Why Eating Omega-3s Can Counter Air Pollution

Air pollution is deadly, and on the rise. Last year the International Energy Agency warned that dirty air is dispatching the Grim Reaper to 18,000 people per day, more than HIV, tuberculosis and road accidents combined. But the latest evidence shows the healthy fats in our food can help to protect your body from harm – especially if you exercise or spend a lot of time outdoors. It’s all about omega-3s…

Why is pollution getting more dangerous?

Harmful particles can penetrate the lungs and attack major organs including the brain and, even more worryingly, the testicles, according to new research. This suggests that the damage done by toxic air is worse than scientists thought.

Air pollution is rising dramatically according to the World Health Organization, which claims virtually all cities in poorer countries, and more than half of those in richer nations have levels of toxic air that puts people at greater risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, kidney disease, and even mental illness and dementia.

But there’s a cure, right?

Possibly. The same scientists have found that omega-3 fatty acids (OFAs) can prevent, and treat the inflammation and damage to our cells caused by pollution – by up to 50%.

So what are omega-3s?

‘There are two types of OFAs, which are found in plant sources and fish,’ says sports nutritionist Anita Bean. ‘They are necessary for proper functioning of the brain, regulating hormones, for the immune system and blood flow. They also protect against heart disease and stroke, and for regular exercisers OFAs increase the delivery of oxygen to muscles, and improve aerobic capacity and endurance. They also help to speed up recovery and reduce inflammation.

‘Main sources include oily fish such as salmon, fresh tuna (not tinned) and mackerel, rapeseed oil, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and their oils, and dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach.’

‘Omega-3s can treat the damage to our cells caused by pollution – by up to 50%’

How much do I need?

This is where it gets a bit tricky. ‘The UK government, for example, recommends up to 900mg per day,’ says Bean. But the study into pollution recommends a far higher dose of 2-4g per day.

You can certainly do some food swaps, although you’d have to eat around 230g of oily fish per day to hit the 4g mark, and it’s not advisable to eat more than four portions per week because fish contain traces of pollutants themselves. The right oils will help, but so too can supplements.

‘One study found that OFA supplementation for 14 days reduced levels of inflammation after intense exercise,’ says Bean. ‘In another study active adults took either safflower oil or fish oil, and after six weeks those taking the fish oil benefitted from a significant increase in lean body mass and reduction in fat mass.’ Oh, but there’s another catch.

That sounds ominous. What is it?

There’s another type of OFA called omega-6, which can inhibit the work of the omega-3s. ‘Omega-6 is more widely found in food than omega-3,’ says Bean. ‘For this reason most people currently eat too much in relation to omega-3, which results in an imbalance of hormones responsible for controlling inflammation, among other things. To help redress the balance, limit your intake of processed and deep-fried foods, and use oils rich in monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and rapeseed oil, instead of omega-6-rich corn oil and sunflower oil.’

It all sounds very scientific. Can’t I just exercise indoors?

You could do, but you might get bored cycling round your lounge. And there’s good news. Research at the University of Copenhagen found the benefits of exercise outweigh the negative effects of pollution. Although physical activity increases oxygen intake and the accumulation of pollutants in our lungs, the study of more than 52,000 people aged 50-65 years in urban areas found the mortality rate for those who exercised regularly was 20% lower than for those who did no exercise.

There are also simple tricks to reduce your exposure as much as possible: avoid busy roads and junctions; avoid peak times; run in a park or cycle on country lanes. You can’t avoid pollution altogether but you can limit your exposure and still get the benefits of exercise.

‘Death rates in urban areas are 20% lower for those who exercise regularly’ 

Should I wear a mask?

Like Batman? Probably not, but a filter mask might be a good idea. They’ve taken a lot of stick down the years, but they’re backed by the British Lung Foundation, which state in its Lung Report: ‘If you have to be exposed to traffic fumes, for example if you’re a cyclist – wear a mask.’

WHAT NEXT? You can eat all the omega-3s you want but you’ll be missing out of you don’t get out and exercise. So head to your local traffic-free park and hammer out a ‘7-10 Body Blast’: run for seven minutes, do ten reps from a selection of press-ups, tree pull-ups, bear crawls, squat jumps or bench dips, and repeat 3-5 times.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.