Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are a group of molecules that include ω-3 and ω-6 fatty acids. Although ω-3 PUFAs, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), have been shown in research to help support a healthy inflammatory response and immune health, ω-6 fatty acids may exhibit certain pro-inflammatory qualities. Overall, the typical Western diet contains more ω-6 fatty acids, which may create an imbalance in the overall ratio between the ω-6 and the ω-3 fatty acids. Changes to this ratio have been associated with certain aspects of the allergic response and inflammation, including shifts in the Th1/Th2 balance. Recent research has explored the potential supportive role of certain PUFAs in the pediatric allergic response.
A review by Trikamjee and colleagues explored the potential influence of nutritional factors on the prevention of atopic dermatitis in the pediatric population. Several birth-cohort studies, as reported by the authors, have indicated a link between increased ω-3 PUFA intake and risk reduction for asthma, atopic dermatitis, and sensitization to certain allergens.
Another review by Sartorio and colleagues investigated recent studies regarding PUFAs and pediatric food allergies. The authors reported that increases in ω-3 consumption have been linked to reductions in immunoglobulin E production by B cells, modulation of dendritic cell activity, and reductions in cytokine release.
A worldwide meta-analysis containing data of more than 2,400 individuals associated higher concentrations of DHA in the breast milk of those consuming more fish and seafood. Multiple studies have reported a potential link between the incidence of food allergy in children and the decreased plasma content of ω-3 PUFAs. A double-blind, randomized controlled trial in more than 400 infants reported that daily fish oil supplementation of 280 mg of DHA and 110 mg of EPA improved ω-3 status.
Another randomized, double-blind controlled trial investigated the efficacy of supplementation with a blend of DHA and EPA in infant formula administered during the first year of life. The incidence of upper respiratory infection and common allergic diseases was reduced in the treatment group for up to 3 years of age. A similar study in infants at risk of allergy showed that ω-3 PUFA supplementation during the first 6 months of life may have played a protective role against eczema and wheezing.
Limitations in current research regarding PUFAs as reported by Sartorio and colleagues include a narrowed focus on the prevention of food allergy alone. In addition, many reviews contain studies that have administered a relatively low amount of ω-3 PUFAs. Because of the variation in amounts of PUFAs administered and relatively low sample sizes in some studies, more research is needed before clinical conclusions can be made.
Research indicates that PUFAs, such as ω-3s, obtained from diet and supplementation may support the inflammatory response and immune health. They may also help support certain aspects of the pediatric allergic response.
By Colleen Ambrose, ND, MAT