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Omega-3 Fatty Acids Show Promise in Fighting Deadly Cancers

September 2006

Omega-3s Shield Skin Against UV Light-Induced Cancer

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light contributes to several kinds of skin cancer. For more than a decade, scientists have known that omega-3 fats help reduce the skin’s sensitivity to UV rays.37

Researchers recently discovered that omega-3s can help reduce the inflammatory skin response commonly known as sunburn, in part by lowering levels of an inflammatory prostaglandin. After adults supplemented with EPA for three months, they required much higher doses of UV radiation to redden their skin and did not experience the increased inflammation that usually follows sun exposure.38

A later study indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce risk for skin cancer. In adults who supplemented with EPA daily for three months, omega-3 supplementation decreased the skin’s susceptibility to sunburn and reduced by 50% the expression of a gene associated with UV light-induced skin cancer. In addition, the supplemented individuals had significantly fewer UV light-induced breaks in DNA strands.

EPA supplementation may thus help protect against UV-induced DNA damage that can lead to cancer, and long-term supplementation may help to reduce the risk of skin cancer in humans.39

Omega-3s Enhance Effects of Cancer-Fighting Drugs

In the search for effective cancer-fighting regimens, scientists have explored the efficacy of combining omega-3 fatty acids with conventional pharmaceutical drugs. Exciting evidence suggests that omega-3s actually help to sensitize cancer cells to the effects of standard chemotherapy drugs. For example, researchers found that cancer cells with a higher concentration of DHA in their membranes were more susceptible to cell death from administration of the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin.40

Similar synergistic results were found when DHA was added to chemotherapy drugs in the taxane family, such as Taxol® and Taxotere®. Dramatic increases in tumor cell death occurred not only when DHA and the drug were administered together, but also when DHA was given before the drug. This suggests that DHA administration might help prepare patients for chemotherapy with taxane drugs, enhancing the drugs’ efficacy in fighting cancer.41

Omega-3s Inhibit Inflammatory Compounds

Hidden, imperceptible inflammation is now recognized for its role in triggering a chain of events leading to heart disease and other illnesses. Omega-3 fatty acids suppress multiple steps in this inflammatory process, inhibiting the production of inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins. Furthermore, omega-3 fats boost production of anti-inflammatory compounds. These anti-inflammatory effects may have important implications for fighting heart disease and numerous other disease processes associated with excessive inflammation.10-16

An important marker of inflammation in the body known as C-reactive protein (CRP) is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Measuring high-sensitivity CRP is an emerging method of detecting hidden inflammation and its associated cardiovascular disease risk.17 Some scientists have observed that people who consume a greater amount of omega-3 fatty acids demonstrate lower levels of this cardiovascular risk factor, suggesting that omega-3 supplementation might help prevent cardiovascular disease by fighting inflammation.18

Omega-3s Promote Healing From Cancer Surgery

Emerging research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may help fight inflammation and prevent infection in individuals undergoing surgical treatment for cancer. Surgical treatment of any kind provokes a powerful, immediate inflammatory response, often coupled with immune suppression, which can lead to infections. Such inflammatory and immune challenges can drain the body’s resources for recovery.5 Omega-3 fatty acids may help support healing from cancer surgery.

Researchers have noted that omega-3 fatty acids reduce levels of inflammation while boosting beneficial immune responses, providing a “one-two punch” to suppress damaging post-operative inflammation and reduce the risk of post-operative infections.5

Omega-3 fatty acids may also be critically important for cancer patients who must undergo surgery.42 Omega-3 supplementation has been associated with fewer complications of surgery, as well as with shorter hospital stays.43,44 Because of the modest blood-thinning effects of omega-3 fatty acids, patients should consult with their surgeons before beginning supplementation.45

In one study, omega-3 fatty acids provided important benefits for patients who underwent surgery for intestinal cancers. Those who supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids before and after surgery experienced fewer complications and infections compared to patients who did not supplement. Additionally, the total costs of surgical treatment were substantially lower in the omega-3-supplemented group. Omega-3 fatty acids may thus help individuals to better tolerate surgical treatment of cancer.46

A similar study showed that patients who received omega-3 supplements before surgery for colorectal cancer demonstrated better immune responses and dramatically lower incidences of infection. Omega-3s thus helped promote rapid healing from surgery in cancer patients. This study may have broad implications for many types of patients undergoing surgery.47


Of the many health benefits conferred by omega-3 fatty acids, their ability to prevent the development of cancer by quelling dangerous inflammation and promoting healthy gene expression may be among the most significant.

These essential fats likewise hold equal promise for those who are already battling cancer, as new findings suggest that omega-3s may exert cancer-fighting effects alone or in combination with pharmaceutical therapies. Omega-3 fatty acids may help to prevent infection and complications in people undergoing surgical treatment for cancer, and may help relieve one of the most devastating manifestations of cancer, the fatigue and weight loss known as cachexia.

While additional studies are needed, the research findings to date suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may play an important role in both preventing cancer and augmenting the effectiveness of existing anti-cancer therapies.


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Continued on Brain Food