The n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoicacid (DHA) are found in high proportions in oily fish and fish oils. The n-3 PUFA are structurally and functionally distinct from the n-6 PUFA. Typically, human inflammatory cells contain high proportions of the n-6 PUFA arachidonic acid and low proportions of n-3 PUFA. The significance of this difference is that arachidonic acid is the precursor of 2-series prostaglandins and 4-series leukotrienes, which are highly-active mediators of inflammation. Feeding fish oil results in partial replacement of arachidonic acid in inflammatory cell membranes by EPA. This change leads to decreased production of arachidonic acid-derived mediators. This response alone is a potentially beneficial anti-inflammatory effect of n-3 PUFA. However, n-3 PUFA have a number of other effects which might occur downstream of altered eicosanoid production or might be independent of this activity. For example, animal and human studies have shown that dietary fish oil results in suppressed production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and can decrease adhesion molecule expression. These effects occur at the level of altered gene expression. This action might come about through antagonism of the effects of arachidonic acid-derived mediators or through more direct actions on the intracellular signalling pathways which lead to activation of transcription factors such as nuclear factor kappa B (NFêB). Recent studies have shown that n-3 PUFA can down regulate the activity of the nuclear transcription factor NFêB. Fish oil feeding has been shown to ameliorate the symptoms in some animal models of chronic inflammatory disease and to protect against the effects of endotoxin and similar inflammatory challenges. Clinical studies have reported that oral fish oil supplementation has beneficial effects in rheumatoid arthritis and among some patients with asthma, supporting the idea that the n-3 PUFA in fish oil are antiinflammatory. There are indications that inclusion of n-3 PUFA in enteral and parenteral formulas might be beneficial to patients in intensive care or post-surgery.
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