Today, about 24 million Americans suffer from asthma symptoms. (1) The condition brings about trouble breathing, coughing, wheezing and is brought on by certain stimuli that irritate the immune system and air passageways, bringing on an asthma attack. In fact, nearly 2 million Americans wind up in the emergency room each year because of an asthma attack. (2)
But there might be a way to change that. A Danish study recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that women who take fish oil pills during the final three months of pregnancy reduced the risk of their children developing asthma by about one third. (3) Could fish oil be the next promising asthma natural remedy?
What Does the Study Say?
The study randomly assigned more than women who were 24 weeks pregnant with 2.4 grams of either fish oil or an olive oil placebo and followed up for three years after birth. About a quarter of the mothers and one-fifth of the fathers had asthma, and were evenly split between the two test groups. The study’s main objective was to see whether fish oil would have an effect on persistent wheezing or asthma in the children.
Three years later, among the children whose mothers were given fish oil, 16.9 percent of them had asthma, compared with 23.7 percent whose mothers had received the olive oil placebo. There was no negative effects on either the mothers or the children. The biggest benefit seemed to be among women who, at the start of the study, had low blood levels of the lipids that are abundant in fish oil.
An accompanying editorial in the journal, written by Dr. Christopher E. Ramsden of the National Institutes of Health, praised the study as well designed and carefully performed. The results might even enable doctors take a “precision medicine” approach, where a fish oil treatment would be designed for women most likely to benefit from taking fish oil.
Should I Get Some Fish Oil Then?
But if you’re pregnant or considering it, this one study doesn’t mean you should start chugging fish oil just yet to stave off asthma in your children. For starters, the amount of fish oil in the study was much higher than what’s usually recommended — about 15 to 20 times the amount — and the Danes already eat more fish to begin with than Americans.
On that note, it’s unclear whether simply consuming more low-risk fish oil during pregnancy might have similar effects (pregnant women are advised to steer clear of certain types of fish, like tuna, because of mercury levels which could be harmful to the growing baby).
One of the most interesting observations from the study was how women with low levels of EPA and DHA, the two fatty acids prevalent in fish oil, were the ones to benefit most from it. These acids are made from yet another acid that’s found in plant-based foods and converts to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
While diet alone could increase those fatty acid levels for some, other people — including about 13 percent of women in the study — actually have a genetic variant that doesn’t allow their bodies to make that conversion. Adjusting their diet likely wouldn’t have an effect on their EPA and DHA levels. For these women, fish oil during pregnancy would have the most dramatic effect and thus could be considered an excellent pregnancy food.
Further studies to determine whether the results can be replicated and if they hold up at other doses and at other throughout the pregnancy will be necessary before doctors can give a blanket recommendation.
I’m Not Pregnant. Should I Care About Fish Oil?
To be honest, while I am impressed by how drastic the results in this study were, I’m not entirely surprised. Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like wild-caught fish, have long been known to help reduce inflammation and provide health benefits. They’re also necessary for proper neurological function, cell membrane maintenance, mood regulation and hormone production. It’s only those women in the study who were low on fatty acid levels — the average American actually suffers from an omega-3 deficiency, largely because we’re not eating enough grass-fed meat, fish and vegetables.
The best omega-3 foods are fish, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, natto and egg yolks. But if you find you’re still not consuming enough of these foods, taking fish oil can be a great way to supplement and ensure your body has what it needs to function the way it’s intended.
Fish oil has 13 proven medical benefits and likely many more we’re not yet aware of. From reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease to improving cardiovascular health and boost our immune systems, fish oil can have a drastic effect on your health.
If you do decide to take fish oils, I recommend you stick to 1000-milligram dosage (well below what this study used!) unless otherwise advised by a healthcare professional. Many fish oils are highly processed and oxidize easily, so they can go rancid quickly. Buy fish oil in triglyceride form that also contains antioxidants like astaxanthin as part of any high-quality fish oil supplement to keep that from happening.
Whether or not you’re expecting, fish oil should have a place in your medicine cabinet!