Arachidonic acid metabolites formed by both the cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase pathways may contribute to the clinical diarrhea and colitis of inflammatory bowel disease. Patients with active ulcerative colitis have increased levels of leukotriene B4 in their rectal mucosa, and these levels tend to correlate with severity of the disease. In this study, we evaluated the efficacy of ingestion of fish oil n-3-omega-fatty acids, inhibitors of leukotriene synthesis, in the treatment of ulcerative colitis. Eleven patients with ulcerative colitis of mild to moderate severity were studied in a 8-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial of dietary supplementation with fish oil, which provided about 4.2 g of omega-3- fatty acids per day. A disease activity index based on patient symptoms and sigmoidoscopic appearance was used to assess efficacy. Mucosal leukotriene B4 production was measured by radioimmunoassay. Mean disease activity index declined 56% for patients receiving fish oil and 4% for patients on placebo (p less than 0.05). There were no statistically significant differences in histopathologic scores or colonic mucosal leukotriene B4 levels. All patients tolerated fish oil ingestion and showed no alteration in routine blood studies. No patient worsened; anti-inflammatory drugs could be reduced or eliminated in eight patients (72%) while receiving fish oil. We conclude that fish oil dietary supplementation results in clinical improvement of active mild to moderate ulcerative colitis but is not associated with significant reduction in mucosal leukotriene B4 production, compared with placebo therapy. Further studies are needed to elucidate the mechanism of action and optimal dose and duration of fish oil supplementation in ulcerative colitis.