People with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) who eat more foods high in certain omega-3 fatty acids like flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola oil and pumpkin seeds may have a slower physical decline from the disease and may have a slightly extended survival. The study, which looked at the survival of people with ALS over the course of 18 months, was published online in the journal Neurology. Researchers also found an omega-6 fatty acid may be beneficial. The study does not prove that these omega fatty acids slow decline of ALS or extend survival; it only shows an association.
“The link our study found between diet and ALS is intriguing and suggests, but does not prove, that people with ALS may benefit from incorporating more omega-3 fatty acids into their diet,” said Kjetil Bjornevik, MD, PhD, of Harvard University in Boston, MA, and member of the American Academy of Neurology. “It will now be important to conduct additional research looking specifically at the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid in people with ALS to further explore this possibility.”
The study involved 449 people who had ALS with an average age of 58, who were followed over 18 months. Of the total participants, 126 (28 percent), died by the end of the study.
The researchers looked at levels of omega-3 fatty acids in participants’ blood. They divided them into four groups based on lowest to highest amounts.
Participants took a test to assess their disease progression and severity of symptoms. The test measured 12 aspects of physical function including swallowing, speaking, chewing, and the ability to use muscles in the hands, arms, legs and torso, as well as respiratory function. Each category was scored from zero, meaning no ability, to four, meaning normal ability. Total scores ranged between zero to 48, with higher scores indicating better function and less severe symptoms.
Researchers found an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) was the most beneficial. This acid is found in many seeds and oils, including flaxseed, walnuts, chia, hemp, and many common vegetable oils.
The people with the highest amount of ALA had an average score of 38.3 at the start of the study, while the people with the lowest amount had an average score of 37.6.
A lower number of people from the group with the most ALA died during the study, with 21 deaths (19 percent), compared to people in the lowest group, with 37 deaths (33 percent).
After adjusting for age, sex and ethnicity, people with the highest amounts of ALA had a 50 percent lower risk of death during the study compared to people with the lowest amount.
Higher levels of a specific omega-3 fatty acid called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) that is found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements was also associated with a lower risk of death during the study.
In addition, researchers found an omega-6 fatty acid called linoleic acid (LA) that is found in vegetable oils, nuts, meats, seeds and eggs was associated with a lower risk of death during the study.
According to the researchers, a limitation of the study is the lack of access to data on the overall diet of the participants, including other nutrients and supplements as well as total caloric intake, which could all be associated with survival time in ALS.
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