Fish sticks for dinner! Omega-3 fatty acids linked to lower rates of asthma among some children

LONDON — Millions of people around the United States deal with asthma every year. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, over eight percent of all children in the U.S. have asthma and the numbers have been going up since the 1980’s. Now, researchers in the United Kingdom say a dietary change may keep some youngsters from ever developing the chronic condition. Their study finds children with a common genetic variation can lower their asthma risk by consuming more omega-3 fatty acids.

A team from Queen Mary University of London reveals foods rich in this nutrient, particularly fish, have a connection to fewer cases of asthma in certain kids. These children all have a common variant in the fatty acid desaturase (FADS) gene. That difference is associated with lower levels of long chain omega-3 fatty acids in the blood. In a study of over 4,500 children, over half of the participants had the FADS gene variant.

Asthma is the most common chronic condition in childhood and we currently don’t know how to prevent it. It is possible that a poor diet may increase the risk of developing asthma, but until now most studies have taken ‘snap-shots’, measuring diet and asthma over a short period of time. Instead, we measured diet and then followed up children over many years to see who developed asthma and who didn’t,” explains Professor Seif Shaheen in a university release.

“Whilst we cannot say for certain that eating more fish will prevent asthma in children, based on our findings, it would nevertheless be sensible for children in the UK to consume more fish, as few currently achieve recommended intake.”

What is asthma’s link to omega-3 fatty acids?

While not every type of fat is good for you, omega-3 is an essential fat that the body can’t make on its own. It is a vital part of cell membranes and helps to regulate cell functions like blood clotting and relaxing or contracting the artery walls.

Fish are particularly rich in long chain omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These all have anti-inflammatory properties as well.

The new study examined children born in the 1990’s who had their intake of EPA and DHA monitored for several years. Researchers analyzed these readings at age seven based on food questionnaires given to their mothers. The team then looked at doctor-diagnosed cases of asthma between ages 11 and 14.

Overall, the results did not point to a link between consuming more omega-3 and fewer cases of asthma. However, when researchers studied the children with the FADS gene variant, they discovered a significant change. Among kids with the gene variation, the risk of developing asthma is 51 percent lower when comparing children consuming the most omega-3 to those consuming the least.

An independent study in Sweden also uncovered the same connection among young children. Researchers caution that they don’t know why omega-3 appears to fight off asthma, only that there seems to be a link. Study authors add the next step will be to see if consuming more omega-3 fatty acids can lower the severity of asthma in children who already have the condition.

The study appears in the European Respiratory Journal.