Diets rich in arachidonic acid (20:4n-6) lead to the formation of 2-series prostaglandins (PGs) and 4-series leukotrienes (LTs), with proinflammatory effects.

Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs are used in rheumatoid arthritis to inhibit cyclooxygenase (prostaglandin-endoperoxide synthase), thereby decreasing production of 2-series PGs. Lipoxygenase activity remains intact, however, allowing LT production (eg, synthesis of LTB4, a potent inflammatory mediator) to continue.

Altering the essential fatty acid (EFA) content of the diet can modify some of these effects.

Ingestion of a diet rich in evening primrose oil elevates concentrations of dihomo--linolenic acid (DGLA; 20:3n-6), which results in the production of 1-series PGs, eg, PGE1. DGLA itself cannot be converted to LTs but can form a 15-hydroxyl derivative that blocks the transformation of arachidonic acid to LTs. Increasing DGLA intake may allow DGLA to act as a competitive inhibitor of 2-series PGs and 4-series LTs and thus suppress inflammation.

The results of in vitro and animal work evaluating EFAs in inflammatory situations are encouraging, which has stimulated clinical workers to evaluate these compounds in rheumatoid arthritis.

Several well-controlled, randomized clinical studies have now been completed in which various EFAs were evaluated as treatments. The results of most of these studies suggest some clinical benefit to these treatments; these data are reviewed here.