Immunosuppressive effects of fish oil in normal human volunteers: correlation with the in vitro effects of eicosapentanoic acid on human lymphocytes

Clin Immunol Immunopathol. 1991 Nov;61(2 Pt 1):161-76. doi: 10.1016/s0090-1229(05)80021-2.


We have studied the effects of dietary supplementation with fish oil on immunological parameters in a group of six normal volunteers, four of whom received a fish oil extract (total EPA dose of 2.4 g/day, which is on the lower range of clinically effective doses) for 6 weeks and two of which received a placebo (olive oil) for an identical period of time. Each volunteer was followed up for a period of 23 weeks after the dietary intervention was ended. All volunteers were boosted with tetanus toxoid (TT) at the onset of the trial. Several immune parameters were followed longitudinally, including NBT reduction and lysozyme release to test neutrophil function; lymphocyte subpopulations; mitogenic responses to phytohemagglutinin (PHA), concanavalin A (Con A) and anti-CD3; IL-2 release after PHA and pokeweed mitogen (PWM) stimulation; immunoglobulin and anti-TT antibody (ATT) synthesis by stimulated lymphocytes; and serum levels of immunoglobulins and of ATT. No consistent changes were observed in neutrophil function tests, mitogenic responses to PHA and Con A, and lymphocyte subsets. The mitogenic response to anti-CD3 and the release of IL-2 after stimulation with PHA and PWM appeared reduced as a consequence of fish oil ingestion, and levels of serum immunoglobulins decreased in three of the volunteers receiving fish oil supplementation. The systemic humoral response after the TT booster appeared not to be influenced by the ingestion of fish oil. However, in those subjects who were given fish oil supplementation, the specific in vitro response of their peripheral blood lymphocytes to TT appeared to be compromised at Week 3. This could reflect the need for progressive accumulation of EPA in lymphocyte membranes for the suppressive effect to be detectable, but it could also reflect a differential sensitivity to the effects of fish oil of circulating B lymphocytes vs. bone marrow B lymphocytes. All the parameters apparently affected by fish oil ingestion were also affected by the incubation of normal lymphocytes with EPA in vitro. In conclusion, low doses of fish oil may have a mild immunosuppressive effect affecting both T and B cell functions. These observations stress the need for more extensive trials designed to determine whether immunosuppressive effects can be consistently elicited and for studies aimed at determining the mechanisms by which omega-3 fatty acids affect the immune system.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Controlled Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antigens, Differentiation, T-Lymphocyte / immunology
  • CD3 Complex
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / pharmacology*
  • Fish Oils / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / pharmacology*
  • Interleukin-2 / metabolism
  • Lymphocytes / drug effects*
  • Male
  • Membrane Fluidity
  • Middle Aged
  • Neutrophils / physiology
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / immunology
  • Tetanus Toxoid / immunology


  • Antigens, Differentiation, T-Lymphocyte
  • CD3 Complex
  • Fish Oils
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Interleukin-2
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell
  • Tetanus Toxoid
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid