Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to physiology and are found ubiquitously throughout the body. Practically every day, new studies are being done to show how powerful these compounds are at reducing cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, inflammation, and a host of neurological issues as well as hyperglycemia.
Two important omega-3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA are now showing significant promise in promoting bone density and reducing certain bone deteriorating diseases. These two essential fatty acids must be obtained through diet and cannot be made internally. High concentrations of EPA and DHA are found namely in fish, algae, and krill. Plant sources like hemp, flax and chia have large amounts of EPA but not DHA.
There are three important terms that need to be defined quickly so we can begin to understand how EPA and DHA induce their affects to help promote bone growth and density. It starts off deep inside the bone marrow, where some very specialized cells called osteoblasts secrete proteins and organic compounds into a matrix called osteoid. If these osteoblasts get trapped in this matrix they become osteocytes that eventually will get made into new bone. Osteoclasts are designed to degrade and reabsorb the matrix. These two cells among a giant cascade of events involving hormone protein synthesis and various minerals are constantly working to keep bones healthy, shaped properly, and to provide density to support the human skeleton. Things can go wrong and throw this balance off where one is now dominating over the other which can lead to an array of issues like weak, porous and fragile bone1.
One of the most studied omega-3 fatty acids is eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA. One of its primary functions is to act as a signaling molecule for our immune system. It exerts potent anti-inflammatory affects and creates a favorable environment in the entire body. EPA helps inhibit and regulate the pro-inflammatory effects of omega-6. The imbalance of this ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 promotes a whole list of ailments and diseases like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. New findings continue to validate the theory that inflammation is interrelated with disease and interrupting the careful balance our body wishes to achieve. A healthy inflammation response is beneficial, but overactive or excessive inflammation can cause bone to become porous or misshapen. EPA is crucial at inhibiting arachidonic acid or AA which is part of the omega-6 category. AA turns on the COX-2 pathway among others and signals osteoclasts to begin reabsorbing the matrix needed to make new bone2,3. If this inflammation response is perpetual, it will constantly transmit the signal to reabsorb and eventually cause structural damage to bone. EPA can halt this constant degradation and allow for the osteoblasts to catch up and reengineer some new bone. The environment it provides in the bone marrow can allow for proper production of new bone where the other potent omega-3, DHA, can begin to exert its unique capabilities to compliment EPA.Read more about the best sources of omega-3s
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is another powerful omega-3 that is more structural in design. DHA is found in very high concentrations in the body, namely the brain, eye and heart. Forty percent of your brain and 60 percent of your retinas are composed of this omega. It now also shows promise to also prevent bone loss and actually boost mineralization4. Since DHA is mainly used for structure, many of its capabilities for helping promote bone growth come from its ability to work with the anti -inflammatory effect of EPA. DHA promotes a strong cell membrane so when constructing new osteoblasts, if they are properly formed, they will begin their function of mineralization and promoting new healthy bone growth. DHA is also very well known for improving cardiovascular health. Our bone marrow is a vital portion of that system and any improvement in blood flow to that area will allow more nutrients like DHA to work better and improve bone density.
.Marks, S. C., Jr & Miller, S. C. (1993) Prostaglandins and the skeleton: the legacy and challenges of two decades of research. Endocr. J. 1:337-344.
Atkinson, T. G., Barker, H. J. & Meckling-Gill, K. A. (1997) Incorporation of long-chain n-3 fatty acids in tissues and enhanced bone marrow cellularity with docosahexaenoic acid feeding in post-weanling Fischer 344 rats. Lipids 32:293-302.