What I’ve Learned About Omega-3 Fats and Sickle Cell Disease
When my son was diagnosed with sickle cell disease 17 months ago, I thought constantly about what this might mean for our future. But I don’t think about it much these days, and that’s mainly because he hasn’t had any sickle cell crises or other related pain.
Perhaps it’s luck? Or perhaps it’s just that we’re doing everything we can to keep him well – feeding him a healthy diet, and ensuring he gets enough sleep and water, he’s dressed correctly for the weather, and he’s as happy as possible. Or maybe it’s a combination of everything. Whatever it is, I am incredibly grateful!
I credit nutrition with all the success we’ve had over the past 17 months. And following up from last week’s column, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about omega-3 fats and sickle cell.
Omega-3 fats are one of the essential fats we need for health. They are essential because we can only get them through food; our bodies cannot make them.
There are three types of omega-3 fats — alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which are present in plant foods, and docosahexaenoic (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic (EPA), found predominantly in fish. Omega-3 fats are an important part of our diet because they reduce inflammation and keep our eyes, brain, and heart healthy. They are also crucial for keeping our cell membranes flexible – an attribute that benefits people with sickle cell.
In sickle cell disease, red blood cells become rigid and inflexible once they lose oxygen. The rigidity and inflexibility make the cells prone to clumping together in the blood vessels, especially in the tiny capillaries, causing pain, and sometimes a full-blown crisis.
The studies that have been done so far show that sickle cell disease manifests an imbalance in the types of fatty acids present in red blood cell membranes. Specifically, red blood cells in sickle cell have more omega-6 fatty acids – the fatty acids that promote inflammation – and fewer inflammation-reducing omega-3 fats.
A team of researchers in the United Kingdom investigated whether omega-3 fat supplementation can rebalance the fatty acid composition of red blood cells, reduce inflammation and possibly reduce crisis rates in children with sickle cell disease. Indeed, supplementation considerably reduced the number of crises, blood transfusions, white blood cell counts and severe anemia. An earlier study conducted by American researchers reported similar findings.
I’ve learned that while these studies provide insight into the pathways that cause crises and offer strategies that may alleviate pain, they don’t necessarily translate into real-life situations. And it’s probably not always wise to copy the methods used in studies.
That’s because omega-3 fats seem beneficial, but unsupervised, long-term, high-dose omega-3 supplementation can be detrimental to health, so always seek advice from your doctor before you begin taking high-dose omega-3 supplements.
Besides, omega-3 fats are readily available from food, especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout. Omega-3 fats from plant foods (ALA) such as chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseeds need to be converted to the longer chain DHA and EPA before your body can use them. The conversion rates are pretty poor, so it is worth eating a combination of animal and plant sources of omega-3 fats to get enough.
We try to eat fatty fish at least twice a week to get enough omega-3 fats. My son also takes an omega-3 supplement once or twice a week to boost his intake. We avoid vegetable oils in order to limit our intake of omega-6.
Do you eat omega-3-rich foods regularly? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Note: Sickle Cell Disease News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Sickle Cell Disease News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to sickle cell disease.