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Oily fish & fish oils: the health benefits you never knew about

New research out this week indicates that eating oily fish, like salmon and mackerel, may reduce the risk of death from bowel cancer. This further demonstrates the multiple benefits of oily fish in our diet. Eating regular amounts of omega-3 fish oil is also proven to boost the skin’s immunity to sunlight, which allows the body to fight skin cancer and infections, according to research funded by Worldwide Cancer Research.

Can omega-3 fish oils really fight skin cancer?

Professor Lesley Rhodes and her team at the University of Manchester previously found that people given omega-3 supplements were better able to ward off the potential harmful effects of sunshine, than those given a placebo pill.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was the first to investigate the effects of omega-3 on sun protection in humans and compared the skin’s immune response to strong sunshine in 79 volunteers.

Half were given 4 grams of of omega-3 daily – the equivalent of a portion and a half of oily fish like salmon or mackerel – and half were given a placebo pill. Using a special light machine, they were then exposed to the equivalent of either 8, 15 or 30 minutes of summer midday sun in Manchester. When exposed for eight and 15 minutes, those given the placebo pills had an immune response that was half as strong as those given omega-3 pills. There was no difference in immune response when exposed for 30 minutes.

Professor  Rhodes, from the University’s Dermatology Centre, emphasised that their study was by no means conclusive proof of a protective effect but it showed promise. She added that “eating oily fish or taking supplements was not a substitute for sun cream, wearing a hat and a shirt, as omega-3 could only be regarded as having a small protective effect.”

"When exposed for eight and 15 minutes, those given the placebo pills had an immune response that was half as strong as those given omega-3 pills.”

Can eating oily fish help us to live longer?

The new research hitting headlines this week  from Dr Andrew Chan at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, suggests that just a few mouthfuls a day of oily fish, like salmon or mackerel, could provide enough omega-3 to reduce the risk of bowel patients dying by up to 70%. Just eating one or two portions a week could be beneficial.

Although, like Professor Rhodes, the researchers caution that their findings were observational and no firm conclusions can be drawn, they say it provides the first evidence that omega-3 fatty acids could have an influence on bowel cancer survival.

The research was carried out on nearly 200,000 people from two other large studies which had monitored diet and cancer. The regular eating of oily fish seemed to be especially beneficial for those who were tall and had a BMI below 25 and who didn’t take a regular aspirin, known to reduce bowel cancer risk and reported to prolong the life of bowel cancer patients.

Unlike Professor Rhodes’ work which used fish oils, this research was looking at oily fish so it is unknown if the link would apply to capsules of fish oil supplements.

So can oily fish really prevent or stop cancer?

In conclusion – no, not really. Sadly, despite what the media might say, there is no one superfood to beat cancer. Both Professor Rhodes and Dr Chan were quick to stress that eating oily fish or taking fish oil supplements alone cannot reduce cancer risk. They do however both support the notion that eating oily fish a couple of times a week or taking omega-3 supplements could have multiple health benefits, including possibly helping our bodies fight cancer.

At the end of the day, there are no short cuts.  The best way to reduce your risk of cancer is to eat a diet high in fish, fruit and vegetables and low in red and processed meat. Exercise regularly, drink only small amounts of alcohol, don’t smoke, always use sun cream and protect your skin from the sun to avoid sunburn.

Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

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