What I Learned About Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Sickle Cell Anemia

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When my son was diagnosed with sickle cell disease 17 months ago, I kept thinking about what it could mean for our future. But I don’t think about it much these days, and that’s mainly because he didn’t have any sickle cell crises or any other pain associated with it.

Maybe it is luck Or maybe we just do everything we can to make sure that he is well – feed him healthily, ensure enough sleep and water, are dressed appropriately for the weather and feel as comfortable as possible. Or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. Whatever it is, I am incredibly grateful!

I owe all the success we have had over the past 17 months to diet. And following last week’s column, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about omega-3 fats and sickle cells.

Omega-3 fats are one of the essential fats that we need for our health. They are important because we can only get them through food; our body cannot make them.

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There are three types of omega-3 fats – alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in plant foods, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are mainly found in fish. Omega-3 fats are an important part of our diet as they reduce inflammation and keep our eyes, brain and heart healthy. They are also critical to keeping our cell membranes flexible – a property that people with sickle cells benefit from.

In sickle cell anemia, red blood cells become rigid and inflexible as soon as they lose oxygen. The rigidity and inflexibility make the cells prone to clumping in the blood vessels, especially in the tiny capillaries, causing pain and sometimes a full blown crisis.

The studies carried out so far show that sickle cell anemia manifests an imbalance in the fatty acids present in the membranes of the red blood cells. In particular, red blood cells in sickle cells have more omega-6 fatty acids – the fatty acids that promote inflammation – and fewer anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.

A team of researchers in the UK investigated whether omega-3 fatty acid supplementation could rebalance the fatty acid composition of red blood cells, reduce inflammation and possibly reduce the rate of crisis in children with sickle cell anemia. In fact, the supplementation significantly reduced the number of crises, blood transfusions, white blood cell counts, and severe anemia. An earlier study by American researchers reported similar results.

I’ve learned that while these studies provide insights into the pathways that cause crises and strategies that can relieve pain, they don’t necessarily translate into real-life situations. And it is probably not always advisable to copy the methods used in studies.

That’s because omega-3 fats appear beneficial, but unsupervised, long-term, high-dose omega-3 supplementation can be harmful to health. Therefore, always seek advice from your doctor before starting high-dose omega-3 supplements.

In addition, omega-3 fats are readily available through diet, especially oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout. Omega-3 fats from plant foods (ALA) like chia seeds, walnuts, and flax seeds need to be converted to the longer-chain DHA and EPA before your body can use them. Conversion rates are pretty poor, so it pays to consume a combination of animal and vegetable sources of omega-3 fats to get enough.

We try to eat fatty fish at least twice a week to get enough omega-3 fats. My son also takes an omega-3 supplement once or twice a week to increase his intake. We avoid vegetable oils to limit our omega-6 intake.

Do You Eat Omega-3 Rich Foods Regularly? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Note: Sickle Cell Anemia News is a news and information-only website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always contact your doctor or other qualified health care provider with questions about any medical condition. Never disregard or hesitate to seek professional medical advice because you have read something on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Sickle Cell Disease News or its parent company BioNews Services and are intended to encourage discussion on topics related to sickle cell disease.

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