Research finds fish oil can fight superbugs

Fish oil – an over-hyped supplement or an important addition to your health arsenal?

Studies have delivered a range of verdicts but new research from an Australian university says that taking fish oil may reduce antibiotic resistance, which has become a major issue across the globe.

For the first time, Australian scientists have confirmed that regular fish oil can break down the ability of ‘superbugs’ to become antibiotic-resistant.

The discovery, led by Flinders University and published in international journal mBio, found that the antimicrobial powers of fish oil fatty acids could prove to be a simple and safe dietary supplement to be taken with antibiotics to make the fight against infection more effective.

Superbugs are bacteria or fungi that have developed the ability to withstand commonly prescribed drugs. A superbug can infect anyone, but some people may have a higher risk for infection because they’ve been exposed to superbugs in a medical facility or have a weakened immune system because of a chronic illness, healthline.com explains.

Globally, millions become infected each year and about 700,000 people die from drug-resistant infections annually.

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Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health and lengthen life, reports Harvard Health, with $4.1 billion spent annually on omega-3 fatty acids in 2019.

The evidence for improving heart health has been mixed, but fish oil has been shown to be anti-inflammatory and several studies have demonstrated it can lower the risk of heart attacks. But the latest research at Flinders University has headed in a different direction.

Microbiologist Dr Bart Eijkelkamp, from the Bacterial Host Adaptation Research Laboratory at Flinders University, says their studies have shown that “a major antibiotic resistance mechanism in cells can be negatively impacted by the uptake of omega-3 dietary lipids”.

“In the experiments, and complementary supercomputer modelling, we found that these fatty acids in fish oil render the bacteria more susceptible to various common antibiotics,” he reported.

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Co-author Associate Professor Megan O’Mara, from the Australian National University, said “this chink in the armour of harmful bacteria” is an important step forward in combatting the rise of superbugs.

Further research in the field of infectious diseases caused by bacteria such as Acinetobacter baumannii, a leading hospital-acquired pathogen with unprecedented levels of antibiotic resistance around the world, is regarded as vital.

Another co-author, Dr Felise Adams, from Flinders University, explained that the research showed fish oil fatty acids became part of the bacteria membrane and made the invading bacteria membrane more permeable and susceptible to the antibiotics being used to attack it.

Professor Anton Peleg, director of the department of infectious diseases at The Alfred in Melbourne said the studies provided new insights into the potential benefits of omega-3 supplements for bacterial infection, in particular during antibiotic treatment.

The researchers say that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 PUFA) are essential compounds for human health. “The human body generates only low levels of omega-3 PUFA so general dietary consumption and supplementation of omega-3 PUFAs benefit various aspects of human wellbeing, including for eye and brain and even protection from infectious diseases,” they say.

Superbugs have been blamed on the widespread misuse of antibiotics, with evidence that health professionals have been overusing antibiotics for decades. Australia has one of the highest rates of antibiotic use in the world and in the UK, only about one in four antibiotic treatments are necessary, according to Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England from 2011 to 2019.

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In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) called on all organisations to respond to superbugs and the UN set up an inter-agency group to coordinate a response.

Late last year, the WHO stated that antimicrobial resistance (AMR) was a global health and development threat and one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity – even as COVID raged.

It said the cost of AMR to economies was significant. “In addition to death and disability, prolonged illness results in longer hospital stays, the need for more expensive medicines and financial challenges for those impacted,” it said.

Have you had health issues due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Are you more likely in recent years to question whether you need to take antibiotics for a health problem? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Janelle Ward



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