The Effects of EPA and DHA Supplements on Postmenopausal Breast Cancer Survivors

Postmenopausal survivors of breast cancer can now look forward to a longer life expectancy thanks to the increased effectiveness of chemotherapy and new drugs. The bad news is that cancer chemotherapy is known to induce long-term side effects in the bones of the sufferer. The common use of aromatase inhibitors (AI) to treat breast cancer unfortunately depletes estrogen levels. This promotes bone loss and increases the risk of fractures.

Can Fish Oil Supplements Protect Against Bone Loss During Cancer Treatment?

A study by clinicians at the Center on Aging, University of Connecticut and doctors at Eastern Michigan University looked at whether certain acids found in fish oil supplements could offset these side effects of these aromatase inhibitors.

The randomized, double-blind study of 38 women looked at whether supplements of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) could lower the risk of bone depletion, which in later years emerges as osteoporosis, brittle bones and fractures. EPA and DHA are already known to have a beneficial effect on the cellular process of bone turnover.

Clinical Study on the Protective Effects of EPA and DHA Against Aromatase Inhibitors

The clinicians wanted to see whether a daily supplement of 4g of EPA and DHA over a three month period would decrease the bone turnover in postmenopausal survivors of breast cancer following AI treatment.

At the beginning and end of the clinical trial, the bone turnover, serum fatty acids and inflammatory markers were measured in all the trial participants. It found that the women who had been given the EPA and DHA supplements had increased levels of serum EPA and DHA. They also had higher omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) in the blood. Levels of arachidonic acid, polyunsaturated fatty acids, both total and long-chain, decreased during the trail compared to those taking the placebo.

This showed that the EPA and DHA supplements inhibited bone resorption, demonstrating that daily doses of fish oil supplements can reduce the risk of bone loss and fractures in the short term. However new clinical trials need to be run to explore whether this preservation of bone density can be maintained in the long term.

Clinical Study Showing the Protective Effect of Fish Oil Against MTX

Comparable Australian studies on rats showed similar results as the fish oil appeared to provide bone protection against anti-metabolite methotrexate (MTX) subcutaneous injections which are commonly used in cancer treatment. The bone marrow stromal cells in the rats receiving fish oil supplements showed a significant reduction in osteogenic differentiation. This study concluded that fish oil supplements containing EPA and DHA preserved bone volume and prevented bone marrow adiposity, which can also lead to bone loss.

These studies look positive for anyone going through cancer treatment and currently at a high risk of suffering bone loss as a result. Supplements of EPA and DHA could hold the key to lowering the risk of bone loss following cancer treatment, particularly postmenopausal breast cancer survivors. It also confirms the widely held belief that daily fish oil supplements are the best way to maintain and support healthy bones into old age.


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