The body needs insulin to transport glucose into cells, where it is needed for producing energy. Without insulin-producing beta cells, the glucose builds up in the blood stream, and the body cannot use it for energy.
It is not yet known what causes type 1 diabetes, and there is currently no cure for the illness. The most common treatment option is administering insulin, but the ultimate goal of the medical research community is to stop the body's immune system from attacking its own beta cells, or reversing this process.
Omega-3s are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). They are typically found in fish, seafood, and some vegetable oils, as well as in dietary supplements.
These fatty acids are important for the good functioning of several organs, as these beneficial fats improve the activity of muscles, prevent blood clotting, help digestion, and aid the division and growth of cells.
The health benefits of omega-3s have been investigated in several studies. Some research has suggested that omega-3s protect against cardiovascular events and rheumatoid arthritis, but other studies seem to contest these positive effects.
What is known, however, is that omega-3s stop inflammatory processes in the body. This has led the authors of the new research - led by Allan Zhao at Guangdong University of Technology in Guangdong, China - to think that these fatty acids might be able to either prevent or improve the negative outcomes of autoimmune diseases.
Omega-3s may regenerate beta cells
Zhao and team used non-obese diabetic (NOD) mice, to which they fed a regular diet and a diet enriched with PUFAs. They also increased the levels of omega-3s in these mice through genetic modification.
The team tested the mice every 3 months for glucose tolerance and insulin tolerance.
The researchers also examined the pancreas of mice for insulitis - an infiltration of lymphocytes in the islets of the pancreas, which is a phenomenon typical of type 1 diabetes.
Additionally, the researchers collected blood from the mice and measured their levels of serum insulin.
The study revealed that adding omega-3s to the diet of NOD mice significantly improved the metabolism of glucose and decreased the incidence of type 1 diabetes.
The researchers noted a decrease in pro-inflammatory cell-signaling proteins, as well as a considerable decrease in insulitis. Namely, they noticed that omega-3s lowered the levels of interferon gamma, interleukin 17, interleukin 6, and tumor necrosis factor alpha, or TNF-α.
Moreover, Zhao and colleagues noticed signs of beta cell regeneration in the mice that had been treated with omega-3.
Both nutritional supplementation and genetic therapy normalized blood sugar and insulin levels for a minimum of 182 days, stopped the development of autoimmunity, blocked the lymphocytes from entering the regenerated islets in the pancreas, and drastically increased the levels of beta cell markers.
These results suggest that omega-3 PUFAs may serve as a new therapy for type 1 diabetes. Referring to the potential therapeutic effects of nutritional supplementation of omega-3s or the increase of omega-3s through gene therapy, the authors conclude:
"Our observations may also offer clinical guidance, in that those patients who are either at the early-onset stage of [type 1 diabetes] or have consistently had good management of their blood glucose levels may benefit the most from these interventions. These treatment modalities, if cleared in safety evaluations, may potentially be helpful in the treatment of other types of autoimmune diseases as well."