Can Taking Omega-3 Help My Multiple Sclerosis?

Weighing the Current Evidence

woman taking fish oil supplement
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If you have been living with multiple sclerosis (MS) from some time, you will have likely have heard or read reports about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in treating the disease. While we already know that these "healthy" fats are good for us, do they have any real impact on either relieving symptoms (such as fatigue or depression) or alleviating the chronic inflammation that is part and parcel of the disease?

Understanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids

When it comes to trimming fat from your diet, the one you don't want to cut back on is omega-3 fatty acids. Unlike "bad" saturated or trans fats, omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fat known to lower triglycerides, raise "good" HDL cholesterol, and improve certain brain functions.

Moreover, omega-3 fatty acids contain two compounds, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are believed to decrease certain inflammatory responses in the body. This is why omega-3 supplements are often prescribed in conjunction with rheumatoid arthritis therapy.

Since MS is an inflammatory disorder which causes progressive damage to the central nervous system, scientists have long explored the hypothesis that omega-3 fatty acids may somehow impede the progression and/or severity of the disease.

Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The body can manufacture many of the fats it needs from other fats or raw ingredients.

Omega-3 fatty acids, by contrast, are considered essential fats, meaning that you can only get them from foods that contain them. These include:

  • Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovies
  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • Nuts, especially walnuts
  • Avocados
  • Certain dark, leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, purslane, collard greens, mustard greens)

    There are also over-the-counter omega-3 supplements that are widely available in either pill or liquid form. (Speak with your doctor before taking any omega-3 supplement as it can interact with blood thinners and other chronic medications you may be taking.)

    Research Findings

    Beyond the general health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, there have been suggestions that increased intake could fight the effects of MS. The hypothesis was largely founded on early research which showed that omega-3 could inhibit a certain protein (called matrix metalloproteinase-9) known to trigger inflammation in the central nervous system.

    At the same time, other fields of research had begun to show statistical evidence that omega-3 could help treat major depression as well as certain autoimmune disorders such as lupus, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

    While it would make sense that MS—a disease with autoimmune characteristics for which depression is a common feature—may respond in the same fashion, most of the research has been mixed.

    • One multi-center study conducted in Australia in 2016 showed that high omega-3 intake was, in fact, associated with a significant decrease in a type of nerve damage (called demyelination) caused by MS. This suggests that high intake may slow disease progression, although this effect has not yet been established.
    • On the flipside, a 2014 study in Norway showed that a six-month course of high-dose omega-3 had no impact on the development of brain lesions caused by demyelination as well as no impact on the rate of MS relapses.
    • Meanwhile, a randomized study conducted by the Oregon Health and Science University in 2016 showed that omega-2 supplementation did not improve depression in people with MS compared to the placebo group. This suggests that the causes of depression in MS may be starkly dissimilar to those of typical depression.

    What This Tells Us

    The conflicting nature of the research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids, while beneficial to our cardiovascular health, may have less impact on the progression or symptoms of MS.

    There are some who believe that larger dosages administered intravenously may improve upon these results, but most remain skeptical given the negative effects of overdosing omega-2 (including abnormal heart rate, anemia, and blurred vision).

    However, this shouldn't negate the overall benefits of omega-3 in our diets if only to ensure our bodies strong and better able to cope with the challenges of multiple sclerosis.

    Sources:

    Hoare, S.; Lithander, F.; van der Mei, I. et al. "Higher intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids is associated with a decreased risk of a first clinical diagnosis of central nervous system demyelination: Results from the Ausimmune Study." Mult Scler. 2016; 22(7):884-92.

    Shinto, L.; Maracci, G.; Bumgardner, L. et al. "The Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Matrix Metalloproteinase-9 Production and Cell Migration in Human Immune Cells: Implications for Multiple Sclerosis." Autoimmune Dis. 2011; 2011:134592.

    Shinto, L.; Maracci, G.; Mohr, D. et al. "Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Depression in Multiple Sclerosis: A Randomized Pilot Study." PLoS. 2016; DOI 10.1371/journa.pone.0147195.

    Torkildsen, O.; Wergeland, S.; Bakke, S. et al. "ω-3 Fatty Acid Treatment in Multiple Sclerosis (OFAMS Study): A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial." Arch Neurol. 2012; 69(8):1044-1051.

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