BACKGROUND: Supplementation of the diet with fish oil, which is rich in the long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is reported to decrease several markers of immune function. However, whether EPA, DHA, or a combination of the 2 exerts these immunomodulatory effects is unclear.

OBJECTIVE: The objective of the study was to determine the effects of supplementation with an EPA-rich or DHA-rich oil on a range of immune outcomes representing key functions of human neutrophils, monocytes, and lymphocytes in healthy humans.

DESIGN: In a placebo-controlled, double-blind, parallel study, 42 healthy subjects were randomly allocated to receive supplementation with either placebo (olive oil), EPA (4.7 g/d), or DHA (4.9 g/d) for 4 wk. Blood samples were taken before and after supplementation.

RESULTS: The fatty acid composition of plasma phospholipids and neutrophils was dramatically altered by supplementation with EPA or DHA, and the effects of EPA differed notably from those of DHA. DHA supplementation decreased T lymphocyte activation, as assessed by expression of CD69, whereas EPA supplementation had no significant effect. Neither the EPA-rich oil nor the DHA-rich oil had any significant effect on monocyte or neutrophil phagocytosis or on cytokine production or adhesion molecule expression by peripheral blood mononuclear cells.

CONCLUSIONS: Supplementation with DHA, but not with EPA, suppresses T lymphocyte activation, as assessed by expression of CD69. EPA alone does not, therefore, influence CD69 expression. No other marker of immune function assessed in this study was significantly affected by either EPA or DHA.