Consuming more omega-3 fatty acids — an essential fat found in fish, flaxseed and other foods — may reverse the harms of air pollution, scientists report in a new animal study.
The study comes at a time when health groups are increasingly sounding the alarm over air pollution levels, which are rising across the globe at an “alarming rate,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Yet while the new study offers a potential health benefit in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, which the researchers found could reduce inflammation caused by toxic air pollution, it also reveals that air pollution may be more dangerous than previously believed — in mice, air pollution particles crossed over from the lungs to major organs, including the brain and testicles.
“These pathological changes are very important because they are the fundamental mechanisms for the common chronic diseases we have today,” said lead author Dr. Jing Kang, a researcher at Harvard Medical School.
“I can anticipate the same things [that happen in mice] would happen in humans, because many other inflammatory diseases in humans can be treated with [omega-3 fatty acids],” added Kang.
The Power of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
While the body can produce most of the fats it needs from other sources, that’s not the case with omega-3 fatty acids. This type of “essential fat” must be acquired by way of a person’s diet, notes Harvard Medical School.
In the current study, researchers found that consuming omega-3 fatty acids led to a reduction of up to 50 percent of any harm caused by air pollution. The omega-3 fatty acids are effective because they can prevent and treat inflammation caused by toxic air, note the researchers.
“Our findings demonstrate that elevating tissue omega-3 levels can prevent and treat fine particle-induced health problems and thereby present an immediate, practical solution for reducing the disease burden of air pollution,” report the authors in the journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta.
Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat, which scientists often refer to as the “good fat.” Omega-3 fats are commonly found in fatty fish, such as salmon, as well as vegetable oils, walnuts, flaxseed and some green, leafy vegetables.
For his part, Kang believes the evidence is already significant enough to recommend dietary changes for people worried about the harms of air pollution.
“I would definitely recommend taking [omega-3 fatty acids] to counter air pollution problems,” said Kang. “[Omega-3 fatty acids] are well known to have many other healthy benefits and the key thing is they are not like a drug, but a nutrient with so many benefits.”
Want to see what a recipe that’s high in omega-3 fats looks like? Harvard Medical School has you covered— here’s a recipe for pan-roasted salmon with snap peas.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fish twice per week to attain suggested levels of omega-3 fats, although the organization warns that too much consumption may lead to a risk of high mercury intake. However, the AHA notes that certain fish, including light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish, are typically low in mercury.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.