When Ellie Brogan was just a day old, doctors warned her parents that she would probably need a liver transplant or die by her first birthday. Ellie was born missing a fraction of her small intestine and some of her colon.
Two and a half years later, Ellie is one of more than 100 children with "short bowel syndrome" who have received a therapy pioneered at Children's Hospital Boston. It uses fish oil to keep their livers healthy, and doctors and Ellie's parents say it helped save her life.
Babies like Ellie lack the ability to digest food or absorb nutrients. They need to be fed intravenously, but the IV nutrition can also damage their livers. But experiments recently showed that using a nutritional supplement made with fish oil instead of the standard one, made from soybean oil, did not cause liver damage.
So far, 112 children at Children's Hospital have been given the fish oil. The treatment is now available at 70 hospitals around the world. Although the data have not yet been published, more than 90 percent of the Children's Hospital patients are alive -- a remarkable rate for this serious illness, especially considering that the hospital often sees children who arrive from elsewhere in very bad shape.
It can occur from birth, when a portion of the intestine fails to develop, or due to an infectious inflammatory disease that strikes premature newborns. Adults can also suffer from short bowel syndrome due to surgery for Crohn’s disease, surgical removal of the small bowel due to disease or injury, intestinal volvulus (which occurs when the bowel gets twisted) and other causes.
Among children, the typical treatment for SBS is to feed them intravenously, since their bodies are unable to digest food or absorb nutrients. The major problem was that the standard nutritional supplement used was made from soybean oil, and inevitably caused liver damage in the children, who then often required liver transplants or died from the disease.
The situation was so dire that Dr. Mark Puder, a surgeon at Children’s Hospital Boston, said, "we knew most of them were going to die," referring to children with SBS.
Then, these physicians noticed something profound. When children were given a nutritional supplement called Omegaven, which is made with fish oil instead of soybean oil, they began to improve drastically.
The fish oil treatment has already been given to 112 children at Children’s Hospital, where now more than 90 percent of the children with SBS are still alive! The results were so striking that the fish oil nutritional supplement is now available at 70 hospitals around the world.
Now these children are being given the chance to survive, to allow their intestines to adapt and ultimately even be able to eat food on their own.
Why are Omega-3 Fats so Much Better Than Soybean Oil?
Soybean oil is made largely of omega-6 fats, which cause inflammation in your body. Aside from being linked to diseases ranging from heart disease and cancer to asthma and blindness, research by Dr. Puder found that the soybean oil-based nutritional supplement was contributing to liver disease by causing fat to accumulate in the liver.
In many ways this is the same problem that occurs in many people who eat a typical Western diet.
Animal-based omega-3 fats, which come largely from fish and fish oils, are not eaten in abundance in the United States. What IS eaten in abundance are omega-6 fats, which come from vegetable oils like corn, soy, and canola.
The typical Western ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is 20:1. To reach optimal health, the ratio should be closer to 1:1.
When omega-6 fats predominate in your diet, as is common in the United States, this encourages the production of inflammation in your body. Many scientists believe that one major reason for today's high incidence of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, and some forms of cancer is this profound imbalance between your intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fats.
So you can imagine how relying solely on a nutritional supplement based on omega-6 fats would be disastrous for these infants.
The fish oil-based supplement, on the other hand, prevented fat accumulation and liver injury in studies conducted on mice, leading Dr. Puder to begin using the treatment with children.
In children with bowel problems, omega-3 fat likely works in numerous beneficial ways. For instance, the omega-3 fats in fish oil, EPA and DHA, have immune-boosting qualities along with anti-inflammatory properties that are proven to benefit other disorders of the gut, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Although Omegaven is not approved for use in the United States, individual patients can use it on a case-by-case basis with permission from the FDA.
All Children and Adults Can Benefit From Omega-3
I really don’t consider omega-3 fats to be a supplement, they are more of a food. Personally I take them every day and heartily recommend most everyone also take them on a daily basis. A supplement form is superior because most all of the natural food source of this healthy fat, fish, is polluted with mercury, PCBs, and other toxins.
Most of your health benefits associated with omega-3 fats are linked to animal-based omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA, not plant-based omega-3 fats like ALA from flaxseed. ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in your body, but only at a very low ratio. Even if you eat large amounts of ALA, your body can only convert very small amounts into EPA and DHA, and only when sufficient enzymes are present.
So, hands down, the types of omega-3 that you want to add to your diet are EPA and DHA, which are found primarily in fish oil and krill oil.