Fish oils are a rich source of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 LC PUFA). The specific fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, are homologues of the n-6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid (AA). This chemistry provides for antagonism by n-3 LC PUFA of AA metabolism to pro-inflammatory and pro-thrombotic n-6 eicosanoids, as well as production of less active n-3 eicosanoids. In addition, n-3 LC PUFA can suppress production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and cartilage degradative enzymes.
In accordance with the biochemical effects, beneficial anti-inflammatory effects of dietary fish oils have been demonstrated in randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Also, fish oils have protective clinical effects in occlusive cardiovascular disease, for which patients with RA are at increased risk.
Implementation of the clinical use of anti-inflammatory fish oil doses has been poor. Since fish oils do not provide industry with the opportunities for substantial profit associated with patented prescription items, they have not received the marketing inputs that underpin the adoption of usual pharmacotherapies. Accordingly, many prescribers remain ignorant of their biochemistry, therapeutic effects, formulations, principles of application and complementary dietary modifications. Evidence is presented that increased uptake of this approach can be achieved using bulk fish oils. This approach has been used with good compliance in RA patients. In addition, an index of n-3 nutrition can be used to provide helpful feedback messages to patients and to monitor the attainment of target levels.
Collectively, these issues highlight the challenges in advancing the use of fish oil amid the complexities of modern management of RA, with its emphasis on combination chemotherapy applied early.
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Funding from NHMRC is acknowledged. The authors have no conflicts of interest that are directly relevant to the content of this manuscript.
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