Correlation is not causation, but when researchers find that higher levels of specific omega 3 fatty acids and an omega 6 fatty acid do correlate with longer survival in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, they take note to research further. Researchers from Harvard found the link intriguing, though they caution against too much excitement, but those of us in functional medicine are not surprised. We care for patients with neurodegenerative disorders like ALS and Alzheimer’s disease regularly and see benefits of healthy fats in these patients’ diets.
The study evaluated over 400 individuals with ALS, a disease which progressively damages the motor nerves of humans, usually leading to death in under 5 years. They followed this group for 18 months and divided them into 4 groups based on how high their measures blood levels of Omega 3s were. They then followed them to measure mortality rate and progression of a variety of symptoms on a scale.
From this work they discovered that levels of two different omega 3 fatty acids, nutrients in common foods, correlated with both how long they lived and how their symptoms progressed. The first was alpha linoleic acid which is found in foods like chia, some vegetable oils, walnuts, flaxseed, and hemp oil. This omega 3 appeared to be the most beneficial. In the quarter of patients with the lowers levels, the death rate over 18 months was 33% while the death rate was only 19.5% for those in the highest quartile. After further adjusting for demographic differences, there was a 50% lower risk for those with the highest levels.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) was the other omega 3 fatty acid which showed a lower but still significant difference in death rates and severity progression. This omega 3 is found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements commonly used. Of note, the omega 6, linoleic acid, was also associated with a lower risk of death in this study.
I do mostly agree with the researchers that the study is just a correlation and not ready for prime time just yet. Many other factors could confound these results. Individuals who are more health conscious in fighting their ALS progression could be eating more foods with omega 3s or taking more supplements. This higher intake of healthier food could add other nutrients into their diets which helped their ALS. The study did not control for these other dietary factors or supplement use, so there is much more to learn. The benefits could be from the omega 3s and 6s, but they might also come from other nutrients not noted in the study.
In the meantime, at Sanctuary we utilize a lot of omega 3s in therapy and emphasize a diet of healthy fats. The typical American diet does not usually get enough Omega 3’s- which seems to be a contributor to ALS progression, at least until further studies can be done. Beyond that, various diets may unnecessarily limit these good fats; guiding our patients on the best nutrition plan for them, not just a copy-paste diet, is always our goal. Countless studies support Omega 3s’ benefits for a number of health conditions. Helping our patients restore healthier, more abundant lives requires both knowledge and wisdom in application. We strive for both.
Kjetil Bjornevik, Marianna Cortese, Jeremy D Furtado, Sabrina Paganoni, Michael A. Schwarzschild, Merit E. Cudkowicz, Alberto Ascherio. Association of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Clinical Progression in Patients With ALS: Post Hoc Analysis of the EMPOWER Trial. Neurology, 2023; Publish Ahead of Print DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000207485
Thanks to Science Daily:
American Academy of Neurology. “Omega-3 fatty acids linked to slower decline in ALS.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 June 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/06/230621164636.htm>.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.