For the first time, scientists have uncovered the processes that drive the well-known health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in fish, nuts and other healthy foods.
The new research, by University of California-San Diego researchers, may even pave the way for new techniques that may allow scientists to manipulate these processes to reduce disease-causing inflammation – combatted by omega-3s -- before it begins or becomes harmful.
The researchers, writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, noted the therapeutic benefits of omega-3 fatty acids have been known since the 1950s, when cod liver oil was first used to treat ailments like eczema and arthritis. In the 1980s, scientists discovered the cardiovascular benefits of fish oil and fish-rich diets and the variety of health benefits linked to omega-3s has only increased since then.
For the new study, the scientists exposed mouse macrophages – a kind of white blood cell – to three different kinds of fatty acids. They then manipulated them to produce an inflammatory response and discovered that omega-3 fatty acids blocked production of an enzyme that sparks inflammation in a way that is similar to aspirin's effects.
"We've been able to look inside a cell, see what fish oils do and determine that the process of inflammation at this level may be manipulatable," said lead researcher Edward A. Dennis. "Now, we need to learn if we can fine-tune that process."