Allergies Prevented by Polyunsaturated Fats


With much of the country in the throes of a particularly harsh allergy season, many people may wonder why they suffer so much from allergies while others seem perfectly symptom-free.

Well, there are a lot of factors that could make a person more susceptible to seasonal allergies, including hereditary and environmental influences. And believe it or not, a major player in the development of allergies could date all the way back to your early childhood years. That’s right…recent research has found that your intake of polyunsaturated fats during childhood may have a lot to do with whether or not you fall victim to allergies later in life.

This study is the largest to investigate the link between blood levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3s and omega-6s) and asthma and allergies. Researchers looked at blood samples from 940 Swedish children. They specifically wanted to determine if omega-3 and omega-6 levels at the age of 8 had any effect on the development of asthma or allergies by age 16.

The results showed that the kids who had higher levels of long-chain omega-3 fats at the age of 8 had a lower risk of suffering from asthma and allergic rhinitis by 16. In addition, greater levels of the omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA) were associated with decreased risk of allergies by age 16. And in 8-year-olds who did end up with allergies or asthma, robust AA levels led to a better chance of allergy/asthma remission by the time they reached 16 years of age.

(As a side, the omega-6 you’re probably most familiar with is linoleic acid, which is found in many seeds and nuts, and their oils. Oils rich in linoleic acid include vegetable, corn, canola, peanut, soybean, safflower, and sunflower. Arachidonic acid, on the other hand, is found primarily in red meat, eggs, and poultry.)

These findings validate earlier study results published in 2014. In that study, researchers suggested a possible link between omega-3s, specifically, and the reduction of allergy risk—but they stressed more research needed to be done. They wrote, “Supplementing pregnant women with fish oil…has been reported in some studies to decrease sensitization to common food allergens and to lower the prevalence and severity of atopic dermatitis in the first year of life. The protective effect of maternal [omega-3] PUFAs may last until adolescence of the offspring. Fish oil supplementation in infancy may decrease the risk of developing some manifestations of allergic disease, although this benefit may not persist.”

What this means for you

If you’re one of the 40–60 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies, this information probably doesn’t provide much comfort. After all, you can’t go back in time. (However, if you do have young children or grandchildren, I suggest giving them supplemental omega-3s every day to bolster their fight against allergens in the future. Supplementation certainly can’t hurt and more than likely will benefit them in countless ways.)

But there is a bit of good news. Omega-3s, in particular, are excellent anti-inflammatories. And allergies are basically an inflammatory event—they’re the body’s response to harmless foreign invaders (pollen, grasses, dander, etc.)

When allergens such as these enter your tissues or lungs, your body reacts by launching billions of antibodies. The antibodies combine with mast cells, which activate the release of histamine, leukotrienes, and prostaglandins. These substances launch the inflammatory response and are to blame for the itchy, watery eyes, congestion, runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, and general misery you experience with allergies.

Omega-3s have been found in many studies to alleviate the inflammation associated with allergies. When taken as an adult, omega-3s won’t necessarily prevent allergies, but they can soften the bothersome effects.

In a study out of Germany, researchers measured the amount of omega-3 present in the red blood cell membranes of 568 adults with allergic rhinitis. They also checked if these people had antibodies against pollen in their blood, which indicated that they were “sensitized.” This means that their immune systems were on high alert. Their bodies already considered pollen a dangerous foreign invader, thus beginning the inflammatory process that leads to allergy symptoms.

The results showed that the more omega-3s these participants had in their cell membranes, the less sensitized they were. The researchers concluded that, “A high content of [omega-3] fatty acids in in red blood cell membranes (EPA) or in the diet (alpha-linolenic acid) is associated with a decreased risk of allergic sensitization and allergic rhinitis.”

Supplementing Omega-3s

I hope I’ve convinced you of the value of omega-3s for allergy prevention (in kids) and relief (in adults). If that didn’t do the trick, then the fact that omega-3s are instrumental in heart and brain health, blood sugar control, and all-around healthy aging should seal the deal.

As far as supplements, there are several different types of omega-3s on the market. Choose a product that is sourced from small freshwater fish, as these have the lowest risk of being contaminated by mercury and other heavy metals and contaminants. Another great source is a short lifecycle marine animal like squid. Because they’re harvested so quickly, they don’t have time to accumulate toxins in their tissues. (Be sure that the bottle indicates that the product has been tested for heavy metals.)

Also keep in mind the ratio of DHA to EPA in your omega-3 supplement. The ideal ratio is two parts DHA to one part EPA. Most supplements are not formulated this way because EPA is less expensive than DHA, so manufacturers include more EPA than DHA.

A good starting dose is 1,000–3,000 mg total omega-3 EFAs daily, with a ratio of two parts DHA to one part EPA. But be sure to look closely at your product labels, 1,000 mg of fish oil is not the same as 1,000 mg of omega-3s.