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Fish Oil Eases Brain Impact of Alcoholism, Rodent Study Finds

People who consume excessive amounts of alcohol have increased risks for developing damaging brain inflammation, especially when they maintain a pattern of heavy intake over time. In a study published in July 2014 in the journal PLOS One, researchers from three U.S. institutions explored the usefulness of fish oil, a substance with known anti-inflammatory properties, in diminishing alcohol-related brain inflammation in heavy drinkers affected by alcoholism. These researchers concluded that a substance found in fish oil can potentially block some of the processes in the brain responsible for alcohol-related inflammation, and thereby reduce exposure to dementia and other forms of brain damage.

Alcohol and Brain Damage

Alcohol is well known in the scientific community for its potential to produce seriously toxic effects in tissues and organs located throughout the human body. Much of this damaging impact stems from a rise in inflammation that starts when the liver (the body’s main organ for alcohol detoxification) can no longer keep up with the workload imposed by heavy drinking. Inflammation is actually part of the body’s natural defense against injury; however, it can cause major problems when it does not subside and continues to impact organs and tissues over time. Inside the brain, alcohol-related inflammation can damage the nerve cells responsible for providing all basic function. Eventually, exposure to chronic forms of this inflammation can also lead to nerve cell death. One of the possible consequences of this harmful process is the onset of some form of dementia. Doctors and researchers sometimes refer to dementia directly related to alcohol’s toxic effects as alcohol-related dementia (ARD). This distinction is important because alcoholism also produces indirect, nutrition-based risks for dementia-associated brain change.

Fish Oil

Fish oil is a substance obtained from the bodies of certain ocean-going fish species, including tuna, mackerel, sardines, herring and salmon. The anti-inflammatory properties of this oil stem from the presence of substances called omega-3 fatty acids. Two specific types of these acids, known by the abbreviations DHA and EPA, are constituents of fish oil. All people need to include sources of omega-3s in their daily diets to keep inflammation under control and keep their brains working properly. Additional potential uses for fish oil and other omega-3 sources include helping to control the risks for cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease, helping to control the damage caused by rheumatoid arthritis and helping to increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels in people with diabetes.

Protection Against Alcoholism-Related Damage

In the study published in PLOS One, researchers from Loyola University Chicago, the University of Kentucky and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism used laboratory experiments on brain cells obtained from adult rats to examine fish oil’s potential usefulness in protecting the human brain from alcoholism-related inflammation. Specifically, these researchers looked at the benefits provided by the omega-3 fatty acid DHA. During the experiments, one set of brain cells was exposed to a heavy concentration of alcohol designed to mimic a common level of intake among people affected by alcoholism, as well as a common level of intake among binge drinkers who may or may not have alcoholism. A second set of brain cells was exposed to the same amount of alcohol, as well as doses of DHA. After comparing the amount of damage produced in the two groups of brain cells, the researchers concluded that the presence of DHA reduces the amount of inflammation and nerve cell death normally associated with heavy drinking by as much as 90 percent.

The study’s authors stress the fact that their findings are preliminary and require extensive follow-up research (in adult rats and ultimately in humans) before anyone really knows if fish oil can produce a real-world reduction in the risks associated with alcohol-related brain inflammation. They also stress the fact that their findings are not meant to encourage a continuation of dangerous drinking in people currently affected by alcohol problems, or the initiation of dangerous drinking in people not currently affected by alcohol problems. Like the scientific community as a whole, they emphasize the importance of reducing excessive alcohol intake to moderate levels or quitting drinking altogether. No one should start taking fish oil as a treatment for alcoholism, alcohol abuse or any other health problem without consulting a doctor and obtaining prior approval.

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