Published: April 1, 2013

Fish oil may improve immunity

Contact(s): Andy McGlashen Media Communications office: (517) 355-2281, Jenifer Fenton Food Science and Human Nutrition office: (517) 355-8474 imigjeni@msu.edu

New findings from a Michigan State University-led study suggest a possible role for fish oil in improving immunity among people with certain health conditions.

The fatty acids contained in fish oil are thought to be effective at reducing inflammation. That’s good, says MSU researcher Jenifer Fenton, because inflammation contributes to rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders in which the immune system attacks the body’s healthy cells.

But inflammation is a sign of increased immune system activity – it’s why wounds get red and puffy as they heal – so it’s widely thought that if fish oil fights inflammation, it may also influence overall immune function.

A team led by Fenton, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, examined that influence by studying how the B cells of mice respond to fish oil. B cells are white blood cells that produce antibodies and call other immune cells to join the fight when infections occur.

For five weeks, one group of mice was fed a regular diet while the others had a diet supplemented with fish oil rich in a fatty acid called DHA. The researchers found that mice in the fish oil group had B cells that produced more antibodies and more of the chemicals that alert other cells to threats.

“Our data showed that the B cells not only weren’t suppressed – which would be the dogma – but that fish oil even enhanced their function,” Fenton said.

While more research is needed before the mouse study’s implications for humans become clear, Fenton pointed out that boosting B-cell activity may be good for some people.

“For example, the complication and mortality rate from influenza is higher among obese individuals, so that could be a situation where enhancing B-cell function could be useful,” she said.

Fenton collaborated with colleagues from the lab run by East Carolina University researcher S. Raza Shaikh.

The National Institutes of Health supported the study, which was published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology.

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