Toshinori Hoshi, PhD, professor of Physiology, at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues showed, in two papers out this week in the
, how fish oils help lower blood pressure via vasodilation at ion channels. In vascular smooth muscle cells, such as those that line blood vessels, ion channels that span the outer membrane of a cell to let such ions as sodium, calcium, and potassium in and out, are critical to maintaining proper vessel pressure.
Omega-3 fatty acids bind directly to a specific group of channels that allow potassium ions to move out, which affects how much voltage is required to open the channel. If omega-3 fatty acids bind to the channel, only a small amount of voltage is needed. This is good for a cell because an open potassium channel means the cell is at rest, and when smooth blood muscle cells are relaxed, blood pressure is at a good level. However, when vessels constrict, blood pressure increases.
In comparison, the team found that a dietary supplement, DHA ethyl ester, found in most fish oil pills fails to activate the same channels, and even antagonizes the positive effect of DHA from natural sources, on the cells. The DHA ethyl ester seems to compete with the natural form of DHA for binding sites on the ion channel.
The team concluded that these channels have receptors for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and that DHA -- unlike its ethyl ester cousin -- activate the channels and lower blood pressure.
The findings have practical implications for the use of omega-3 fatty acids as nutraceuticals for the general public and also for critically ill patients who may receive omega-3-enriched formulas as part of their nutrition.
Coauthor Michael Bauer from Jena University Hospital in Germany, who studies sepsis in a clinical setting, says the findings may encourage physicians to have a closer look at the specific formulations given to sepsis patients as they may contain either the free omega-3 acid or the ester.
The findings also underscore the importance of obtaining omega-3 fatty acids from natural food sources such as oily fish.