Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and IBD

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Colleen McConnell is a dietetic intern at the Jill Roberts Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease

By Colleen McConnell

You may have heard about the potential benefits of omega-3 fats for conditions like heart disease, but did you know that there is considerable research on the possible benefits of omega-3 fats on the development and progression of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential anti-inflammatory fats. They’re “essential” because we can obtain them only through food or supplements since the human body cannot synthesize them. Their anti-inflammatory properties are thought to help the gut recover from IBD flares and ease symptoms.

There is no global consensus on optimal omega-3 intake for the general population, but recent literature suggests that 1.5 grams/day for healthy men and 1.1 grams/day for healthy women is ideal. About half of these should be from EPA and DHA, which are particularly beneficial types of omega-3s found exclusively in fish and algae.

Most organizations recommend two servings of fatty fish per week to meet these goals. For reference, 3 ounces of salmon contains about 1.25 grams DHA and 0.5 gram EPA.

Similar to the general population, there are no specific omega-3 recommendations for those with IBD. However, as with other inflammatory diseases, it seems plausible that people with IBD may benefit from increased intake.

A recent review examined 10 studies that looked at the role of omega-3s in prevention, treatment, and maintenance of remission in IBD. Results are not entirely conclusive but the findings are intriguing.

A 2010 study examined dietary intake of omega-3s in roughly 25,000 adults to determine if, over time, omega-3 intake affected rates of ulcerative colitis (UC).

Researchers found a significant association between higher DHA intakes and decreased risk of developing UC. DHA intakes were split into three ranges, and the people who ate the most DHA had an estimated 83% lower risk of developing UC than the group who ate the least.

A 2014 study of approximately 230,000 adults similarly examined how increased intake of omega-3 fats affects incidence of Crohn’s.

Like the study on UC, increased DHA intake was associated with a reduced risk for Crohn’s disease. The group with the highest DHA intake had the greatest reduction in risk.

While more research is needed to determine if omega-3 supplementation can help those with or at risk for IBD, it certainly doesn’t hurt to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids by consuming more fatty fish.

As a bonus, whole food sources of omega-3 fats are good sources of other important nutrients. Many fish, such as salmon and sardines, are wonderful sources of vitamin D. Plant sources of omega-3 fats, such as walnuts and chia seeds, are great sources of fiber, protein, and phytochemicals that help support a healthy gut and immune system.

All of these foods are important parts of the healthy, anti-inflammatory diet that we should all strive to eat.

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