Modulation of pro-inflammatory cytokine biology by unsaturated fatty acids

Z Ernahrungswiss. 1998:37 Suppl 1:57-65.


The production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukins 1 and 6 and tumour necrosis factors, occurs rapidly following trauma or invasion of the body by pathogenic organisms. The cytokines mediate the wide range of symptoms associated with trauma and infection, such as fever, anorexia, tissue wasting, acute phase protein production and immunomodulation. In part, the symptoms result from a co-ordinated response, in which the immune system is activated and nutrients released, from endogenous sources, to provide substrate for the immune system. Although the cytokine mediated response is an essential part of the response to trauma and infection, excessive production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, or production of cytokines in the wrong biological context, are associated with mortality and pathology in a wide range of diseases, such as malaria, sepsis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer and AIDS. Cytokine biology can be modulated by antiinflammatory drugs, recombinant cytokine receptor antagonists and nutrients. Among the nutrients, fats have a large potential for modulating cytokine biology. A number of trials have demonstrated the anti-inflammatory effects of fish oils, which are rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, in rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis and asthma. Animal studies, conducted by ourselves and others, indicate that a range of fats can modulate pro-inflammatory cytokine production and actions. In summary fats rich in n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids enhance IL1 production and tissue responsiveness to cytokines, fats rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids have the opposite effect, monounsaturated fatty acids decrease tissue responsiveness to cytokines and IL6 production is enhanced by total unsaturated fatty acid intake. There are a large number of potential cellular mechanisms which may mediate the effects observed. The majority relate to the ability of fats to alter the composition of membrane phospholipids. As a consequence of alterations in phospholipid composition, membrane fluidity may change, altering binding of cytokines to receptors and G protein activity. The nature of substrate for various signalling pathways associated with cytokine production and actions may also be changed. Consequently, alterations in eicosanoid production and activation of protein kinase C may occur. We have examined a number of these potential mechanisms in peritoneal macrophages of rats fed fats with a wide range of fatty acid composition. We have found that the total C18:2 and 20:4 diacyl species of phosphatidylethanolamine in peritoneal macrophages relates in a positive curvilinear fashion with dietary linoleic acid intake; that TNF induced IL1 and IL6 production relate in a positive curvilinear fashion to linoleic acid intake; that leukotriene B4 production relates positively with dietary linoleic acid intake over a range of moderate intakes and is suppressed at high intakes, while PGE2 production is enhanced. There was no clear relationship between linoleic acid intake and membrane fluidity, however fluidity was influenced in a complex manner by the type of fat in the diet, the period over which the fat was fed and the presence of absence of TNF stimulation. None of the proposed mechanisms, acting alone, can explain the positive effect of dietary linoleic acid intake on pro-inflammatory cytokine production. However each may be involved, in part, in the modulatory effects observed.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / diet therapy
  • Asthma / diet therapy
  • Cell Membrane / physiology
  • Cytokines / biosynthesis
  • Cytokines / physiology*
  • Dietary Fats, Unsaturated*
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Inflammation
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / diet therapy
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Phospholipids / metabolism
  • Psoriasis / diet therapy
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Cytokine / physiology


  • Cytokines
  • Dietary Fats, Unsaturated
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Phospholipids
  • Receptors, Cytokine