There’s Nothing Fishy About It: Omega-3’s in Fish Oils Reduce Inflammation

By Aleah Kirsh

05 January 2021

Fish oil capsules arranged in the shape of a fish

Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils may help prevent chronic inflammation in fat tissue, says a new study from the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences.

Fat tissue – also known as adipose – is a dynamic and metabolically active tissue is made up of both fat and immune cells. But when the body is stressed from obesity or a high fat diet, this dynamic tissue is home to more immune cells that are linked to inflammation. These cells produce inflammatory signals that can be a key step in the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Given the widespread health impacts of obesity, researchers such as Prof. Lindsay Robinson are working to better understand the physiology of obesity development and how to reduce the domino effects of chronic inflammation.

“We want to look at the early changes in adipose tissue seen with obesity and try to prevent further metabolic problems,” says Robinson. Her ultimate goal is to understand how these metabolic changes occur in order to develop translatable interventions.

“Finding simple dietary interventions that can help people is the goal. This is why omega-3 fatty acids are of particular interest.”

Omega-3’s belong to the family of “healthy” fats known as omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids are celebrated for their anti-inflammatory properties and beneficial impacts on cognition and metabolism.  They are found at high levels in fish, seeds, and nuts, and omega-3 and fish oil supplements have become a staple item in many health food stores.

To investigate the impact of omega-3 consumption on adipose inflammation, Robinson’s group fed mice a high fat diet with or without omega-3’s in fish oil. They then took immune cells from the spleen of the mice and cultured them with adipocytes (fat cells) before being “challenged” by the addition of a toxin that mimics the cellular stress caused by a high fat diet.

This novel “co-culture” approach reproduces the adipose cell and immune cell interaction and the inflammatory microenvironment, explains Robinson, allowing cellular processes to be examined in ways that would otherwise not be possible.

The results showed that the omega-3’s lived up to their healthy reputation. There were fewer signs of inflammation in the cell cultures from mice supplemented with omega-3, even after they were challenged with the toxin. They also found increased levels of anti-inflammatory immunity cells (T cells) and anti-inflammatory cellular signals (cytokines) in the mice fed omega-3’s.

And for those of us wondering how much omega-3 supplementation would be needed to realize this health benefit, there is good news. The mice consumed just over one percent of their daily calories from omega-3’s, a level of supplementation that can be readily met with a supplement or eating more fish.

“If someone should take away one thing from this research it is the importance of omega-3’s in a healthy diet,” notes Robinson. She is looking forward to continuing to evaluate the impact of omega-3’s on adipose tissue and uncovering the mechanisms behind adipose inflammation.


Read the full article in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry.

Read about other CBS Research Highlights.