Omega-3s and Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the nervous system where the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys myelin. Myelin is a protective sheath that acts in the same way that plastic covers protect electrical cords…except myelin covers your nerve fibers. As the myelin is destroyed, it causes miscommunications between the brain and the rest of the body. Nerve signals are slowed or blocked, which leads to reduced function in the legs, hands, eyes, feet, and other parts of the body. It can also impact cognitive function, temperature regulation and create other “invisible” neurological deficits.
Because MS is a progressive disease, it eventually leads to permanent damage and deterioration of the nerves.
The exact cause is still unknown. But according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS appears to strike when a number of factors combine:
- Genetic predisposition
- Environmental factors such as pollution or exposure to toxicity
- Pro-inflammatory dietary choices
- Current or history of viral infection
Inflammation Is a Key Factor
We do know that inflammation is a huge contributor to MS. And a big cause of inflammation in this country is poor diet.
The standard American diet is very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory. Omega-6s are found in everything from cooking oils (vegetable, canola, corn, etc.) and white flour products (breads, crackers, pastries, etc.) to processed meats, snacks, and fast food.
In moderation, omega-6s are important and serve a purpose. But they need to be balanced out with sufficient omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory. That balance is hard to achieve with the way most Americans eat. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the typical American diet is 10 to 1 or higher. Ideally, it should be 2 to 1.
Simply put, we need to lay off the processed junk food or pay the price: Increased systemic inflammation and risk of inflammatory diseases—including MS.
How Omega-3s Can Help
Since inflammation is a factor in MS, it makes sense that anti-inflammatory omega-3s could help. A recent study explains the possible mechanisms by which omega-3s could reduce the severity of MS symptoms.
In this study, researchers worked with immune cells called macrophages. When given the “go-ahead” by your body, macrophages engulf, break down, and eliminate damaged organelles, senescent cells (“zombie cells” that have stopped replicating or contributing any beneficial function), useless proteins, and other foreign matter. This entire process is called autophagy.
Think of it as internal housekeeping. Our bodies have the amazing ability to remove useless and potentially harmful substances, which can reduce the inflammation that contributes to disease. For this reason, autophagy can be a blessing.
But there’s a downside. Macrophages—and autophagy itself—are inflammatory in nature.
So, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. We want our body to remove unwanted, possibly disease-causing junk. But the process and the cells that perform the job may contribute to inflammation.
With all this in mind, the researchers hypothesized that omega-3s might decrease the inflammatory nature of macrophages without affecting how they do their job.
The tests were conducted on mice as well as isolated macrophages. And results indicated that omega-3s—the DHA form, specifically—had some effects that could be favorable for patients with MS.
For one, DHA “rewired” the way macrophages responded in the body. It activated autophagy while dampening the role of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules, including one called CXCL10—a substance that is often elevated in people who have MS. As such, the researchers believe omega-3s could reduce the severity of MS in these particular patients. It’s also possible that omega-3s could prevent or delay inflammatory outbreaks.
Even better, omega-3s acted quickly in the body, triggering these positive effects within hours and lasting for up to three days.
MS isn’t the first disease for which omega-3s have shown great promise. Mounds of research exist on this nutrient’s potential in preventing heart disease. It has also been shown to protect against brain diseases (Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder), diabetes (and its precursor, metabolic syndrome), and other autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
The primary food sources of omega-3s are fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring.
If you can add two or more servings of these fish to your diet every week, great. But in reality, most people don’t eat that much fish. Not only that, our waters are so polluted that it’s hard to know the purity of the fish you eat. For this reason, omega-3 supplementation is the safest bet.
There are several different types of omega-3 supplements on the market, sourced from fish, squid, or krill. All are fine choices; the important thing is to make sure the product has been rigorously tested for the presence of heavy metals and other contaminants.
Another thing to keep in mind is the ratio of DHA to EPA in your omega-3 supplement. The ideal ratio is two parts DHA to one part EPA. (DHA is the type of omega-3 fatty acid found to be most beneficial for MS in the above study.) Since EPA is less expensive than DHA, many supplements include more EPA than DHA.
A good starting dose is 1,000–3,000 mg total omega-3s daily, with a ratio of two parts DHA to one part EPA.
With so many benefits and very few side effects, adding an omega-3 supplement to your daily regimen could prove to be a smart idea. If you have MS, discuss with your doctor first. But unless you’re on blood thinners or some other contraindicated medication, you shouldn’t have a problem getting their blessing.