Is there a role for fatty acids in early life programming of the immune system?

Proc Nutr Soc. 2010 Aug;69(3):373-80. doi: 10.1017/S0029665110001552. Epub 2010 May 13.


There may be a causal relationship between n-6 PUFA intake and allergic disease and there are biologically plausible mechanisms, involving eicosanoid mediators of the n-6 PUFA arachidonic acid, that could explain this. There is some evidence that high linoleic acid intake is linked with increased risk of atopic sensitisation and allergic manifestations. Fish and fish oils are sources of long-chain n-3 PUFA and these fatty acids act to oppose the actions of n-6 PUFA. It is considered that n-3 PUFA will protect against atopic sensitisation and against the clinical manifestations of atopy. All five epidemiological studies investigating the effect of maternal fish intake during pregnancy on atopic or allergic outcomes in infants/children of those pregnancies concluded protective associations. Epidemiological studies investigating the effects of fish intake during infancy and childhood on atopic outcomes in those infants or children are inconsistent, although the majority of the studies (9/14) showed a protective effect of fish. Fish oil provision to pregnant women is associated with immunologic changes in cord blood. Provision of fish oil during pregnancy may reduce sensitisation to common food allergens and reduce the prevalence and severity of atopic dermatitis in the first year of life. This effect may persist until adolescence with a reduction in prevalence and/or severity of eczema, hayfever and asthma. Fish oil supplementation in infancy may decrease the risk of developing some manifestations of allergic disease, but whether this benefit persists as other factors come into play remains to be determined.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Dietary Fats / administration & dosage*
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / pharmacology
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / therapeutic use*
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6 / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Fetal Blood / immunology
  • Fish Oils / pharmacology
  • Fish Oils / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / drug effects*
  • Immune System / growth & development
  • Immune System Diseases* / etiology
  • Immune System Diseases* / prevention & control
  • Infant
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / immunology*
  • Prenatal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena / immunology*


  • Dietary Fats
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6
  • Fish Oils