Multiple SclerosisOmega-3 Fatty Acids

Growing support for omega-3 benefits in multiple sclerosis

Hillary Freeman has multiple sclerosis (MS). She says, that within weeks of “regularly incorporating portions of salmon, mackerel, and sardines into my meal plans, the tingling and numbness I experienced on a daily basis subsided.”

Now, research on omega-3 fatty acids (containing eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]) conducted at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and presented during the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians annual meeting appears to provide a rationale for her experience.

For background, matrix metalloproteinase 9 (MMP-9) levels in blood and cerebrospinal fluid are elevated in patients with MS. These patients also have lower than normal levels of metalloproteinase 1 (TIMP-1) — an inhibitor of MMP-9. The MMP-9:TIMP-1 ratio has been proposed as a biomarker of MS activity.

The results of the Oregon scientists’ research in patients and in the lab reveal the following?

  • A 58% decrease in MMP-9 levels secreted from immune cells of MS volunteers after 3 months of fish oil supplementation compared to baseline levels.
  • At 3 months, both EPA and DHA levels were significantly increased in red blood cell membranes.
  • An in vitro study showed a significant decrease in MMP-9 levels and activity for EPA and DHA.

The bottom line?
There are a lot of details to be worked out. But based on their findings, the researchers concluded that “Omega-3 fatty acids decrease both MMP-9 levels and activity, and omega-3 may act as an immune-modulator that could benefit MS patients.”

These are important changes from the assessment of omega-3 in 2005 when the Multiple Sclerosis Society Research Bulletin 51 reported

  • 5 well-controlled studies, largely with small numbers of participants, have been carried out in people with MS.
  • None reported a significant impact on disability levels.
  • Some suggested very slight improvements.
  • No worsening of MS or serious side effects was reported and fish oils are generally well tolerated.

And it’s a more optimistic assessment than that published in a December 2006 InsideMS article, where Dr. Allen Bowling and Tom Stewart cautioned, it’s not clear if omega-3 fatty acids really improve multiple sclerosis, although it appears to be safe.

Still, omega-3 fatty acids should never be used instead of the conventional MS treatments.

But you knew that.

9/10/07 20:46 JR

Hi, I’m JR

John Russo, Jr., PharmD, is president of The MedCom Resource, Inc. Previously, he was senior vice president of medical communications at, a complementary and alternative medicine website.