some benefits from consuming a lower intake, but this requires further research in human populations,” he said in an email, adding that he’s planning a human trial.

That amount of omega-3 fatty acids can come from eating roughly 85 grams, or two portions, of some kinds of fish. But the math is far from perfect.

“Consuming fish is a good dietary habit, but it would be hard to quantify how much omega-3 you have actually consumed due to the many variables in species, breeding and preparation,” Kang said.

Similarly, fish oil capsules vary greatly in concentration, quality and freshness, Kang said. However, “for a short-term boost in omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil capsules would likely be more reliable.”

It has long been known that ingesting omega-3 fatty acids has health benefits. But the researchers, from Harvard Medical School and Guangdong Medical University in China, wanted to determine how the fatty acids specifically affected particle-caused inflammation.

So they exposed mice to easily-tracked small fluorescent particles similar to those found in air pollution. The researchers found that the inhaled particles traveled beyond the lungs and to the brain, liver, kidneys, spleen and testes – the first time scientists had witnessed such a result.

Outdoor urban air pollution causes about 1.3 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization. The tiniest particles in that pollution – smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, called PM2.5 – are roughly a quarter the thickness of the finest human hair.

The particles disperse widely in the air and carry toxins, causing heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, respiratory disease and lung cancer.

But the researchers found that, as foreign materials in the body, the particles themselves also cause inflammation, which increases disease risk.

“We can now say for sure that chronic exposure to fine particles – regardless of their chemical composition – has a definite impact on health,” Kang said.

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