, Volume 38, Issue 4, pp 323–341 | Cite as

Fatty acids, the immune response, and autoimmunity: A question of n−6 essentiality and the balance between n−6 and n−3



The essentiality of n−6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) is described in relation to a thymus/thymocyte accretion of arachidonic acid (20∶4n−6, AA) in early development, and the high requirement of lymphoid and other cells of the immune system for AA and linoleic acid (18∶2n−6, LA) for membrane phospholipids. Low n−6 PUFA intakes enhance whereas high intakes decrease certain immune functions. Evidence from in vitro and in vivo studies for a role of AA metabolites in immune cell development and functions shows that they can limit or regulate cellular immune reactions and can induce deviation toward a T helper (Th)2-like immune response. In contrast to the effects of the oxidative metabolites of AA, the longer-chain n−6 PUFA produced by γ-linolenic acid (18∶3n−6, GLA) feeding decreases the Th2 cytokine and immunoglobulin (Ig)G1 antibody response. The n−6 PUFA, GLA, dihomo-γ-linolenic acid (20∶3n−6, DHLA) and AA, and certain oxidative metabolites of AA can also induce T-regulatory cell activity, e.g., transforming growth factor (IGF)-β-producing T cells; GLA feeding studies also demonstrate reduced proinflammatory interleukin (IL)-1 and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α production. Low intakes of long-chain n−3 fatty acids (fish oils) enhance certain immune functions, whereas high intakes are inhibitory on a wide range of functions, e.g., antigen presentation, adhesion molecule expression, Th1 and th2 responses, proinflammatory cytokine and eicosanoid production, and they induce lymphocyte apoptosis. Vitamin E has a demonstrable critical role in long-chain n−3 PUFA interactions with immune functions, often reversing the effects of fish oil. The effect of dietary fatty acids on animal autoimmune disease models depends on both the autoimmune model and the amount and type of fatty acids fed. Diets low in fat, essential fatty acid deficient (EFAD), or high in long-chain n−3 PUFA from fish oils increase survival and reduce disease severity in spontaneous autoantibody-mediated disease, whereas high-fat LA-rich diets increase disease severity. In experimentally induced T cell-mediated autoimmune disease, EFAD diets or diets supplemented with long-chain n−3 PUFA augment disease, whereas n−6 PUFA prevent or reduce the severity. In contrast, in both T cell- and antibody-mediated autoimmune disease, the desaturated/elongated metabolites of LA are protective. PUFA of both the n−6 and n−3 families are clinically useful in human autoimmune-inflammatory disorders, but the precise mechanisms by which these fatty acids exert their clinical effects are not well understood. Finally, the view that all n−6 PUFA are proinflammatory requires revision, in part, and their essential regulatory and developmental role in the immune system warrants appreciation.



arachidonic acid


α-linolenic acid


antigen-presenting cells


chronic relapsing EAE


docosahexaenoic acid


dihomo-γ-linolenic acid


delayed-type hypersensitivity


experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis


experimental autoimmune uveitis


essential fatty acid deficiency


eicosapentaenoic acid


γ-linolenic acid






linoleic acid


leucocyte function-associated antigen




major histocompatibility complex


natural killer






rheumatoid arthritis


reactive oxygen intermediates


systemic lupus erythematosus


T cell antigen receptor


transforming growth factor


T helper


tumor necrosis factor


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© AOCS Press 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Chemical and Life SciencesUniversity of Greenwich at MedwayChatham MaritimeUK

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