Is a New Listeria Treatment on the Horizon?

Researchers have discovered low doses of a common nutrient could help ward off the dangers of listeria.

Listeria and Omega-3 Acids Shutterstock
You've probably heard that salmon can be a pregnant woman's best friend. You've also probably heard that pregnancy makes you more susceptible to listeria's effects, including putting you at greater risk of miscarriage, stillbirth or other pregnancy complications. But believe it or not, scientists may have found a strong relationship between the two.

Omega-3s "neutralize" bacteria

According to a new study from Denmark published in the journal Research in Microbiology, healthy fatty acids like the omega-3s found in salmon may have the power to neutralize listeria's harmful effects. The researchers studied the inner workings of the bacterium to come up with ways people can minimize their risks of the disease. After testing the relationship to fatty acids, the team discovered what happens on a molecular level when fatty acids react with the bacteria.

Low concentrations of these naturally occurring acids can switch off the dangerous genes in the listeria. "We tested omega-3 fatty acids, and it took them about half an hour to neutralize the bacteria," study author Birgitte Kallipolitis, PhD, of the University of Southern Denmark said in a press release. The scientists aren't quite sure why this reaction takes place, and they're working to better understand how this works.

It appears the omega-3s don't actually kill those dangerous compounds—they simply switch off their harmful effects. This may even be better because wiping out the bacteria could lead to harder-to-kill strains. "When the growth of the bacterium is not threatened, it does not begin to develop new survival strategies that may make it resistant to attack," Dr. Kallipolitis says. "It might be a better strategy to let them live and instead aim to neutralize their capacity to cause disease."

Listeria still a danger

The researchers hope the discovery will lead to new treatment methods in the future. "It's always exciting when microbiologists find in vitro [outside the body] studies that have promising findings," Leslie Gonzalez, MD, an obstetrician with PIH Health in Los Alamitos, California, who was not involved in the study, tells Fit Pregnancy. "Obviously, this study will require confirmation trials to prove a clinical benefit." Also, effective doses of the fatty acids as well as any other influencing factors would have to be sorted out, she says.

This new research doesn't mean pregnant women don't need to worry about the disease anymore—exposure can still be very dangerous. "Women should of course remain vigilant of listeria infection and see their OB if there is any chance of infection," Dr. Gonzalez says. So don't go thinking any harmful bacteria in that salmon sushi roll will be counteracted by its omega-3s!

But, it is good to know there might be another avenue for prevention though noshing on healthy pregnancy power foods. "The idea that simple remedies like vitamins and nutritional building blocks could help treat disease or infection is fascinating," Dr. Gonzales says. And a good reason to pack your diet with fatty acids, just in case!