Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil may have benefits beyond potentially boosting heart health -- they could also benefit the immune system, according to a new study in mice.
Researchers from Michigan State University and East Carolina University found that feeding fish oil high in the omega-3 fatty acid compound DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) seemed to boost activity of a white blood cell called a B cell, a vital part of the body's immune response. And because of the particular way the DHA-rich fish oil worked in the mice, the researchers noted the finding could have special applications for people with compromised immune systems.
The findings, which are published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, included comparing two groups of mice -- one that was fed a control diet, and one that was fed a diet that included DHA-rich fish oil. After five weeks, researchers took B cells from the mouse tissue and then examined them in the lab for B cell activation.
Omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly naturally found in fish, as well as some plant sources, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. They've been shown in research to improve cognitive health and decrease risk of heart disease and cancer. Omega-3-rich foods are also prevalent in the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease and increased longevity.
But the effects of fish oil in supplement form on heart health has not been totally conclusive, with some studies suggesting it has protective benefits, while others show no effect at all. A recent review of studies, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, showed no difference in heart attack or stroke risk between people who take fish oil supplements and those who don't, Health.com reported. However, experts noted that the jury is still out as to who exactly could benefit from fish oil, as there weren't uniform DHA or EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid, another main compound in omega-3s) levels used in all the studies included in the review.
Currently, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends people eat around two to three servings of fish a week to get a good amount of dietary omega-3s, TIME reported. To make it even more worth your while, a recent study from Harvard and the University of Washington showed that the biggest fish-eaters (calculated by blood levels of omega-3s) also live more than two years longer, on average, than people with low omega-3 levels.
Don't eat fish? Click through the slideshow for some vegetarian sources of omega-3s, from our partners at Blisstree.com:
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