Soybean oil may be better than fish oil for reducing cancer-related fatigue in breast cancer survivors, according to a new study.
The study results—along with other findings—raise new questions about the value of fish oil and also the consumption of soy by women with breast cancer, which is controversial.
“Our study confirms that the benefits of fish oil have been overstated,” says Luke Peppone, assistant professor of surgery in the cancer control program at the Wilmot Cancer Institute at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC). The study appears in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute Spectrum.
For years, Americans have used fish oil supplements, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, to treat or protect against a variety of ills and to promote cardiovascular health. But many studies, including a review of several clinical trials, have shown inconclusive evidence or no meaningful benefit for taking fish oil supplements.
However, because fish oil can reduce inflammation in the body, the researchers wanted to find out if it could help with the crushing fatigue some cancer patients experience. Previous research has shown a link between fatigue and inflammation, and suggested that fish oil might help.
Researchers designed the fish-oil-versus-soybean-oil study of 80 female breast cancer survivors to use soy as the comparison supplement because it contains omega-6 instead of omega-3. Soy (omega-6) is generally viewed as having pro-inflammatory properties rather than the more desirable anti-inflammatory properties, Peppone says.
The decision to use soybean oil was based on advice from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, he adds.
Researchers assessed the women’s fatigue at the outset with standard measurements including screening questions, and then randomly assigned the women to one of three groups: to receive high-dose fish oil supplements; to receive a low-dose combination of fish oil and soybean oil; or to receive high-dose soybean oil supplements alone. The researchers also collected blood from the patients to measure inflammatory proteins.
All three groups reported a reduction in fatigue, but the most significant reduction was in the omega-6 soybean oil group. The greatest effect was on women who reported the most severe fatigue at the beginning of the study.
The data from blood samples may explain the surprising results, Peppone says. Despite the abundance of anti-inflammatory properties in fish oil, his data showed that fish oil impacts a different set of inflammatory proteins than soybean oil. The fish oil supplements reduced the levels of inflammatory markers such as IFNy, IL-6, and PTGES2, while the soy supplement reduced the inflammatory protein known as TNF-a. It’s possible that cancer-related fatigue is more closely associated with the TNF-a pathway, the study says.
Although soy performed well in this study, many women treated for hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, which is the most common type, eye it with caution. The concern is that some soy products, such as protein powders, tofu, and additives in processed foods, contain isoflavones that can exert estrogen-like effects and possibly increase the risk of a cancer recurrence.
Peppone notes that the soybean oil supplements researchers used in his study did not contain isoflavones. He also emphasizes there is not enough evidence yet to support patients taking soybean oil for cancer-related fatigue, and he advised against starting soybean oil supplements for any reason without consulting a physician.
More research will help to fully understand the relationship among inflammation, dietary fats, and cancer fatigue. The National Cancer Institute funded the current study.
Source: University of Rochester