DHA Fish Oil Shows Immune Health Benefits in Adults in New Study. Is This a New Market Opportunity?


Nutritional Outlook spoke with AlaskOmega representatives about a new pilot study showing that high-DHA fish-oil concentrate may support a healthy immune response in adults.

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Matt_Brown

Omega-3 fatty acids have been researched through the years to investigate their benefits for infant development, including the infant immune system. A new pilot study, however, took a look at how a high-DHA fish-oil concentrate can also support the immune system of adults. Nutritional Outlook recently spoke to representatives from Organic Technologies (Coshocton, OH), the study’s sponsor and supplier of the AlaskOmega brand of omega-3 concentrates and fish oils, about whether this means fish oil may potentially play a bigger role in the immune-health market.

In the new adult study, published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry1, researchers sought to examine how the high-DHA fish oil concentrate influenced the B-cell responses of obese human subjects. B cells produce antibodies that help regulate the immune system. They play a key role in the adaptive immune response, especially. Once B cells stimulate the release of antibodies, those antibodies can then go on to attack specific bacteria and virus antigens the body comes into contact with, now or in the future. The researchers point out that EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids have not often been studied for their effect on B cells.

The study was conducted in 36 obese men and women with a BMI greater than 30. The subjects were randomized to supplement with either a high-DHA fish oil concentrate, a concentrated fish oil, or an olive oil placebo for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, the researchers determined that the high-DHA fish oil concentrate increased the body’s secretion of B-cell cytokines interleukin 10 (IL-10) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), while the placebo and fish oil did not influence the B-cell cytokines compared to baseline.

Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN, head of global nutrition education for AlaskOmega, says that this study is notable because it lends new backing to the potential role fish oil and DHA may play in immune health at the adult stage of life.

“Most of the research on DHA and immune health has been researched during fetal development,” she says. “With DHA omega-3 being a key structural component of infants’ developing brain cells and neurons, and because it’s an essential fatty acid that humans cannot synthesize, and because infants who receive DHA during development and the first year of life have stronger immune function-e.g., less asthma if the mother has asthma-researchers are trying to identify the mechanisms involved with development of human immune function.”

DHA, as well as the omega-3 fatty acid EPA, are “integrally involved” with immune function on many fronts, Vannice further explains. “As metabolically active molecules and structural components of cell membranes in the human body, EPA and DHA directly influence physical and functional properties of membranes, including gene expression, inter- and intracellular communication, inflammatory response, production of eicosanoids, and more. As such, they are direct influencers of both immune development and immune response.” She adds that DHA plays a key role in producing molecules like neuroprotectins and leukotrienes, which are central metabolites for healthy immune function.

These pilot study results are early indicators and should be followed with larger-scale clinical testing, stresses Steve Dillingham, global director, AlaskOmega. He notes that this study demonstrated, for the first time, that a high-DHA fish oil can actually stimulate the immune system-a result that had only been observed in animal studies.

Vannice says the early results indicate there could be promising opportunities ahead for fish oil in the immune-health category. “The category is attractive for fish oil and DHA because, as stated above, EPA and DHA from fish oil as essential fats are integrally involved and required for healthy immune function. They are also directly involved with managing cellular inflammation. Inflammation is a common element to all chronic disease and some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and bowel diseases such as irritable bowel.” Studies like these, she says, point to the need to further study the mechanisms of action of essential fats in promoting health and preventing disease.

She pegs mental health (including development) and immune health as some of the most exciting future opportunity areas for fish oil. “If it were up to me,” Vannice says, “I would like to see the biggest market for fish oil be parents because they are feeding these essential fats to their children.”

It’s well documented that Americans don’t consume recommended amounts of fish or omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, and that levels of EPA and DHA in U.S. children are very low, according to recent NHANES data. But there’s good reason to support further research among children. “We see the relationship between low blood levels of omega-3 and problems with learning, behavior, socialization, and mental health,” Vannice says.


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  1. Guesdon W et al., “Effects of fish oil concentrates on ex vivo B cell responses of obese subjects upon BCR/TLR stimulation: A pilot study,” The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, vol. 53 (March 2018): 72-80
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