I won’t sugar coat it.
An argument is raging over how fish oil and its omega-3 fatty acids affect your chances of cancer. The subject is complicated.
On the one hand, there are researchers who seem to have it in for omega-3s. They’ve come up with studies that suggest, in at least in some circumstances, that omega-3s may increase the chances of cancer.
Scary discovery, if true.
But other scientists object strongly to these conclusions. They cite problems with the evidence used to link omega-3s to cancer. They also argue that their tests demonstrate mechanisms in human cancer cells by which omega-3 fatty acids help fight off cancer.
So who is right?
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First let’s take a look at some of the good news about omega-3s.
A good example is a lab study at Washington State University. It shows that omega-3s can slow down the growth and spread of prostate cancer cells.1
In this research, the scientists found that omega-3 fatty acids join up with a receptor known as FFA4 (free fatty acid receptor 4) on cancer cells. When this linkage takes place, the receptor sets off a cellular signal that inhibits factors that would otherwise send the cancer cells into a high-gear growth spurt.
Researcher Kathryn Meier points out, “This kind of knowledge could lead us to better treat or prevent cancer because now we know how it works.”
She also acknowledges that nobody knows if taking a supplement of fish oil produces exactly the same effect she discovered in lab cultured-cancer cells. But it seems likely.
Fish oil effective against leukemia where drugs fail
Over at Penn State, researchers think omega-3s may provide a way to treat – and perhaps cure – leukemia. They’ve found that a related compound from fish oil – one that the body produces from omega-3s — kills the stem cells that grow into myelogenous leukemia (CML). CML starts in the bone marrow and results in the vast overproduction of blood cells.2
The compound investigated at Penn State derives from EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), one of the primary omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish oil.
“Research in the past on fatty acids has shown the health benefits of (fish oil) fatty acids on cardiovascular system and brain development, particularly in infants, but we have shown that some metabolites of omega-3 (compounds the body makes from omega-3s) have the ability to selectively kill the leukemia-causing stem cells in (animals),” says researcher Sandeep Prabhu. “The important thing is that the (animals) were completely cured of leukemia with no relapse.”
The tests show that this derivative of fish oil kills cancer stem cells in both the spleen and bone marrow. It does this by waking up the action of a gene called p53 in the leukemia stem cell that leads to apoptosis – the cancer cell’s self-destruction program.
Killing off these stem cells is vital to stopping leukemia in its tracks and keeping the cancer from coming back. When stem cells lurk in the body, the cancer can grow right back when therapy stops. And the cancer stem cells can still hide in the body even after massive doses of powerful chemotherapy, In fact, they’re also called “multi-drug-resistant cells.”
Because of these stem or MDR cells, cancer often returns even after a doctor reassures a cancer patient that the body seems to be cancer-free.
The Penn State researchers explain that current treatments for CML keep cancer patients alive by killing off most leukemia cells. But the drugs used by conventional medicine can’t touch the leukemia stem cells.
To keep surviving, CML cancer patients have to keep taking the cancer drugs continuously – and suffer the side effects. To stop taking the drugs is certain death when the leukemia stem cells are allowed to freely spread the cancer.
According to researcher Robert Paulson – “These stem cells can hide from the (current methods of) treatment, and a small population of stem cells give rise to more leukemia cells. So, targeting the stem cells is essential if you want to cure leukemia.” And that’s exactly what omega-3s appear to do.
So how can fish oil cause cancer, too?
This is a small sample of the research that shows omega-3s fight cancer. Now back to that controversy I mentioned at the beginning. . .
Recently, researcher Theodore Brasky, a Ph.D. at Ohio State, has come out with a couple of studies that purport to show omega-3 fats may increase the risk of cancer.
But there are some serious questions about Dr. Brasky’s methodology.
In one study, Dr. Brasky and his colleagues examined blood tests that had been given to about 3,000 men and analyzed them for the level of omega-3 fats in their blood serum (the liquid part of the blood). They then compared those blood tests to men’s risk of developing advanced prostate cancer during the nine years involved in the research.
Their results allegedly show that the more omega-3 fats in the blood of these men, the higher was their risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer. That persuaded the researchers to suggest that eating fish or taking fish oil puts you at a higher risk of prostate cancer.3
Sounds scary, right? But other scientists who have studied fish oil and have examined Dr. Brasky’s methods say, “Not so fast.”
Long-term omega-3 use wasn’t measured
For one thing, a single blood test is not considered a very accurate method for determining how much omega-3 fatty acids you’re consuming on a long-term basis. For each man who was included in the study, the researchers only looked at a one, solitary blood sample.
If, on the day of the test, a man in the test had recently eaten fish and it was the only fish he had consumed that month, his blood test would still show high levels of omega-3 fats. Or, if he was a habitual fish consumer but had skipped fish for a few days, he’d show up as low in omega-3s.
In addition, other researchers add that measuring serum content of omega-3 fats (again – that’s in the liquid part of the blood) is not as accurate as analyzing the omega-3 fat content of red blood cells.4
Because of all the questions surrounding the accuracy and appropriateness of the blood test used in this study, many scientists question its validity.
Meanwhile, another of Dr. Brasky’s studies shows that while omega-3 fats make women less likely to get endometrial cancer if their weight is “normal,” the fatty acids may increase the risk for this cancer in obese and overweight women.5
But a study at Yale came to a different conclusion. The Yale researchers found that in all cases, omega-3 fats reduce the risk of endometrial cancer.6
So those two studies could be considered a toss-up. Taken together, you can argue that all they indicate is a need for more research.
And while we’re looking at studies of cancer risk and deadliness, let’s consider an analysis of health histories of doctors and nurses that involved about 170,000 people. This large, long-term study found that those who took in the most omega-3 fats had a significantly lower risk of dying from bowel cancer.7
I still take fish oil
From my point of view, I think the weight of evidence supports the idea that omega-3 fats protect you from cancer.
And the Brasky studies don’t change my mind about the supplements I consume. I try to balance all of the various types of omega-3 fats I get by taking ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) found in flaxseed along with the EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid ) found in fish oil.
I also take a fourth type of omega-3 – gamma linolenic acid or GLA. All of these omega-3 fats help limit damaging inflammation in your body. And GLA isn’t found in fish, olive oil or walnuts. The most available source is evening primrose oil.
When you take an oil supplement, make sure it isn’t rancid (oxidized). Pick a brand that is purified and of high quality. Those in non-permeable caplets usually avoid the oxidation risk. I take the added precaution of refrigerating all oil supplements. In the case of flax seed oil, refrigeration is essential.
As more studies come out on omega-3s, I’ll keep you posted on the long-running arguments among researchers about their effects in the body.