As the body ages, tissues become more fragile and susceptible to damage. The immune system responds, causing cells in the brain, the arteries, the digestive tract, the joints — just about everywhere in the body, basically — to flare up at the slightest irritation, triggering a cascade of damage and promoting many age-related problems. One marker of inflammation known as C-reactive protein (CRP), produced by the liver, is considered an indicator of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, macular degeneration, dementia, osteoporosis and cancer. Some scientists consider aging itself to be one big inflammatory disease.
Omega-3s, a fatty acid found in salmon and other fish, as well as in flax seed and other grains, seem to suppress inflammation, although participants in studies often take large doses — hundreds or even thousands of milligrams of EPA and DHA, the two main components of omega-3s. That could mean up to a dozen over-the-counter omega-3 pills a day.
Aspirin also suppresses inflammation, which helps it to relieve the pain of arthritis and other disorders.
Now scientists at Harvard have demonstrated that omega-3s in combination with aspirin are even better because they spur the body to produce molecules known as resolvins, which shut off or "resolve" inflammation.
"Aspirin is able to modify an inflammatory enzyme so it stops forming molecules that propagate inflammation," said Dr. Nicos Petasis of the University of Southern California, announcing the publication of the results in the journal Chemistry & Biology. "Instead it produces molecules from omega-3 fatty acids, like resolvin D3, that help inflammation to end."
The study found that resolvin D3, made from the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, remains longer at sites of inflammation than other resolvins. When applied to human cells, resolvin D3 acted as an anti-inflammatory. When given to mice, it reduced inflammation. And adding aspirin to the chemical synthesis of resolvin D3 promoted the process.
The authors also identified the receptor on human cells that is activated by resolvin D3, which help scientists find other ways to suppress inflammation.
Another author of the study, Dr. Charles Serhan of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said "this finding suggests that this late resolution phase resolvin D3 might display unique properties in fighting uncontrolled inflammation."
The omega-3s in fish oil certainly have many benefits. A 1999 Italian study, for example, found that fish oil capsules reduced sudden cardiac death by an impressive 45 percent in patients who already had a heart attack. But those patients were also taking aspirin, which may have amplified the effect of the fish oil.
Does that constitute evidence that consuming omega-3s along with aspirin control inflammation? But the recent study in Chemistry & Biology suggests that increasing consumption of omega-3s as you age might help, and if your doctor has already advised to take an aspirin a day to stave off heart attack and stroke, you're already doing what this study suggests might be a good idea. Be careful, however — both aspirin and omega-3s inhibit the ability of your blood to clot. Taking both together compounds the effect, which could make it more difficult to control bleeding.
Tom Valeo writes frequently about health matters. He can be reached at [email protected]