Imagine being able to lower the risk for a disease, especially one as debilitating and cruel as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), by changing your diet around? Researchers from Harvard’s School of Public Health analyzed the diets of more than one million people from five different study groups. 

After reviewing the diets and receiving documented feedback nine to 24 years later from 995 ALS cases, researchers found a greater reduced risk of those who ate foods high in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), also known as omega-3 fatty acids. They published their findings in JAMA Neurology.

"Overall, the results of our large prospective cohort study suggest that individuals with higher dietary intakes of total omega-3 PUFA and ALA have a reduced risk for ALS. Further research, possibly including biomarkers of PUFA intake, should be pursued to confirm these findings and to determine whether high omega-3 PUFA intake could be beneficial in individuals with ALS," the authors wrote.

Foods high in omega-3 PUFAs are well known to most of us, such as flax seeds, walnuts, salmon, sardines, soybeans, shrimp, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and others. PUFAS can help control inflammation and oxidative stress, which are two symptomatic characteristics that have been known to cause ALS in addition to other neurodegenerative diseases.

ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after the baseball player who brought tremendous awareness to the disease early on, and eventually passed away in 1941 at age 37. It’s a progressive neurodegenerative disease that atrophies the muscles until the body can no longer function to the point of complete paralysis, which leads to the person’s death, according to the ALS Association.

Motor neurons from the brain to the spinal cord start to die off and have a difficult time communicating with each other. Without a signal impulse to move a muscle, when the brain commands the leg to lift, the muscle doesn’t receive the message and remains unmoved. It turns the body into a prison, while the person’s brain remains intact and fully aware of its body’s degeneration.

The authors concluded that those who had a diet with greater omega-3 PUFAs intake had a reduced risk of ALS, which means consumption may help or prevent the delay of ALS. The omega-3 PUFAs were found to actually protect the brain in animals.

"Fitzgerald and colleagues suggest that the fatty acid composition of cell plasma membranes, which could be measured in red cell membranes, might be important in modulating oxidative stress responses, excitotoxicity and inflammation, all factors that have been implicated in ALS and other neurodegenerative conditions," Dr. Michael Swash, a practicing physician at the Royal London Hospital, England, wrote in an editorial.  

Source: Fitzgerald KC, O’Reilly JE, Falcone GJ, et al. Dietary ω-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Intake and Risk for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. JAMA Neurology. 2014.