Monday, June 28, 2010

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Alter Gene Expression and Disease


We can no longer blame DNA as the primary cause of disease. That is the extraordinary implication of emerging research. It is not DNA itself that determines how or what genes will be expressed. The real story is what we expose to our DNA, through diet and lifestyle. In a nutshell, what we eat and what we are exposed to in our environment directly affects our DNA and its expression.

The growing field of epigenetics studies how diet, lifestyle, environment,and even thoughts determine our health, rather than DNA alone. Nutrigenomics studies how food and nutrients in particular modulate(turn on and off) gene function. Together, they are among the most interesting areas of research into how EPA and DHA—the omega-3 essential fatty acids found in fish oil—work in the body.

The discovery that epigenetic factors (literally: “beyond the control of the gene”) are the primary factors in determining how or what genes will be expressed. This discovery may open a new dietary approach to a wide variety of common diseases, as it indicates that nutrition is even more important than once thought. We cannot change our genes, but we may be able to change their actions through nutrition in general and through fish oil in particular.

Indeed, a number of recent studies suggest that supplementing with omega-3-rich fish oil beneficially affects gene expression and health outcomes. A 2009 study showed that an increased genetic risk of prostate cancer was essentially reversed by increasing omega-3 intake by 500 mg per day.1 A 2010 study suggests that genetic predisposition to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome is more evident with individuals with low omega-3(EPA and DHA).2 Similarly, other recent studies have shown that EPA and DHA are genetically associated with cardiovascular health outcomes and that supplementing with fish oil altered the gene expression profiles in cells to a more anti-inflammatory and anti-atherogenic (clogged arteries)status.3-4

Knowing that omega-3s are capable of turning DNA on and off not only adds new evidence to the crucial importance of EPA and DHA, but also opens new perspectives on therapeutic approaches to a wide variety of modern diseases, by demonstrating how nutrients can affect genes. Many scientists believe that nutrigenomics has tremendous potential for improving public health. By tying together the fields of nutrition and genetics and exploring how they interact, nutrigenomics offers the exciting promise of preventing or even treating diseases through diet or supplementation.


1. Fradet V, Cheng I, Casey G, et al. Clin Cancer Res 2009 Apr1;15(7):2559-66
2. C Phillips, L Goumidi, S Bertrais, et al. J Nutr 2010;140(2):238-244
3. H Allayee, N Roth, H Hodis. J Nutrigenet Nutrigenomics 2009;2:140-148
4. M Bouwens, O. van de Rest, N Dellschaft, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;90:415–424

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