Omega-3 fatty acids might reduce inflammatory processes by boosting a mechanism that cleans out dysfunctional or unnecessary proteins in a certain type of immune cells, according to a study published in the journal Autophagy.
These insights indicate that omega-3 supplements might be beneficial for certain multiple sclerosis (MS) patients, as earlier research indicates that a subgroup of patients might have increased activity in a particular inflammatory pathway, referred to as the type 1 interferon response.
The study, “N-3 PUFAs induce inflammatory tolerance by formation of KEAP1-containing SQSTM1/p62-bodies and activation of NFE2L2,” was conducted by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Omega-3 refers to a group of fats that are found in high levels in certain foods, including fatty fish. Despite numerous studies indicating that omega-3 intake — either through diet or supplements — has anti-inflammatory properties, researchers are still in the dark about how these fatty acids protect from harmful types of inflammation.
The research team focused on autophagy — a process by which cells degrade unwanted proteins, organelles and other components — specifically in immune cells called macrophages. Macrophages monitor everything that happens in the body’s tissues and play a key role in inflammatory responses.
Researchers have increasingly realized that autophagy is crucial in determining how macrophages behave, including their ability to participate in autoimmune reactions, according to a press release.
Underscoring the importance of autophagy, Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of genes that control the process.
Based on earlier insights into the process, the Norwegian research team figured that omega-3 fatty acids might control inflammation by boosting the autophagy in macrophages.
They tested the idea by studying lab-grown mouse and human macrophages. They noted that when the cells received omega-3, their autophagy processes increased, and the cells changed the way they processed signals from the environment.
Adding omega-3 also reduced the levels of a factor called CXCL-10. This molecule is increased during activated type-1 interferon signaling. CXCL-10 levels decreased with omega-3 treatment, indicating that the fatty acid dampened the interferon response.
The team also examined blood from patients who had undergone a heart transplant and found that, among patients who had better outcomes after taking omega-3 supplements, type 1 interferon signaling was reduced.
The research team said they hope their findings one day will benefit a wide variety of patients, including those with MS, but underscored that plenty of research remains to better understand the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on inflammation.