By Dr. Mercola
More than 1.5 million Americans suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes both ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
To put it simply, IBD is an autoimmune condition that involves inflammation in your digestive tract that can cause cramps, bloody diarrhea, weight loss and other potentially serious complications in your intestines, along with increasing your risk of colon cancer.
Because IBD can be extremely painful, debilitating and even life threatening, many IBD patients wind up having extensive sections of their colon removed to address the problem when conventional therapies fail -- and this can result in devastating and life-threatening complications.
The goal of most IBD treatment, whether conventional or holistic, is to suppress the inflammation that is leading to the damaging symptoms -- and new research suggests krill oil may be effective at doing just that.
Krill Oil Shows Promise for Treating IBD
New animal research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology found dietary supplementation with krill oil offered several protective effects against inflammatory bowel disease, including a reduction in inflammation and oxidative stress, and preservation of colon length.1
The study suggests that krill oil has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may benefit patients with IBD -- findings that have been reported before. The omega-3 fats in krill oil, EPA and DHA, play an important role in inflammation; they produce compounds called resolvins and protectins, which help quell inflammation before it can do too much damage to your tissues.
For instance, resolvins may control inflammation by stopping the passage of inflammatory cells to inflammation sites, and turning on other inflammatory cells.2 Several studies have been published on the remarkable effectiveness of krill oil in combating inflammation-related disorders like IBD, arthritis and others.
Three notable ones are:
- A 2007 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition investigated krill oil's ability to reduce inflammation. Researchers found that 300 mg krill oil per day significantly reduced inflammation, pain, stiffness and functional impairment after just 7 days, and even more profoundly after 14 days.3
- A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2005 showed similar findings with respect to reducing inflammation and arthritis symptoms, for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis sufferers.4
- In 2010, a Swiss animal study provided even more confirmation about krill oil's anti-inflammatory properties. Mice consuming krill oil showed less joint inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis than did the control group.5
Other research showed a 14 percent reduction in the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) -- a compound that promotes inflammation -- among medical students taking an omega-3 supplement.6 And yet another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that women with the highest intake of omega-3 fats had a 44 percent reduced risk of dying from inflammatory disease compared with women with the lowest intake.7 Omega-3 fats have also been shown to reduce T-cell-mediated inflammation8, in part, by suppressing T-cell (a key immune system white blood cell) activation and proliferation.
Krill Oil Contains Astaxanthin -- The Anti-Inflammatory Nutrient
Aside from the omega-3 fats, krill oil also contains astaxanthin, a carotenoid produced only by the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis when its water supply dries up, forcing it to protect itself from ultraviolet radiation. It's the algae's survival mechanism -- astaxanthin serves as a "force field" to protect the algae from lack of nutrition and/or intense sunlight.
There are only two main sources of astaxanthin—the microalgae that produce it, and the sea creatures that consume the algae (such as salmon, shellfish, and krill). Not only does natural astaxanthin carry potent antioxidant abilities, but as it turns out, it is also a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Astaxanthin suppresses a wide variety of inflammatory mediators—including tumor necrosis factor alpha, a major prostaglandin and a major interleukin, nitric oxide, COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. Although it may take longer to produce noticeable effects than anti-inflammatory drugs like NSAIDs, it doesn't result in the same dangerous side effects.9 On the contrary, it has a wide range of "side benefits." Research indicates it may be of therapeutic value in as many as 100 health conditions, as well as having close to 50 different beneficial pharmacological actions.10 Could the natural presence of astaxanthin in krill oil be one of the factors, in addition to the phospholipids, as to why it is absorbed more effectively, is easier on the stomach and has superior health properties than fish oil?
Why Krill Oil may be a Better Choice Than Fish Oil
Many experts, including Dr. Mehmet Oz, cardiothoracic surgeon11, author12, talk show host, and commentator for The Dr. Oz Show13, have made the switch from fish oil to krill oil, as research suggests it is the superior choice for high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats. The primary drawback with fish oil is its susceptibility to oxidation (rancidity), which can occur at any point during the processing, or after you open the bottle. Omega-3 fats are extremely fragile and are prone to be damaged by oxygen, which can radically reduce their health benefits and even make them damaging to your body.
Dr. Moerck, an expert on omega-3 fats, explains:
"There are a number of ways in which fish oil can be processed. One is by just simply squeezing the fish -- in some cases with cod liver oil to actually remove the livers from the cod -- and then remove the oil from those by classical mechanical techniques. In some cases, to get the last few ounces of oil out of the fish, they use solvents, or they use fish oil as a solvent by taking fish oil that's already been processed, using it as an extraction method to get more fish oil out. Every time fish oil is subjected to contact with oxygen, however, it starts going rancid. It starts oxidizing."
This is important to realize, because taking a cheap, poor-quality, rancid fish oil will do you more harm than good, and Dr. Moerck estimates that 25-50 percent of fish oils on the market are rancid. At least one study has determined that adding the antioxidant astaxanthin to fish oil reduces its susceptibility to oxidation while making its immunomodulatory properties more potent. This is the precise reason why I have been recommending you get your omega-3 fats from krill oil instead of fish oil, because it has astaxanthin already built in and is therefore far less susceptible to oxidation!
Aside from the astaxanthin, krill oil offers other benefits over fish oil as well. Two studies illustrated the superior benefits of krill oil over fish oil. The first study, published in January, found that the metabolic effects of the two oils are "essentially similar," but that krill oil is as effective as fish oil despite the fact that it contains less EPA and DHA.14 This finding corresponds with unpublished data suggesting that krill oil is absorbed up to 10-15 times as well as fish oil, which would explain this discrepancy.
But what makes it that much more absorbable? In a nutshell, it has to do with its molecular composition.15
Fish oil is in a triglyceride molecule that has to be broken down in your gut to its base fatty acids of DHA and EPA. About 80-85 percent is never absorbed and is eliminated in your intestine (this is why fish oil can cause you to experience burp back and why about half of all people cannot tolerate fish oil). Then once the fatty acids are absorbed into your bloodstream, your liver has to attach it to phoshphatidyl choline for it to be used by your body.
The amazing beauty of krill is that it is already in the correct, phosphatidyl choline-bound form in the capsule, so your body uses virtually 100 percent of it. Unlike fish oil it contains 69 different phospholipids, 9 of which are omega-3 fatty acid bound. Phospholipids can act as emulsifiers, enabling oils to form a colloid with water, basically enhancing the absorption and transport of the fats to which they are bound.16
According to an article in Functional Nutrition, krill oil typically provides 14 percent EPA and DHA, along with 0.2 percent naturally occurring astaxanthin.17 Fish oil typically provides 30 percent EPA and DHA. At first glance, it may appear as though fish oil is better simply because it contains a higher ratio of omega-3 fats. However, krill oil is far more efficiently utilized, for the reasons stated above so you actually need far less.
A Natural Approach for Improving Inflammatory Bowel Disease
If you struggle with IBD, it's essential that you take steps to decrease the chronic inflammation wreaking havoc in your body, and you should know that some of the greatest contributors to chronic inflammation are lifestyle factors like smoking, a diet high in sugar, fried foods and trans fats, inadequate exercise, stress, and vitamin D deficiency. So, if you have IBD the first place to start getting the disease under control lies in addressing these underlying factors. If you have IBD, I urge you to:
- Take a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat supplement like krill oil, for the anti-inflammatory benefits noted above. If you're already taking a plant-based omega-3 such as flax, know that it will not work as well, as your body needs the preformed omega-3 fat DHA to have a serious impact on this disease -- not the omega-3 ALA found in flax.
- Avoid all types of sugars, particularly fructose, as these will increase inflammation by increasing your insulin levels.
- Also avoid grains until your symptoms are under control. Many with inflammatory bowel disease have gluten sensitivities. Additionally, the grains tend to increase insulin levels, promoting inflammation.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners. Inflammatory bowel disease may be caused or exacerbated by the regular consumption of the popular artificial sweetener Splenda, as it inactivates digestive enzymes and alters gut barrier function.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D appears to be nearly as effective as animal-based omega-3 fats in countering IBD. One of the reasons that vitamin D may work is that it helps your body produce over 200 anti-microbial peptides that help fight all sorts of infections, and there are many experts who believe inflammatory bowel disease has an infectious component.
- Get plenty of beneficial bacteria either through fermented foods or probiotics in your diet, as this will help to heal your intestinal tract. You can do this by regularly consuming traditionally fermented foods, or taking a high-quality probiotic supplement. This is another extremely important strategy, as research presented at the American College of Gastroenterology annual meeting, by researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland, showed that people with inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis who took the probiotic bacteria Bifidobacterium infantis for eight weeks had lower levels of inflammation than those taking a placebo.18
- Consider using an herbal anti-inflammatory. A solid body of clinical research indicates that the spice turmeric, and its primary polyphenol known as curcumin, as well as Ayurvedic herb boswellia, may provide far superior therapeutic outcomes and safety profiles, as compared to conventional drugs, in the treatment of IBD.19
Another option to improve the makeup of bacteria in your gut, the fecal transplant, is also proving to be quite effective. A fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) involves taking donor feces (the donor is typically a spouse or relative) and basically transferring it to the patient during a colonoscopy. The benefit? The patient receives a transplanted population of healthy flora that can go to work correcting any number of gastrointestinal and other health problems.
Research has found the transplants showed promise in the treatment of ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, with symptoms improving in days to weeks. So if your symptoms do not improve after taking the steps outlined above, this is another option to consider that is far less invasive than surgery, and with far fewer side effects than drugs.