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Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Stop Environmental Trigger of Lupus

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1.5 million Americans. Certain environmental factors are known triggers for flares, but research indicates there may be help in a common nutrient.


With autoimmune diseases, the immune system that normally protects us from “invaders” turns on us and produces antibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body, including skin, joints and/or organs.

Lupus is considered a genetic disease, striking mostly women of childbearing age (15-44). Although people of all races and ethnic groups can develop lupus, it is most likely to affect women of color, including African-American and Hispanic women.

Lupus is a disease of flares and remissions. There are several known common triggers for lupus flares, including ultraviolet ray exposure (such as from the sun or a tanning bed), certain medications, an injury or infection, or even emotional or physical stress.

One lesser known trigger for lupus is inhaling crystalline silica toxicants, which are commonly found in agriculture, construction and mining. Quartz is the most common.

"Cells in the lung can gobble up the silica, but it's so toxic, it kills these cells," says Jack Harkema, a pulmonary pathologist. "When they die, signals are sent out to the immune system that something is wrong. The body then produces such a strong response that it also starts to target healthy cells."

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New research suggests that an omega-3 fatty acid, DHA or docosahexaenoic acid, may stop this trigger. A preclinical trial at Michigan State University looked at the effect of DHA on lupus lesions in the lungs and kidneys of female mice that were already genetically predisposed to the disease.

"Ninety-six percent of the lung lesions were stopped with DHA after being triggered by the silica," said Harkema. "I've never seen such a dramatic protective response in the lung before."

The reason for the benefit is yet unknown, but it is thought that DHA could be changing the cells in such a way to alter the immune system response that is targeting healthy cells either through signaling or another protective response.

DHA is found found in cold-water, fatty fish, such as salmon. It is also found in fish oil supplements, along with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), another omega-3 fatty acid. Vegetarian sources of DHA come from seaweed.

Journal Reference:
Melissa A. Bates, Jack R. Harkema, James J. Pestka et al. Silica-Triggered Autoimmunity in Lupus-Prone Mice Blocked by Docosahexaenoic Acid Consumption. PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (8): e0160622 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0160622

Additional Resource:
Lupus Foundation of America
University of Maryland Medical Center

Photo Credit:
By K.b.cheng (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons