When you glance at recent studies and headlines, it seems clear that adding more omega-3s to your diet is a pretty smart move. These healthy fatty acids--found in fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel--have been linked to a lower risk of high triglycerides, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. They've also been tied to a decreased risk of cancer and arthritis pain. Now a new study, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation--Insight (JCI), suggests that omega-3-rich fish oil might ease asthma symptoms. So is it time to start taking a daily supplement along with your asthma maintenance meds?
Not so fast. While most experts say that eating fatty fish is good for your overall health--fish is a key component of the Mediterranean diet, and the American Heart Association recommends eating it at least twice a week--the evidence that fish oil is good for asthma is far from conclusive.
“It's too early to promote fish oil" for asthma relief, says JCI study co-author Richard P. Phipps Ph.D., professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester. To understand why, it helps to know a little about how this study was done. While you might assume that scientists had asthma patients eat fish for dinner or swallow fish oil supplements, that wasn't what happened.
Instead, Phipps and his colleagues took cells from 17 asthma patients, treated the cells in a lab with a compound derived from omega-3 fatty acids, and found that this compound reduced the production of certain antibodies that usually cause symptoms in people with mild asthma. While that certainly sounds promising--and it may be--a lot more research is needed before anyone can say for sure whether eating fish or taking fish oil supplements would actually help you stop coughing and wheezing.
Another catch is, this study didn't even suggest that omega-3s might curb symptoms for everyone with asthma. The results didn't hold for people with severe asthma, probably because they were taking steroid medication that blocked the effects of the omega-3s.
Phipps also warns that many fish oil products on the market are poor quality, so just picking a random one off the shelf at your local drugstore isn't a good idea. Some may contain contaminants, and there's no guarantee that the dose you're getting actually matches what it says on the label. “The goal for the future is to do a clinical trial using high-quality omega-3 fatty acids" or products derived from omega-3s, such as those that were used in the cell culture study, says Phipps.
Still thinking of trying a supplement? Be sure to ask your doctor for guidance first; fish oil can interact with certain medications, such as blood thinners.