Dietary n-6 and n-3 fatty acids in immunity and autoimmune disease

Proc Nutr Soc. 1998 Nov;57(4):555-62. doi: 10.1079/pns19980081.


Clearly there is much evidence to show that under well-controlled laboratory and dietary conditions fatty acid intake can have profound effects on animal models of autoimmune disease. Studies in human autoimmune disease have been less dramatic; however, human trials have been subject to uncontrolled dietary and genetic backgrounds, infection and other environmental influences, and basic trial designs have been inadequate. The impact of dietary fatty acids on animal autoimmune disease models appears to depend on the animal model and the type and amount of fatty acids fed. Diets low in fat, essential fatty acid-deficient, or high in n-3 fatty acids from fish oils increase the survival and reduce disease severity in spontaneous autoantibody-mediated disease, whilst linoleic acid-rich diets appear to increase disease severity. In experimentally-induced T-cell-mediated autoimmune disease, essential fatty acid-deficient diets or diets supplemented with n-3 fatty acids appear to augment disease, whereas n-6 fatty acids prevent or reduce the severity. In contrast, in both T-cell and antibody-mediated auto-immune disease the desaturated and elongated metabolites of linoleic acid are protective. Suppression of autoantibody and T lymphocyte proliferation, apoptosis of autoreactive lymphocytes, and reduced pro-inflammatory cytokine production by high-dose fish oils are all likely mechanisms by which n-3 fatty acids ameliorate autoimmune disease. However, these could be undesirable long-term effects of high-dose fish oil which may compromise host immunity. The protective mechanism(s) of n-6 fatty acids in T-cell- mediated autoimmune disease are less clear, but may include dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid- and arachidonic acid-sensitive immunoregulatory circuits such as Th1 responses, TGF beta 1-mediated effects and Th3-like responses. It is often claimed that n-6 fatty acids promote autoimmune and inflammatory disease based on results obtained with linoleic acid only. It should be appreciated that linoleic acid does not reflect the functions of dihomo-gamma-linolenic and arachidonic acid, and that the endogenous rate of conversion of linoleic to arachidonic acid is slow (Hassam et al. 1975, 1977; Phylactos et al. 1994; Harbige et al. 1995). In addition to effects of dietary fatty acids on immunoregulation, inflammation as a consequence of immune activation in autoimmune disease may also be an important mechanism of action whereby dietary fatty acids modulate disease activity. In conclusion, regulation of gene expression, signal transduction pathways, production of eicosanoids and cytokines, and the action of antioxidant enzymes are all mechanisms by which dietary n-6 and n-3 fatty acids may exert effects on the immune system and autoimmune disease. Probably the most significant of these mechanisms in relation to our current understanding of immunoregulation and inflammation would appear to be via fatty acid effects on cytokines. The amount, type and balance of dietary fatty acids and associated antioxidant nutrients appear to impact on the immune system to produce immune-deviation or immunosuppressive effects, and to reduce immune-mediated inflammation which will in turn affect the susceptibility to, or severity of, autoimmune disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmune Diseases*
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / administration & dosage*
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / administration & dosage*
  • Humans
  • Immunity*
  • Inflammation / immunology


  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated