High quality fish oil is generally regarded as safe and helpful for supporting general health. But what about its use specifically for cancer patients? Current research supports promising findings for targeted therapy.
Dogs must obtain essential fatty acids through food, and while many canine diets contain an abundance of omega-6 fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids require a little more nutritional attention. Dogs can synthesize the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in plant and nut oils, but the process is not efficient enough for therapeutic use. As a result, EPA and DHA must then be supplemented, for example, from marine-sourced lipids.
EPA and DHA found in fish oil are commonly recommended supplements to support skin, coat, and joint health in companion animals. They are one of the most studied supplements in both human and veterinary medicine. And research shows they can improve immune function, mediate inflammation, and balance hormones, as well as enhance both cognition and neuromuscular function.
There is also a growing body of research to support their targeted therapeutic use in cancer patients.
Mitigating muscle atrophy and cancer cachexia
Cancer cachexia is defined as rapid, involuntary loss of muscle mass and is generally associated with a poor prognosis and a reduction in quality of life. Pro-inflammatory factors, tumoral factors, inappetence and subsequent lack of energy and nutrient intake, physical inactivity, and side effects from cancer treatments or surgery all contribute to the multifactorial process of cancer cachexia and muscle atrophy.
Two review studies demonstrate a promising area of therapeutic intervention using omega-3 fatty acids to support muscle anabolism in the cancer state. Research shows that EPA and DHA are incorporated into the membrane phospholipids of both the sarcolemma and intracellular organelles of skeletal muscle cells, helping to preserve skeletal muscle function by reducing loss of muscle mass and by preventing dips in mitochondrial respiration during prolonged periods of inactivity. The EPA and DHA-enriched membranes are associated with increased synthesis of muscle protein and decreased expression of factors regulating breakdown of muscle protein (1,2). While further studies are needed to identify the exact molecular mechanisms of these effects, using EPA and DHA for targeted nutritional therapy in the cancer patient offers a promising avenue of intervention to combat cancer cachexia.
EFAs are also being studied for their specific anti-neoplastic effects, in addition to their roles in decreasing overall inflammation and enhancing quality of life. Research indicates that they can induce apoptosis of neoplastic cells alone (through selective toxicity to cancer cells and not normal cells) or in combination with conventional therapies (enhancing the response to chemotherapeutics). There is also the potential for EFAs to reduce toxicity from the chemotherapeutic agents themselves (3).
High quality fish oils from sustainable wild sources that are pure and free from PCBs, heavy metals, toxins, and other contaminants offer many benefits for not only overall health and well-being, but for targeted nutritional therapy for veterinary cancer patients as well. They should be considered an important part of an overall nutrition system designed for any canine with a cancer diagnosis.
- McGlory C, Calder PC, Nunes EA. The influence of omega-3 fatty acids on skeletal muscle protein turnover in health, disuse, and disease. Front Nutr. 2019;6:144.
- Malta, F, Estadella D, Goncalves D. The role of omega-3 fatty acids in suppressing muscle protein catabolism: a possible therapeutic strategy to reverse cancer cachexia? Journal of Functional Foods. 2019;54:1-12.
- Laviano A, Rianda S, Molfino A, Rossi Fanelli F. Omega-3 fatty acids in cancer. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013;16(2):156‐161.