n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cytokine production in health and disease

Ann Nutr Metab. 1997;41(4):203-34. doi: 10.1159/000177997.


Arachidonic-acid-derived eicosanoids modulate the production of pro-inflammatory and immunoregulatory cytokines. Overproduction of these cytokines is associated with both septic shock and chronic inflammatory diseases. The n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid, which are found in fish oils, suppress the production of arachidonic-acid-derived eicosanoids and EPA is a substrate for the synthesis of an alternative family of eicosanoids. Thus, dietary fats which are rich in n-3 PUFAs have the potential to alter cytokine production. Animal studies have provided a great deal of evidence that feeding plant or fish oils rich in n-3 PUFAs does alter the ex vivo production of tumour necrosis factor (TNF), interleukin 1 (IL-1), IL-6 and IL-2, but many contradictory observations have been made; it is most likely that the discrepancies in the literature result from differences in the cell types and experimental protocols used. Human studies provide more consistent data: several studies have shown that supplementation of the diet of healthy volunteers results in reduced ex vivo production of IL-1, IL-6, TNF and IL-2 by peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Similar findings have been made in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Animal studies indicate that dietary fish oil reduces the response to endotoxin and to pro-inflammatory cytokines, resulting in increased survival; such diets have been beneficial in some models of bacterial challenge, chronic inflammation and auto-immunity. These beneficial effects of dietary n-3 PUFAs may be of use as a therapy for acute and chronic inflammation and for disorders which involve an inappropriately activated immune response.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / metabolism
  • Autoimmune Diseases / metabolism
  • Chronic Disease*
  • Cytokines / biosynthesis*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Eicosanoids / physiology
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / physiology*
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Multiple Sclerosis / metabolism
  • Shock, Septic / metabolism


  • Cytokines
  • Eicosanoids
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3