Introduction: The omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are the immediate precursors to a number of important mediators of immunity, inflammation and bone function, with products of omega-6 generally thought to promote inflammation and favour bone resorption. Western diets generally provide a 10 to 20-fold deficit in omega-3 PUFAs compared with omega-6, and this is thought to have contributed to the marked rise in incidence of disorders of modern human societies, such as heart disease, colitis and perhaps osteoporosis. Many of our food production animals, fed on grains rich in omega-6, are also exposed to a dietary deficit in omega-3, with perhaps similar health consequences. Bone fragility due to osteoporotic changes in laying hens is a major economic and welfare problem, with our recent estimates of breakage rates indicating up to 95% of free range hens suffer breaks during lay.
Methods: Free range hens housed in full scale commercial systems were provided diets supplemented with omega-3 alpha linolenic acid, and the skeletal benefits were investigated by comparison to standard diets rich in omega-6.
Results: There was a significant 40-60% reduction in keel bone breakage rate, and a corresponding reduction in breakage severity in the omega-3 supplemented hens. There was significantly greater bone density and bone mineral content, alongside increases in total bone and trabecular volumes. The mechanical properties of the omega-3 supplemented hens were improved, with strength, energy to break and stiffness demonstrating significant increases. Alkaline phosphatase (an osteoblast marker) and tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase (an osteoclast marker) both showed significant increases with the omega-3 diets, indicating enhanced bone turnover. This was corroborated by the significantly lower levels of the mature collagen crosslinks, hydroxylysyl pyridinoline, lysyl pyridinoline and histidinohydroxy-lysinonorleucine, with a corresponding significant shift in the mature:immature crosslink ratio.
Conclusions: The improved skeletal health in laying hens corresponds to as many as 68million fewer hens suffering keel fractures in the EU each year. The biomechanical and biochemical evidence suggests that increased bone turnover has enhanced the bone mechanical properties, and that this may suggest potential benefits for human osteoporosis.
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