By Dr. Mercola
Scientists at Michigan State University (MSU) recently reported encouraging news for people suffering from lupus, an autoimmune disease that affects about 1.5 million people in the U.S.
Lupus attacks your immune system and destroys healthy cells (aka macrophages), tissues and other organs. The most common target is your skin, although your brain, kidneys, lungs and other organs and tissues can also be damaged.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the form seen in 70 percent of cases. Patients often experience unexplained fever, shortness of breath and chest pain, heart or kidney problems, swollen, painful joints, unsightly skin rashes, incapacitating headaches and debilitating fatigue.1
One of the biggest problems with lupus is that the medical community isn't sure what causes it. There's no cure, per se, so in most cases, doctors simply treat it. Steroids and other drugs are a popular, albeit side-effect-ridden, remedy. Over the past few years, clinical research has looked at a diet-based approach.
The MSU study, reported in the journal PLOS One,2 showed that docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, a type of omega-3, an essential fat, prevented lesions from forming on the lungs of mice predisposed to lupus by stopping a toxic mineral called crystalline silica from triggering the disease.
Causes of Lupus: Occupational, Environmental and Otherwise
Exposure to crystalline silica (cSiO2) is just one of the environmental causes of lupus. It's found in substances such as brick, mortar and concrete, and was placed in a class of carcinogens when scientists discovered that exposure to its miniscule, airborne particulates raised peoples' lung cancer risk.
What makes someone vulnerable to lupus? A Canadian study3 examined many different ways people can be exposed to crystalline silica, often an occupational hazard, some with higher levels of exposure than others:
✓ Work in a dental office or laboratory
✓ Cosmetics and other beauty products
✓ Artists working with paints or dyes
✓ Artists making pottery or ceramics
✓ Photographers developing film
✓ Nail polish or nail applications
✓ Solvents used to clean metal parts
Another study, posted by the National Cancer Institute (NIH), showed that this substance, mainly quartz dust, is created when hand-held masonry tools are used to cut concrete or brick. Breathing in silica contained in cleansers, pet litter, caulk, paint and talcum powder can also be dangerous.
"The strongest link between human lung cancer and exposure to respirable crystalline silica has been seen in studies of quarry and granite workers and workers involved in ceramic, pottery, refractory brick, and certain earth industries."4
When particles are breathed in, they can penetrate deep into your lungs, potentially raising your lung cancer risk. There are regulations and standards in place by the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), specifically related to silica exposure.5
PLOS One study co-author Jack Harkema, from the Institute for Integrative Toxicology at MSU, noted:
"Cells in the lung can gobble up the silica, but it's so toxic, it kills these cells. When they die, signals are sent out to the immune system that something is wrong. The body then produces such a strong response that it also starts to target healthy cells."6
That's why the study showing the dramatic turn-around omega-3s can make in turning lupus and other diseases around is so remarkable.
The Importance of Omega-3 Fats, DHA and EPA
The best sources of animal-based omega-3 fats come from the DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) provided in krill oil and certain fatty, cold-water fish, produced by the algae that fish eat and store in their bodies.
This doesn't refer to plant-based ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), found in flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp. Those foods are good for you, but it's best to get omega-3s from animal sources.
Your body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but only when there are enough enzymes (which is seldom the case) and even then only a minimal amount, so it would require ingesting much more.
The American diet is sadly deficient in healthy fats, including EPA and DHA. Optimal amounts are important for the healthy function of neurotransmitters in your brain, insulin levels, and your heart and bones. Ingesting the right amount can even lower your cancer risk.
If you consume a lot of omega-6 fats, you need more omega-3s. Unfortunately, most people in the U.S. eat 10 times more omega-6s than omega-3s, and often it's highly processed.
The Role of DHA in Preventing Lupus and other Diseases
When the MSU study team investigated the possibilities of DHA being able to protect against lupus and other dangers of crystalline silica, the members were already aware of the anti-inflammatory aspects of omega-3 fats. In fact, DHA is one of the three foremost types of omega-3.
Female mice predisposed to lupus were given one of four types of diets, each containing different percentages of DHA: .4 percent, 1.2 percent, 2.4 percent (equivalent to humans taking 2, 6 or 12 grams of DHA daily) or a control diet.
After two weeks, all four groups of mice were exposed to 1 milligram of crystalline silica per week for four weeks. The lowest DHA amount in the mice diet showed no affect on lung lesions, but according to Harkema in an MSU press release:7
"Ninety-six percent of the lung lesions were stopped with DHA after being triggered by the silica. I've never seen such a dramatic protective response in the lung before … Our next step is to figure out exactly what's happening."
Lead study author James Pestka commented that the study made it clear that ingesting DHA may prevent environmental lupus triggers by suppressing the signaling pathways of the disease.
He added that while drugs are currently being marketed for this purpose, fish containing DHA and obtained from a reliable, non-polluted source can be low in contaminants, which sometimes pose a hindrance to people looking to obtain omega-3s from dietary sources. Those fish include:
- Sardines and anchovies
- Menhaden8 (a type of herring usually low in contaminants)
- Wild-caught Alaskan salmon
It's crucial to note that, in terms of salmon, only wild-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon is good for you, the main reasons being widely contaminated fishing waters, and that the omega-3s are greatly diminished in farmed salmon.
Studies on DHA Supplementation
People on Western diets often consume far more omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids from plant oils than omega-3 fats from healthy sources of seafood or krill oil.
However, omega-3 supplementation is a reliable way to obtain healthy amounts. This is especially true if you're unable to eat the fish listed above, or it's unavailable to you. A number of studies indicate that DHA supplementation may not only suppress inflammation in compromised organs, it might even reverse it. According to Pestka:
"While it should be emphasized that that our study was performed in the mouse, a 'preclinical' model, we believe our research provides new insight into how omega-3s could block environmental triggering of other autoimmune or inflammatory diseases.
For example, occupational exposure to silica has been linked to rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Consumption of omega-3s have been shown to benefit persons with RA."9
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends taking 250 milligrams of EPA, plus DHA, with no more than 5 grams per day.10
While one of the best ways to get omega-3s is by eating non-polluted wild-caught fatty fish at least twice a week, if you don't, you may benefit from taking a supplement. Authority Nutrition recommends making sure the supplement contains adequate amounts of EPA and DHA.
"There is no set standard for how much omega-3 you should get each day. Various mainstream health organizations have released their own expert opinions, but they vary considerably. Overall, most of these organizations recommend a minimum of 250-500 mg combined EPA and DHA each day for healthy adults. However, higher amounts are often recommended for certain health conditions."11
The amounts are different if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, because then you'll most likely need more. While the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada say to take at least 500 mg of omega-3s, including EPA and DHA, per day, the European Commission recommends a minimum of 200 mg of DHA alone, per day. Additionally, before you choose a supplement, make sure you know how much it actually contains.
A Last Note on Fish Oil Supplements
At the University of Ulster, Dr. Emeir Duffy from the School of Biomedical Sciences recently examined the effects of fish oil supplements on 52 lupus patients. Participants divided into four groups were given either three doses of fish oil supplements a day, a copper supplement, copper as well as fish oil, or a placebo.
Those who took the fish oil "saw improvements in quality of life, inflammation and fatigue, which is one of the most debilitating symptoms of lupus." The copper had no benefit one way or the other. Duffy was quoted in Epic 4 Health:
"Some found it fantastic, and they went from being severely affected in their daily life to actually joining the gym and having a huge difference in what they could do. Others saw a mild improvement, being able to go out and do the shopping which is a big bonus to some people who can't even leave the house."12
Please note there are many advantages of krill oil over fish oil, which you can read about in detail here. For instance, when you consume fish oil, your liver has to attach it to phosphatidylcholine in order for it to be utilized by your body. Krill oil already contains phosphatidylcholine, which grants it superior bioavailability.
Even if you don't work in a job where you're likely to handle or breathe in silica particles, consuming omega-3 fats is essential for health.