Eat More Omega 3 to Reduce Risk of Bowel Cancer Death

Eat More Omega 3 to Reduce Risk of Bowel Cancer Death
This salmon is high in omega 3 fatty acids, which may increase bowel cancer survival. Photo courtesy Rueda López.

Various studies have touted the health benefits of omega 3 fatty acids, and the good news seems to keep coming. Researchers have now linked eating omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish oils, with a lower risk of death after a bowel cancer diagnosis.

The study comes from Dr. Andrew T. Chan at the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, along with other researchers. The researchers published their results July 19th in the journal Gut, from the British Society of Gastroenterology.

Other research has demonstrated that omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) can reduce blood supply to cancer cells and suppress tumor growth, but nobody had looked at the effect of these omega 3 fatty acids on bowel cancer in particular. The researchers in the current study decided to see if consuming eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), three types of omega 3 fatty acids usually found in fish oil, can benefit patients after a bowel cancer diagnosis.

For their research, the study authors looked at data from two large health studies. The Nurses’ Health Study, started in 1976, followed 121,700 female registered nurses between the ages of 30 and 55, and the Health Professionals Follow Up Study, started in 1986, followed 51,529 male health professionals between the ages of 40 and 75. Every two years, participants in these two studies completed a questionnaire with questions about their medical history and lifestyle. Every four years, the participants updated information about how often they ate various nutrients.

In the current study, the researchers looked specifically for a bowel cancer diagnosis up to the year 2010. They also looked at other factors that might have contributed to bowel cancer such as the participant’s weight, height, exercise, smoking, use of aspirin and non-steroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and diet. In total, 1,659 study participants developed bowel cancer, and of those cases, 561 died. Of these, 169 died from their bowel cancer, while other participants died from other types of cancer, heart disease, and other reasons.

The researchers analyzed the data and discovered that those with a bowel cancer diagnosis were less likely to die from the disease when their diet included higher levels of omega 3 from fish. Strangely, the consumption of omega 3s was not linked to an overall lower risk of death, just bowel cancer. The researchers discovered that when the bowel cancer patients consumed 0.3 g or more omega 3 fatty acids daily, they had a 41 percent lower risk of dying from bowel cancer than those who consumed less than 0.1g each day. It seems that the more omega 3s the bowel cancer patients ate, the more they reduced their chance of dying from their disease.

Even if the participants were not taking in much omega 3 fatty acid before their bowel cancer diagnosis, there was still hope. Those who ate 0.15 g more omega 3s daily after their diagnosis reduced their chances of dying from bowel cancer by 70 percent. Those who decreased their consumption of omega 3s after their diagnosis faced a 10 percent increase in their chance of death from their disease.

For those who are not big fish eaters, the good news is that the findings held for foods high in omega 3 and for omega 3 supplements. However, few participants took omega 3 supplements while most opted for fish in their diet.

The researchers point out their study has found a link between increasing omega 3 consumption after diagnosis and decreasing the risk of death from bowel cancer. However, it does not prove that eating more fish and taking omega 3 supplements will cause greater bowel cancer survival. More research will need to determine why omega 3s seem to be linked to a lower risk of bowel cancer death, but the news is promising. Along with surgery and drugs, patients who receive a bowel cancer diagnosis could simply increase their fish consumption or take omega 3 supplements to potentially improve their chance of survival.

Colon cancer is the third and fourth most common cancer in men and women in the U.S., respectively. This type of cancer forms on the inner wall of the large intestine, often beginning as polyps, which are lumps, in the colon. Symptoms of colon cancer can include blood in the stool; diarrhea, constipation, or stool changes that last longer than a month; a feeling that the bowel does not completely empty; abdominal discomfort like pain, cramps, or gas; unexplained weight loss; and fatigue or weakness. Many people with colon polyps may not have symptoms, but if screening catches these polyps early, doctors can remove the lumps with surgery. Doctors may also use chemotherapy to treat some colon cancer patients.

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