a1 Numico Research, Bosrandweg 20, 6704 PH Wageningen, The Netherlands
a2 Institute of Human Nutrition, School of Medicine, University of Southampton, Bassett Crescent East, Southampton SO16 7PX, UK
The balance of intake of n-6 and n-3 PUFA, and consequently their relative incorporation into immune cells, is important in determining the development and severity of immune and inflammatory responses. Some disorders characterised by exaggerated inflammation and excessive formation of inflammatory markers have become among the most important causes of death and disability in man in modern societies. The recognition that long-chain n-3 PUFA have the potential to inhibit (excessive) inflammatory responses has led to a large number of clinical investigations with these fatty acids in inflammatory conditions as well as in healthy subjects. The present review explores the presence of dose-related effects of long-chain n-3 PUFA supplementation on immune markers and differences between healthy subjects and those with inflammatory conditions, because of the important implications for the transfer of information gained from studies with healthy subjects to patient populations, e.g. for establishing dose levels for specific applications. The effects of long-chain n-3 PUFA supplementation on ex vivo lymphocyte proliferation and cytokine production by lymphocytes and monocytes in healthy subjects have been studied in twenty-seven, twenty-five and forty-six treatment cohorts respectively, at intake levels ranging from 0·2 g EPA+DHA/d to 7·0 g EPA+DHA/d. Most studies, particularly those with the highest quality study design, have found no effects on these immune markers. Significant effects on lymphocyte proliferation are decreased responses in seven of eight cohorts, particularly in older subjects. The direction of the significant changes in cytokine production by lymphocytes is inconsistent and only found at supplementation levels ≥2·0 g EPA+DHA/d. Significant changes in inflammatory cytokine production by monocytes are decreases in their production in all instances. Overall, these studies fail to reveal strong dose–response effects of EPA+DHA on the outcomes measured and suggest that healthy subjects are relatively insensitive to immunomodulation with long-chain n-3 PUFA, even at intake levels that substantially raise their concentrations in phospholipids of immune cells. In patients with inflammatory conditions cytokine concentrations or production are influenced by EPA+DHA supplementation in a relatively large number of studies. Some of these studies suggest that local effects at the site of inflammation might be more pronounced than systemic effects and disease-related markers are more sensitive to the immunomodulatory effects, indicating that the presence of inflamed tissue or ‘sensitised’ immune cells in inflammatory disorders might increase sensitivity to the immunomodulatory effects of long-chain n-3 PUFA. In a substantial number of these studies clinical benefits related to the inflammatory state of the condition have been observed in the absence of significant effects on immune markers of inflammation. This finding suggests that condition-specific clinical end points might be more sensitive markers of modulation by EPA+DHA than cytokines. In general, the direction of immunomodulation in healthy subjects (if any) and in inflammatory conditions is the same, which indicates that studies in healthy subjects are a useful tool to describe the general principles of immunomodulation by n-3 PUFA. However, the extent of the effect might be very different in inflammatory conditions, indicating that studies in healthy subjects are not particularly suitable for establishing dose levels for specific applications in inflammatory conditions. The reviewed studies provide no indications that the immunomodulatory effects of long-chain n-3 PUFA impair immune function or infectious disease resistance. In contrast, in some conditions the immunomodulatory effects of EPA+DHA might improve immune function.