New Harvard Research Links Omega-3 Fatty Acid Consumption With Slower ALS Progression

Omega-3 Food Sources

An 18-month study found that people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) who maintained higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood demonstrated a slower rate of physical functional decline and a reduced risk of premature death in comparison to individuals with lower omega-3 levels. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid abundant in nuts, seeds, and oils, was particularly influential in this correlation. ALS patients with elevated ALA levels exhibited a significantly slower disease progression, with a notable 50% decrease in mortality risk within the study duration compared to counterparts with lower ALA concentrations.

According to a recent study sled by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), could contribute to slowing down the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

ALA is a nutrient common in foods such as flaxseeds, walnuts, and oils derived from chia, canola, and soybeans.

The study was recently published in the journal Neurology.

“Prior findings from our research group have shown that a diet high in ALA and increased blood levels of this fatty acid may decrease the risk of developing ALS. In this study, we found that among people living with ALS, higher blood levels of ALA were also associated with a slower disease progression and a lower risk of death within the study period,” said lead author Kjetil Bjornevik, assistant professor of epidemiology and nutrition. “These findings, along with our previous research, suggest that this fatty acid may have neuroprotective effects that could benefit people with ALS.”

The researchers conducted a study among 449 people living with ALS who participated in a clinical trial. As part of this trial, the severity of their symptoms and the progression of their disease were tested and then scored from 0 to 40, with higher scores indicating less severe symptoms of the disease.

The researchers measured the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in participants’ blood and placed the participants into four groups, from highest to lowest omega-3 fatty acid levels. They then followed up 18 months later to track the groups’ physical functionality and survival according to the clinical trial.

They found that ALA showed the most benefits of all the omega-3 fatty acids, as it was most strongly linked to slower decline and decreased risk of death. Of the 126 participants who died within 18 months of the study’s onset, 33% belonged to the group with the lowest ALA levels, while 19% belonged to the group with the highest ALA levels.

Adjusting for factors like age, sex, ethnicity, BMI, symptom duration, and family history of ALS, the researchers calculated that participants with the highest levels of ALA had a 50% lower risk of death during the study period compared to participants with the lowest levels of ALA.

Two additional fatty acids were also associated with reductions in risk of death during the study period: eicosapentaenoic acid, another omega-3 fatty acid found in fatty fish and fish oil, and linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.

“The link our study found between diet and ALS is intriguing,” said senior author Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition. “We are now reaching out to clinical investigators to promote a randomized trial to determine whether ALA is beneficial in people with ALS. Obtaining funding will be challenging because ALA is not a patentable drug, but we hope to get it done.”

Reference: “Association of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Clinical Progression in Patients With ALS: Post Hoc Analysis of the EMPOWER Trial” by Kjetil Bjornevik, Marianna Cortese, Jeremy D Furtado, Sabrina Paganoni, Michael A. Schwarzschild, Merit E. Cudkowicz and Alberto Ascherio, 21 June 2023, Neurology.
DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000207485

The study was funded by the ALS Association.

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