Essential Fatty Acids and Breast Health

How fish oil and omega-3 supplements impact breast cancer
By Cara Lucas

The fish oil pill that you pop once a day for benefits like brain and heart health may have further reaching effects than you thought. Scientists and doctors alike are accumulating a nice body of evidence that shows fish oil to have proven mechanistic actions that can influence cancer—breast cancer specifically.

Why? Purified fish oil is the best direct source of the essential fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are polyunsaturated fats that our bodies need but cannot produce, so we must consume them through food or supplements.

There are two families of EFAs: omega-3 and omega-6, which need to be consumed in a balanced ratio. You see, in our modern industrialized food system, omega-3s have become largely absent from the food chain while omega-6s have become overabundant. Even the healthiest diets contain too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s. This EFA imbalance can contribute to chronic inflammation and a variety of chronic health issues. But getting that balance correct can lead to improvement in the health of breast cancer patients.

“In the laboratory, studies show that the EPA and DHA found in fish oil supplements, specifically, clearly inhibit the initiation, aggression, and proliferation of breast-cancer cells,” explains Tori Hudson, ND and author of the book Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. “Their broad-reaching anti-inflammatory properties have the ability to facilitate malignant cell death, help limit blood supply to tumor sites, down-regulate the synthesis of estrogen, and, according to a growing body of evidence, even improve insulin sensitivity.”

A large study recently asked 35,000 postmenopausal women who did not have a history of breast cancer to complete a questionnaire about the use of non-vitamin, non-mineral specialty supplements. After six years, they identified 880 cases of breast cancer from the original 35,000 women polled. The regular use of fish-oil supplements—not simply the use of fish oil in a normal diet—was linked with a 32-percent-reduced risk of breast cancer. The use of the other specialty supplements (such as Black Cohosh, Soy, CoQ10, St. John’s wort, Ginkgo biloba, and Ginseng) was not associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer.

Of course, there is debate in the medical field about fish oil’s ability to increase the efficacy of chemotherapy without negatively affecting any target or non-target tissue. While some say yes and others no, the studies that are targeted as negative are faulted for either using fish oil that was not optimally distilled or was thought to lack in freshness.

In breast cancer survivors, the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplements has been shown to fight fatigue from harsh, taxing medical treatment. Getting the right amount of omega-3 relative to your intake of omega-6 can decrease inflammation by decreasing the amount of C-reactive protein and thus improve women’s energy levels. Fish oil also shows an ability to help patients maintain their weight and muscle mass through treatments.

When questions of quality come into play, experts from Nordic Naturals say that any time you burp up a fishy taste, consider your product to be rancid. It should be processed in an oxygen-free environment, which ensures the absence of any free radicals and impurities.

Remember that, depending on your nutritional needs, different blends and concentrates are special to each person’s situation. Always contact your health care professional before starting any new supplement regimen.