When scientists in Australia started analyzing their data on the relationship between diet and asthma in Australian children, they noticed something fishy. Children who were served fish several times a week experienced less wheezing and less severe asthma attacks.
In fact, several studies from Australia suggest that asthmatics of all ages who eat fresh cold-water fish several times a week gain relief from wheezing and experience increased lung capacity. One study found that children who ate fish more than once per week had lower rates of airway hyperresponsiveness than did children who ate fish less often. Another study found that consumption of fresh fish, and particularly oily fish, was protective against wheezing.
Why Does Fish Stop Asthma Attacks?
The reason fish stops asthma attacks has to do with the effect of eating fish on inflammation. Fish contains fatty acids that help the body regulate inflammation. If you have asthma, your body has a chronically unbalanced immune response to the environment.
Every healthy immune system responds to dander, dust mites, pollen, and airborne chemicals. The immune system sends out a group of white blood cells known as CD4+. One group of CD4+ cells, known as Th1, ordinarily responds to an ” by causing the rupture of histamine sacs to cause swelling and inflammation to isolate it. Another group of CD4+ cells, known as Th2, comes along later to magnify the offending substance.
People with asthma have too many Th2 cells. Their immune systems cause swelling and inflammation not just of a few cells around an inhaled airborne particle but of the entire bronchial passage. The second group of CD4+ cells even recruits more white blood cells that would ordinarily be engaged in fighting tumors and viruses to produce still more inflammation. These white blood cells secrete inflammatory leukotrienes that attract more white blood cells, making the reaction worse and worse until their supplies of attractants are suddenly exhausted, ending the attack.
What has This Got to Do with Fish?
Fish contains omega-3 essential fatty acids. Every cell in the body, including those in the lining of the lungs, can use these essential fatty acids to make the hormones that regulate inflammation. The body uses the fatty acids in fish and fish oil to "turn off" the leukotrienes that attract white blood cells into the lungs.
Fish and fish oils enhance the usefulness of inhalers. These essential nutrients increase the effectiveness of the medications zafirlukast (Accolate) and montelukast (Singulair), which operate by reducing the immune system’s response to other, "bad" fatty acids. And they even help reduce symptoms when no medication is used.
Why not Just Eat Fish?
As more and more scientists started studying fish and fish oil as a treatment for asthma, they noticed that not every kind of fish makes asthma better. Eating salted fish increases the frequency of asthma attacks in Japanese children. In Japan, however, children are more likely to eat salted fish rather than fresh fish.
Is There a Vegan Alternative to Fish Oil?
At least 10 studies have shown that other sources of essential fatty acids reduce the production of inflammation-inducing leukotrienes, but most failed to show that taking flaxseed oil or similar products reduced the frequency of asthma attacks.
The reason may be that the studies were not conducted over a sufficiently long period, not that other kinds of essential fatty acids don't help. A clinical trial conducted at Harvard Medical School found that children on inhalers increased lung capacity by an average of 10 percent over the course of 9 months, whereas children on inhalers who were given essential fatty acids increased lung capacity an average of 23 percent. But it took nine months to get even 23 percent greater breathing capacity.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids Don't Cure Asthma Instantly
Don’t expect results from eating fish or taking fish oil or other kinds of n-3 fatty acids immediately. Any essential fatty acid supplement can cause bloating, burping, diarrhea, or flatulence, although these effects are likely to be non-existent when you use a fish oil that contains at least 400 mg of essential fatty acids per capsule.
Certain sources of essential fatty acids are usually not a good idea.People with a history of partial seizures (blanking out or unexplained loss of emotional control) should not use borage seed oil, since it can lower the amount of stress precipitating an attack.Hempseed oil is also helpful, but not always legal. It will not give you a marijuana high, but it can cause a false positive reading for marijuana use in some home-testing kits. It may help with asthma, but it can cause you a lot of trouble if you live in a jurisdiction or work in a profession in which marijuana testing is mandatory.
Fish oil, however, is inexpensive, effective, and free of undesirable side effects, especially if you buy higher-quality brands. You or your child will experience gradual improvement over a period of months, at which time you can re-evaluate your medications with your doctor.