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Fish oil capsules protect against breast cancer

Women who take fish oil capsules are less likely to develop breast cancer. Researchers at the University of Washington made this finding after monitoring 35,000 women aged between 50 and 76 for 5 years. It is the first time that researchers have looked in this way at whether supplements protect against breast cancer.

The researchers gathered their data as part of the VITAL study. VITAL stands for VITamins And Lifestyle. The study is intended to clarify the positive and negative effects of supplements. A previous finding from the VITAL study is that glucosamine reduces the chance of lung and bowel cancer and mortality.

In the study that they published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the researchers looked at “nonvitamin, nonmineral “specialty” supplements”: glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, fish oil, grapeseed-extract, black cohosh, dong quai, soya extracts, St John’s wort, probiotics, Q10, melatonin, ginkgo, ginseng and garlic. Of all these supplements, the researchers only managed to find a relationship for fish oil.

When they looked more closely, the researchers found that fish oil reduces the chance of cancer of the milk ducts but not the chance of cancer of the milk glands. The former type is the most common form of breast cancer, however.

From the literature survey that the researchers did, they suggest that fish oil inhibits inflammatory factors and thus reduces the chance of breast cancer. According to epidemiological studies, women with high amounts of C-reactive protein and tumour necrosis factor-alpha in their blood are more likely to develop breast cancer. Fish fatty acids reduce the concentration of these inflammatory factors.

The VITAL study has also shown, however, that lifestyle factors are stronger predictors of breast cancer than taking fish oil capsules. The higher women’s BMI was, the more alcohol they drink and the more female hormones they had taken, the greater their risk of breast cancer.

The research was financed by the American government.

"Our findings warrant further study of fish oil, focused particularly on timing of exposure and dose, as well as on mechanisms of action that might explain differences by tumor stage or histologic type", the researchers conclude. "Until these results are replicated, fish oil supplements should not be promoted for reduction of breast cancer risk."

Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2010 Jul; 19(7): 1696-708.

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