One of the best ways to enhance overall health is to boost your immune system, by following a healthy lifestyle. This can mean distinctly different things to each individual.
Eating a balanced diet bursting with colour and whole foods is a great first step. Also consuming foods that have immune-boosting ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin D and essential fatty acids.
We’ve known that essential fatty acids (a.k.a omega-3s, EFAs or n-3 PUFAs) boost your immune system for the past 50 years. However, because there was previously no way to test for omega-3 deficiency, the research went largely unnoticed – until recently.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the connection between omega-3 fatty acids and the immune system. Exploring recent scientific research to discover why and how omega-3s boost the immune system.
We'll also look at evidence-based health benefits of omega-3s and where they come from.
Omega-3s – The Basic Building Blocks of Cell Membranes
Omega-3s offer many health-promoting benefits including boosting heart health; this is widely known.
More recently researchers have been looking into using fatty acids to prevent or treat inflammatory and immune diseases.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFAs) are the basic building blocks of cell membranes.
They are considered “essential” because they cannot be created in the body and must be consumed in the diet.
N-3 PUFAs are made up of a kind of fat known as a lipid, more specifically “phospholipids”. Lipids are molecules that have poor solubility in water.
The lipid-solubility of a cell membrane influences how easily particles can permeate the cell wall. Because the cell (or plasma) membrane separates the interior of a cell from its surrounding environment.
Consuming omega-3 fatty acids strengthens the cell walls. This includes the membranes of your immune cells.
Which Omega-3 is Best? (Omega-3 Purity)
There’s no doubt about it, omega 3 fatty acids are great for overall health.
However, you must make sure that you look for the purest products available.
Contaminants from the environment can be absorbed by fish. These include heavy metals, chemicals, and microplastics.
For this reason, care should be taken to find foods and supplements that are free from contaminants and toxins.
Omega-3 fatty acids are susceptible to oxidation and should be carefully handled and stored to ensure that their beneficial properties are kept intact.
The bioavailability of omega-3s is highest when the source is pure and the producer takes great care to test for contaminants.
The good news is that if you are vegan or vegetarian, you don’t have to worry about fish absorbing toxins. Instead, you can eat the plants that fish consume directly.
Rather than eating the nutrients filtered through fish, you can choose to consume omega-3 rich algae.
Your immune system is your body’s defence system, tasked with fighting off foreign particles that enter your body and ensuring all systems function smoothly.
The immune system also has its own memory, that it uses to ward off pathogens that it’s experienced in the past.
Does Omega 3 Increase White Blood Cells?
Hundreds of research papers have now been published that demonstrate the relationship between omega-3s and the immune system.
We know that the structural components of omega-3s – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – can suppress inflammation. Additionally, researchers have explored other functions of omega-3 and the immune system.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology found that DHA- and EPA-rich oils enhance the function of B cells. B cells are a type of white blood cell used to fight pathogens and ward off disease. Meaning your white blood cells may not be increased, but they will be powered up if you consume omega-3s. Your immune cell membranes structurally change when fatty acids are consumed.
Scientists use the term “Lipid rafts” to describe the cellular membrane. Scientists have now found that omega-3 fatty acids can help rebuild the cell membrane (or lipid rafts) in T-cells (immune cells). Allowing us to further understand the underlying mechanisms whereby omega-3s can strengthen your immune cells.
How Omega-3s Help Your Body Eliminate Pathogens
A type of white blood cell called a “macrophage” plays an important role in eliminating pathogens from your body.
They are like tiny Pac Men, going through your body and detecting alien invaders. After a pathogen is found, the macrophage recruits immune cells from both the innate and adaptive immune systems.
They also ingest foreign materials, a process that is aided by omega-3s. With their immune defence system on high alert, your body can mount an effective immune response.
Omega-3 fatty acids alter macrophage function by producing cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins that can communicate between lipid layers. Omega-3s also aid in the production of chemokines that attract immune cells to an infected area.
Boosted macrophage activity from omega-3 fatty acids happens because of changes in gene regulation. In the immune system, the main changes are due to the DHA component of omega-3s.
Macrophages can also be activated to promote tissue repair after viruses and pathogens are eliminated.
Six Sources of Omega-3s (Plus Recommended Daily Dose)
Fish is the most common source of omega-3 fatty acids in the human diet. 71% of omega 3 fatty acids come from fish, while just 36% is from cereal products.
Vegetables, seeds and nuts are another sources of omega-3s, but they are not normally consumed in high enough quantities.
Currently, the recommended daily dose of omega-3 is 1.1g.
Here’s a question: why do people say that fish is a good source of omega-3s?
The truth is, it’s not the fish – rather it’s what they eat.
Fish eat algae that contain high levels of EPA and DHA. Seafish often contains high levels of mercury and should be avoided.
Instead, look for more sustainable, small species fish such as anchovies.
The six sources of omega 3 are:
- Seaweed (undaria pinnatifida, also known as wakame)
- Seeds and nuts
As you can see, omega-3 fatty acids play a pivotal role in your immune system.
By strengthening cell walls, helping macrophages consume pathogens and creating a strong immune response in the presence of a virus, pathogen or bacterial invasion, omega-3s help to upregulate our natural immunity and keep us fighting fit.
Sadly, most people in the developed world consume just 10% of the recommended daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Which is nowhere enough to support optimal immune function.
Supplementing with a high-quality omega-3 fish oil is an indubitably good way of upping your intake of fatty acids and avoiding the pitfalls of deficiency.
Written by best-selling author and integrative nutrition health coach Rowanna Watson, who has a passion for natural health. Rowanna is an expert in all areas of holistic health, plant-based nutrition, detoxification and personal development.
Water for Health Ltd began trading in 2007 with the goal of positively affecting the lives of many. We still retain that mission because we believe that proper hydration and nutrition can make a massive difference to people’s health and quality of life. Click here to find out more.
Vegetables, seeds and nuts are great sources of vegan omega-3.