ALS and Omega-3

Omega-3 has proven to be of help in fighting diseases such as CVDs, dementia, diabetes and eye problems among many other conditions. Recent studies have uncovered that omega-3 could also help those suffering from ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurodegenerative disorder. You might recognise ALS – over $100 million was raised to help fight the disease thanks to the worldwide trending ice bucket challenge of 2014.

Powered by social media, the challenge originated in the US, urging people to either donate to a charitable organization funding ALS research or pour ice water over their heads while nominating more people to take the challenge. As the challenge grew in popularity, celebrities started contributing, urging others to donate.

Here are the numbers, as featured on Tech Crunch:

Icebucket Challenge: The Cold Hard Facts and Stats #icebucketchallenge from Jeremiah Owyang

We know about the challenge, but what about the disorder itself? What was it that sparked a worldwide viral challenge? Will omega-3 open up new avenues for ALS research?

ALS: The Basics

So what is it about ALS that spurred famous people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Kevin Rose and Bryan Mason to pour buckets of iced water over their heads?

ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lou Gehrig, a major league baseball player with high career records, was diagnosed with ALS in 1939 and died two years later. This motor neuron disease often, as in the case of Gehrig, claims its sufferers in only a few short years. However, another famous man beat these odds, having an Oscar Nominated movie about his life, titillating the physics world with his theoretical physics breakthroughs and continuing past 70 years of age. Stephen Hawking was diagnosed in 1963 at 21 years of age, and has suffered from a slow-progressing form of ALS ever since.

Gehrig and Hawkings
At the right is Hawking at age 70, this photo taken 90 years after Gehrig’s on the left. Image Credit: Wikimedia and Flickr

ALS is a progressive disease which affects the brain’s nerve cells that control muscle movement and the spinal cord. The condition kills the nerve cells in the brain disabling it from sending impulses to muscles and controlling their movements. When this happen, a person affected may start to lose control of their motor skills. The location of the muscles first affected may vary from one person to another. Some may first lose control over muscles in their chest, legs or arms. These symptoms often create problems related to normal functioning like eating, breathing and walking. As such, ALS often leads to death.

Discovered in 1869 by Jean-Martin Charcot, a French neurologist, the condition was only brought into public awareness after Lou Gehrig’s very promising career was cut short. Now, 2 in every 100,000 deaths are due to ALS. Every year in the US, 5,600 people are diagnosed with the condition.

Common symptoms may include:

  • Walking difficulty
  • Clumsiness
  • Weakness in legs, feet, hands and ankles
  • Arm, shoulder and tongue twitching
  • Problems holding head up
  • Slurred speech and voice projection difficulty
  • Involuntary laughing and crying
  • Problem with breathing and swallowing
  • Limb fatigue

Although most of the time people who have ALS are left with their mental functioning intact, others may experience problems with memory and decision making.

ALS and Genetic Suspects

wheelchair

The most common causes of ALS are said to come from these three categories:

  1. Disorganized immune response wherein the immune system may attack the body’s nerve cells.
  2. Chemical imbalance wherein the body produces higher glutamate levels that are toxic to some nerve cells.
  3. Protein mishandling of the body wherein it accumulates protein within nerve cells leading to nerve cell necrosis.

In a newer study by researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine, mutations in new genes may be associated with cases of ALS. People with ALS usually have no family history of the condition and are often left in the dark as to the exact cause of their condition.

In a study undertaken by Stanford researchers, 47 patients and their parents had their DNA sequences examined. They checked for possible mutations in the offspring affected by the condition that were not common in the parents.

Aaron Gitler, PhD, associate professor of genetics and head of the study said that the more we know about the genetic causes of the disorder, the greater insight we will have as to possible therapeutic targets.

Speaking of therapy, can ALS be cured?

Omega-3 and ALS

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Is ALS treatable or curable?

ALS does not currently have a known cure, but with studies in the field progressing, effective treatments might not be that far away.

Current treatments include the medicine called Rilutek which slows down the progression of the disease by decreasing the production of glutamate. Other treatments include ventilation and respiratory management, occupational and physical therapies, aggressive nutritional intervention and taking supplements.

Let’s examine three studies supporting these claims.

The Harvard Study

A new study suggests that there might be another player that may help reduce the risk of ALS. This is in the form of omega-3 fatty acids that are often found in fish, calamari and krill oil. These helpful fatty acids are often associated with the reduction of inflammation and oxidative stress affecting cells. Inflammation and oxidative stress is known to damage nerve tissues leading to ALS. Taking substances to ensure inflammation does not occur will eventually pay off.

A study published in JAMA Neurology Journal was conducted by researchers from Harvard School of Public Health with lead author Kathryn C. Fitzgerald.

The group analyzed data from more than 1 million people from 5 other major cohort studies. After data analysis, it was found that a greater consumption of foods rich in omega-3 PUFA was associated with a lowered risk of ALS.

In the examination, omega-6 PUFA found no association related to risk reduction. However, ALA or fatty acids extracted from plants are also of great contribution to the reduction of the condition.

20% of the omega-3 consumers examined were a third less likely to develop the condition compared those 20% who consumed the lowest amount of omega-3 fatty acids.

Although the study is still far from giving out clinical recommendations, it is said to be a breakthrough that could open up new possibilities and even provide the basis for future studies.

The Dutch Study

Another study conducted by Dutch researchers also supported the claim. The controlled study gathered data on the dietary intake of 132 ALS patients prior to diagnosis as well as data from a control group of 220 healthy participants. The study further suggested that other substances like flavonols, lycopene, vitamin C, calcium among others are not associated with ALS in any way. The study also found vitamin E coupled with omega-3 could help to decrease the risk of ALS.

The highest intake of omega-3 was associated with 50-60% reduction of the risk of ALS. Both vitamin E and omega-3 work together to improve nerve cell structure and function which offers protection from ALS symptoms.

Getting the Right Amount of Omega-3

Since there is still no known cure for ALS, experts suggest that preventing it might be the best possible step to take at the moment. Although it is not directly stated that one should take supplements, an addition of omega-3 in your food intake as well as supplementation can be a good way to reduce the risk of many diseases including ALS.

Omega-3 comes naturally from foods such as fish, krill, calamari and plant sources like chia and almonds. These may not be enough to get the required amount of omega-3, so supplements are helpful. Commercially made supplements are taken from omega-3 rich sources like fish or calamari. Produced in concentrated capsules, these may provide the recommended amount of omega-3 to your diet.

If supplements aren’t available, innovative ways to include omega-3 in your diet may include different fish recipes, chia in smoothies and breakfasts, olive oil when cooking, etc. For more information, check out some great health tips from Health365.

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