Many studies over the years have suggested a key role for omega 3 fatty acids in the development and progression of MS.
From Swank’s original work in Norway finding a low incidence where fish was the main animal product in the diet, to large population studies and some clinical trials, it has always seemed likely that increasing omega 3 consumption could reduce the risk of developing MS in vulnerable people, and slow the rate of its progression.
A key issue
A key issue has been what type of omega 3s. The HOLISM study from the Neuroepidemiology Unit in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health was really the first to note that plant-based omega 3s had a strong association with better health outcomes for people with MS whereas fish oil did not.
While the OMS Recovery Program has long suggested flaxseed oil, the most concentrated source of plant-based omega 3s, as the ideal omega 3 supplement, many have not been convinced by this research, and continue to promote fish oil.
Now world-class research from Norway and Harvard University has added compelling evidence to the argument for flaxseed oil supplementation.
Examining data on nearly 175,000 nurses from the long-running US Nurses Health Study, these researchers found that those consuming the most polyunsaturated fatty acids at baseline had one-third less risk of developing MS over the course of the study than those consuming the least.
But most interesting was that when the researchers looked at individual fatty acids, the only one that was associated with this reduced risk was alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega 3 fatty acid found in very high concentration in flaxseed oil. Those in the highest intake group of ALA had nearly 40% lower risk of developing MS.
The fatty acids found in fish oil (EPA and DHA) had no association in themselves with reduced risk. The somewhat unexpected HOLISM finding that only flaxseed oil and not fish oil was associated with better health outcomes (less disability, better quality of life, less depression, less fatigue, fewer relapses) for people with MS has now been reinforced by this important finding from the US Nurses Health Study.
The HOLISM investigators have said that they feel that the equivocal results for fish oil are probably because the product is generally a poor one, often rancid, and poorly produced and stored, whereas flaxseed oil from a reputable supplier is a much higher quality oil, and that this may explain this apparent lack of benefit from fish oil.
Whatever the reason for these results, it is heartening to see the OMS Recovery Program’s basic tenets reinforced. It is also worth noting that after this latest research, those at increased risk of developing MS, that is close family members of people with MS, should not only take vitamin D supplements to have the best chance of reducing their risk of developing MS, but also flaxseed oil, if they are not already taking it.