Inflammatory Bowel Disease And Omega-3s
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | June 29, 2004

Digestive problems of one sort or another seem to be a characteristic of our society. One of the most serious that we're asked about at Better Life Unlimited is inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) such as Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome. This group of diseases is characterized by pain, an inability to absorb nutrients properly, and diarrhea, among other symptoms. It is debilitating for those who have it. As of this writing, there is no known cause for this class of digestive diseases, although inflammation of the nervous system seems to play a factor in its origin. Because of the specific anatomy of the gut, omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful in reducing the inflammatory process. We think of the digestive system as just one long tube--we put food into one end and eliminate waste through the other. We pack it full, and it pushes food through. That's not how it works.

The digestive system has an extensive nervous system that controls it from the time you begin to swallow food in the esophagus until the time you eliminate the waste through the anus. In fact, the enteric nervous system is so extensive that the number of nerve cells equals the total number of nerve cells in the entire spinal cord (1). In addition to that, the cells of the digestive system turn over about every 3-6 days, depending on the type and location of the cells. That also means new cells are produced to replace them. Given this very brief explanation of the digestive system, how can omega-3 fatty acids help IBD?

Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory in nature; that would have a direct effect on IBD. The omega-3 fatty acids would interfere with the production of inflammatory cytokines and reduce the inflammation associated with IBD. But there are at least two other possibilities that haven't been researched.

First, the fatty acid composition of the nerve cells is reflective of the types of fatty acids in the diet. The over-consumption of saturated fat and poor quality omega-6 fatty acids in today's typical diet can contribute to nerve cells that simply don't work as well as they might, thereby causing digestive problems due to the extensive neural network of the digestive system.

Second, due to the turnover of the digestive-system cells every few days, new cells use the fatty acids available in the diet for cell production. When omega-3s aren't available, too many saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids may be used in the production of digestive cell membranes.

Thus the result of eating too many saturated and omega-6 fatty acids is that both the nerve cells that control the gut and the cells that line the gut don't work at optimal capacity because they're built with sub-standard materials. Food may not move or be absorbed as well, and this may contribute to IBD.

In a recent review article, Andrea Belluzzi reviewed the evidence for using omega-3 fatty acids for treating IBD (2). While more research needs to be done as to the best form and composition of omega-3s, the evidence to date has demonstrated that there is at least some benefit for people with IBD using fish oil in the reduction of pain and improving function. The best composition of omega-3 fatty acids seems to be a blend of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) at 3-6 grams per day. That's a lot of fish oil to take, and the side effects can be belching, gas, and loose stools. But the pain and inflammation seems to subside for most people.

What should you do if you have some form of IBD? Talk to your physician about using fish oil in addition to your current treatment regimen. The research is equivocal, but you may be the person who benefits because of an imbalance of the fatty acids in your body. It doesn't seem to have any significant downside and may very well help.

Think of it this way: if you could improve your symptoms 25% to 50%, would that be worth it to you? Would it add to your quality of life? Only you can decide the answer to that question.

References:

  1. Guyton, A. and Hall, J. Textbook of Medical Physiology – 10th Edition. Saunders Publishing. 2000.
  2. Belluzzi, A. n-3 Fatty acids for the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2002; 61(3) 391-395.
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