Omega 3 fatty acids are well known for their impact on heart disease, brain health and decreasing inflammation in the body. But did you know these fatty acids also play a role in regulating the immune system? Find out why supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may be one of the best ways to prevent colds and flus.
Omega-3 fatty acids can augment your immune response through many different and complex pathways. However, what it comes down to is the ability for these fatty acids to reduce systemic inflammation in the body, while causing a small and very necessary increase in inflammation required for the body to react to specific pathogens. This allows the body to respond to an invader such as a virus or bacteria while decreasing overall inflammation and the potential to exacerbate an illness. You see, omega-3s have a Goldilocks effect on the body’s inflammatory response – not too much, not too little.
Individuals with chronic inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or obesity have both increased risk of contracting the influenza virus and are more likely to have complications from the illness.1 A 2018 study from the Journal of Infectious Disease found that obese individuals also carried the influenza virus for 1.5 times as long as those who were not obese.2 The authors mentioned that the increased inflammation in the body of an obese individual can lead to immune dysfunction and increased oxygen demand.2 Systemic inflammation in the body also results in a weakened antiviral response as well as poor recovery.3 So, if we can decrease this general inflammation in the body by using a treatment like omega-3 fatty acids, we may be able to decrease susceptibility, improve recovery time and limit the spread and complications from colds and flus.
In a 2019 review published in the Journal of Molecular Sciences, authors found a significantly positive role for the use of omega-3 fatty acids in immune health.4 They looked at the role that these fatty acids have on several immune cells (macrophages, cytokines, neutrophil function, T cells, B cells, dendritic cells, natural killer cells, mast cells, basophils and eosinophils.) Authors also mentioned the function of omega-3s in maintaining the fluidity of cellular membranes which is important for T cell activation— an important part of the adaptive immune response.4
More recently, omega-3s have been studied for their important role as signalling molecules in the inflammatory cascade. It was previously thought that omega-3 fatty acids may decrease immune function due to the anti-inflammatory role they have in the body. A small amount of inflammation is needed for a proper immune response against a pathogen. However, more recently, research has demonstrated that omega-3s seem to have a modulating effect on inflammation.4 Meaning, they do not eliminate the inflammatory process, rather omega-3s can regulate this process and decrease extra, systemic inflammation.
Omega-3s are also used to remove the by-products of our immune reaction, like free radicals, which can be toxic if they begin to build up in the body.5
Another way that omega-3s can impact immune response is by modulating our body’s response to stress. A major predictor of a person’s response to an illness is their level of stress. Stress negatively impacts our immune response as well as recovery from illness by increasing inflammation in the body. This inflammation can disrupt our normal immune pathways.6
A study which looked at the stress levels and omega-3 and 6 ratios in medical students, found that those who had lower omega-3 or higher omega-6, had increased amounts of pro-inflammatory white blood cells during an exam period when compared to those with higher omega-3 levels.7 The authors concluded that an individual’s intake of omega-3 and 6 may influence the degree of inflammation in response to stressful events.7 A higher amount of anti-inflammatory omega-3s is protective, while the higher amount of inflammatory omega-6s decreased the body’s resilience to stress. By reducing our body’s inflammatory response to stress, we are better equipped to deal with an invading pathogen. This creates a more efficient immune response.
So, along with proper sleep, exercise, healthy diet, vitamin C, zinc, and other immune supplements; it might be good to get you and your family a high-quality omega-3 supplement. The omega-3s may not only prevent you from getting sick in the first place, but if you do happen to get sick, it could be for a shorter period of time.