Omega-3 fatty acids are the precursors for anti-inflammatory agents in the human body.
The research record on omega-3s for reducing allergy risk or symptoms in kids – while generally positive – has been somewhat mixed (Kremmyda LS et al. 2011).
Now, the results of a well-designed clinical trial from a top pediatric research team provide strong positive evidence in favor of fish and fish oil for infants and nursing mothers.
The outcomes suggest that daily supplements of omega-3-rich fish oil may reduce infants’ response to some allergens.
They showed that fish oil supplements raised blood levels of the omega-3s in fish oil (EPA and DHA), and reduced infants’ allergic responses to dust mites and other allergens.
As the doctors wrote, “To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the effects of direct postnatal fish oil supplementation on immune development in the first six months of life.” (D'Vaz N et al. 2012)
Unprecedented trial finds anti-allergy benefit from fish oil for infants
A team of pediatric researchers from the University of Western Australia conducted the double-blind, randomized, controlled trial (D'Vaz N et al. 2012).
They randomly assigned 420 infants to receive either a placebo oil capsule or daily fish oil supplements providing 280mg of DHA and 110mg of EPA … from birth to six months of age.
Blood samples from 120 infants were analyzed after six months, and the results showed that EPA and DHA blood levels were significantly higher in the fish oil group.
And – thanks to displacement in cell membranes by the omega-3s in the fish oil supplements – blood levels of generally pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids were lower in the fish oil group, compared to the placebo group.
More importantly, the fish oil group had significantly lower allergic responses to dust mites and milk protein, as measured by blood levels of key pro-inflammatory messenger proteins (IL-13 and interferon-gamma).
And, as the doctors wrote, “Children who received fish oil had significantly lower allergen-specific (HDM) IL-13 responses, which were significantly associated with cutaneous [skin] symptoms of eczema at six months of age and diagnosed eczema at 12 months of age.” (D'Vaz N et al. 2012)
“Collectively our observations support a biologically plausible relationship [and] are in agreement with growing evidence that optimizing n-3 PUFA [omega-3] status during early life may have a favorable effect on immune patterns and allergy development.”
And they made another good observation, based on the known developmental benefits of omega-3s, especially DHA:
“… the simple step of supplementation with EPA and DHA in infancy may result in increased quality of life, not to mention decreased health care costs, for those afflicted with allergic conditions.” (D'Vaz N et al. 2012)
Standard, chemically refined fish oil may not be ideal
Interestingly, the chemically refined fish oil they used – the kind that dominates the consumer market – did a rather poor job of raising the kids’ omega-3 levels, even though the doses were fairly high.
The researchers speculated that the transformation of the omega-3s from their natural triglyceride form that predominates in most fish to the ethyl ester form in most refined fish oils may be to blame.
“Although the dose … used in our study was relatively high, the increases in n-3 PUFA [omega-3] levels were modest, which may suggest issues with the delivery method, bioavailability and absorption of the ethyl ester supplements.” (D'Vaz N et al. 2012)
But more mundane problems could account for the gap between the high doses and the relatively low omega-3 levels:
“… we are unable to accurately estimate whether any oil remained in the capsules or was rejected by the infants (through spitting or vomiting) …” (D'Vaz N et al. 2012)
Accordingly, they wisely made this recommendation: “… we suggest maternal supplementation is a more attractive and efficient mode of supplementation for breastfed infants.”
Dunstan JA, Roper J, Mitoulas L, Hartmann PE, Simmer K, Prescott SL. The effect of supplementation with fish oil during pregnancy on breast milk immunoglobulin A, soluble CD14, cytokine levels and fatty acid composition. Clin Exp Allergy. 2004 Aug;34(8):1237-42.
Dunstan JA, Mori TA, Barden A, Beilin LJ, Taylor AL, Holt PG, Prescott SL. Fish oil supplementation in pregnancy modifies neonatal allergen-specific immune responses and clinical outcomes in infants at high risk of atopy: a randomized, controlled trial. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2003 Dec;112(6):1178-84.
D'Vaz N, Meldrum SJ, Dunstan JA, Lee-Pullen TF, Metcalfe J, Holt BJ, Serralha M, Tulic MK, Mori TA, Prescott SL. Fish oil supplementation in early infancy modulates developing infant immune responses. Clin Exp Allergy. 2012 Aug;42(8):1206-16. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2222.2012.04031.x.
Dunstan JA, Mori TA, Barden A, Beilin LJ, Taylor AL, Holt PG, Prescott SL. Maternal fish oil supplementation in pregnancy reduces interleukin-13 levels in cord blood of infants at high risk of atopy. Clin Exp Allergy. 2003 Apr;33(4):442-8.
Kremmyda LS, Vlachava M, Noakes PS, Diaper ND, Miles EA, Calder PC. Atopy risk in infants and children in relation to early exposure to fish, oily fish, or long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: a systematic review. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2011 Aug;41(1):36-66. Review.