If you don’t know what “cachexia” is, you’re fortunate.
People with cancer and other chronic diseases often experience cachexia; a general loss of vitality characterized by poor appetite, weight loss, decomposition of muscle, and depression. These symptoms also compromise the immune system and make the body susceptible to other illnesses.
A new study from the UK shows that one important supplement could eventually become a standard of cancer care in addressing cachexia.
Quality of life
Researchers at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh created a study to examine the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplements on weight, lean body mass, dietary intake, and general quality of life in advanced pancreatic cancer patients with symptoms of cachexia.
200 patients were divided into two groups; 95 received a daily high-calorie/high-protein supplement, enriched with vitamins C and E, and about 2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, and 105 received a similar supplement that didn’t include the additional vitamins or fatty acids.
At the beginning of the study, subjects were losing an average of approximately 7 pounds per month. But over the 8-week period of the study, subjects in both groups stopped losing weight. When researchers conducted a specific analysis of dose-response relationships, they found that the omega-3 group showed significantly higher rate of weight gain, as well as increased lean body mass compared to the other group. Furthermore, weight gain was associated with improved quality of life only in the omega-3 group.
Exactly how the enriched supplement created greater benefits over the other supplement isn’t known. Nor is it clear that this sort of supplement might have the same effect on patients suffering from cachexia due to other types of cancers or diseases. Nevertheless, the Edinburgh team concluded that supplements enriched with omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils apparently have positive effects on cachexia symptoms; especially those of weight loss and diminished quality of life.
Fish vs. fish oil
By now, the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are familiar to most HSI members. In the e-Alert “Fish in Fashion” (4/10/02) I told you about two studies that demonstrated how omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil can significantly improve cardiovascular health and cut your risk of heart attack in half. And two other studies were examined in “Omega Delta Blues” (10/28/02), revealing how omega-3 supplements may reduce depression.
Although dietary sources like walnuts and flaxseed deliver good amounts of omega-3, only fish contain both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docohexaenoic acid (DHA). When combined, these two fatty acids have been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, influenza, hyperactivity, and even some forms of cancer, in addition to the benefits mentioned above. The drawback with fish, however, is the mercury content present in exactly the types of fish that contain the highest concentration of omega-3: dark meat fish such as tuna, swordfish, and salmon.
Fortunately, fish oil supplements don’t contain mercury. As an HSI member named Lance told us in the e-Alert “Gone Fishing” (11/13/02), “I’ve seen independent lab reports on 30-40 different fish oil products. From the cheapest to the most expensive, none of the products contained detectable levels of impurities. That’s probably because most of the fish oil caps sold in this country come from sardines and anchovies caught off the coast of South America. Stillif you want to make absolutely sure there are no toxic contaminants in your fish oil caps, you must ensure they are ‘molecularly distilled.'”
For many years, osteopathic physician Dr. Joseph Mercola has recommended fish oil and cod liver oil as the best sources of omega-3 EPA/DHA. Dr. Mercola suggests that because of cod liver oil’s high vitamin D content, it should be taken during the autumn and winter months, and in northern and southern latitudes where the body’s vitamin D production from sunshine is diminished. During the summer, or for those who live near the equator, Dr. Mercola recommends fish oil supplements in order to avoid an excess of vitamin D, which can boost calcium to levels that may cause damage to bones, kidneys, and soft tissues.
Hopefully neither you nor your loved ones will ever need to be concerned with the disabilities associated with cachexia. But as we read more and more studies about the wide-ranging benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, it’s clear that this remarkable nutrient provides excellent preventive and therapeutic qualities for cancer patients as well as those who are healthy.
To Your Good Health,
Health Sciences Institute
“Effect of a Protein and Energy Dense N-3 Fatty Acid enriched Oral Supplement on Loss of Weight and Lean Tissue in Cancer Cachexia: A Randomised Double Blind Trial” Gut 2003; 52: 1479-1486, gut.bmjjournals.com
“Fish Oils Could Help Med Muscle Loss in Cancer Patients” NutraIngredients, 9/12/03, nutraingredients.com
“Fish Oils ‘Help Cancer Patients'” BBC News, 9/13/03, news.bbc.co.uk
“Cod Liver Oil and Fish Oil: On of Your Best Sources for Essential Omega-3!” Dr. Joseph Mercola, mercola.com