Should You Take Fish Oil for Multiple Sclerosis?
Considerable research revolves around the use of fish oil for a number of health challenges. What have researchers discovered about taking fish oil for multiple sclerosis?
Fish oil is a rich source of two important omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are found in a variety of fish, especially fatty fish such as anchovy, bluefish, salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, and trout, providing about 1 gram per 3.5 ounces of fish.
Another type of omega-3 fatty acid, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found in some plants, such as flaxseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and chia seeds. The body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, although the conversion rate is low. For those looking for a vegetarian source of the two main omega-3s, algae provides DHA but not EPA.
Fish oil for multiple sclerosis research
At least one study found that use of fish oil and fish consumption were associated with reduced fatigue. The study consisted of a survey of 2,469 individuals with multiple sclerosis who reported on various demographic, lifestyle, clinical, and medication factors. Along with fish oil, other items that had a positive impact on fatigue included vitamin D, flaxseed oil, exercise, and moderate alcohol use.
Another significant challenge for people with multiple sclerosis is depression, which can take a devastating toll on quality of life. A recent study in BMC Psychiatry reported on lifestyle factors, depression risk, and medication among 2,459 people with MS.
Nearly 20 percent of the participants screened positive for depression. When the authors evaluated various factors for risk of depression, they found that individuals who used omega-3 supplements (especially flaxseed oil), frequently ate fish, took vitamin D supplements, practiced meditation, and consumed a moderate amount of alcohol had a significantly reduced risk of depression.
On a more cellular level, a team of researchers looked at the benefits of omega-3 supplementation on myelin in a mouse model and in cultures. They observed that omega-3 supplementation reduced demyelination and improved cognitive and motor function as well as inhibited inflammation while promoting beneficial immune responses. These findings lead them to suggest that omega-3 fatty acids “may be clinically useful as immunomodulatory agents for demyelinating diseases” such as MS.
The efficacy of supplementation with fish oil was evaluated in 50 individuals with remitting-relapsing multiple sclerosis. One group took 4 grams of fish oil daily for 12 months, while the other group took a placebo.
Overall, those in the fish oil group showed a decrease in levels of tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin-1 beta, interleukin-6, and nitric oxide metabolites when compared with placebo. All of these declines are importance, since these factors are key in the development and/or progress of MS. The authors concluded that “fish oil supplementation is highly effective in reducing the levels of cytokines…in patients with relapsing-remitting MS.”
Taking fish oil for multiple sclerosis
No specific dose of fish oil has been identified for multiple sclerosis. The amount of EPA and DHA—and not the total amount of fish oil--is the deciding factor when taking these supplements. Generally, fish oil capsules contain EPA:DHA in a 3:1 to 5:1 ratio.
You want a supplement that provides 1 to 3 grams of EPA plus DHA daily, but be sure to read the labels carefully to determine how much omega-3 is being delivered. Also, look for reputable brands that guarantee to be free of mercury and other toxins. Websites that offer evaluations of supplements include ConsumerLab and LabDoor.
Talk to your doctor before starting a fish oil supplement regimen, especially if you are on blood thinners or have a fish or shellfish allergy. He or she may recommend you add more fish to your diet along with or instead of a supplement.
Also read about alternative treatments for multiple sclerosis
Chen S et al. n-3 PUFA supplementation benefits microglial responses to myelin pathology. Science Reports 2014 Dec 12; 4:7458
Ramirez-Ramirez V et al. Efficacy of fish oil on serum of TNF-a, IL-1-B, and IL-6 oxidative stress markers in multiple sclerosis treated with interferon beta-1b. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity 2013; 2013:709493
Taylor KL et al. Lifestyle factors, demographics and medications associated with depression risk in an international sample of people with multiple sclerosis. BMC Psychiatry 2014 Dec 3; 14(1): 327
Weiland TJ et al. Clinically significant fatigue: prevalence and associated factors in an international sample of adults with multiple sclerosis recruited via the internet. PLoS One 2015 Feb 18; 10(2): e0115541