Fish oil has been found to greatly reduce the symptoms of lupus disease, offering hope to millions of sufferers with little alternative to steroid treatment.
At present there is no cure for lupus. Steroids are used to reduce side-effects but cannot be administered long-term. Now researchers from the University of Ulster in Belfast report that a key way of managing lupus may be through diet.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) or lupus is a disorder of the immune system, where the body harms its own healthy cells and tissues. The body tissues become damaged causing painful or swollen joints, unexplained fever, skin rashes, kidney problems, complications to the cardiovascular system and extreme fatigue.
Fish oils contain long-chained polyunsaturated fatty acids which are essential for normal growth and development but also have anti-inflammatory and anti-autoimmune properties, noted researchers Dr Emeir Duffy, from the School of Biomedical Sciences, and Dr Gary Meenagh, from Musgrave Park Hospital, Belfast.
Dr Duffy said: "We have been investigating how fish oil can improve the quality of life for lupus sufferers. In lupus, the body's immune system does not work as it should. Antibodies, which help fight viruses, bacteria and other foreign substances, are not produced effectively. The immune system actually produces antibodies against the body's own healthy cells and tissues. These auto-antibodies contribute to inflammation and other symptoms of the disease."
Participants in a recent study who were taking fish oil supplements three times daily for 24 weeks, saw a reduction in disease activity, an improvement in quality of life and reported an overall feeling of improved health by the end of the study compared to those taking a placebo, reported Dr Duffy.
Participants taking the fish oil also showed a reduction in fatigue severity, the most debilitating symptom for lupus sufferers, she added.
"From our study and from other work, there is evidence that increasing dietary intake of the polyunsaturated fats found in fatty fish can have beneficial effects for lupus sufferers," concluded Dr Duffy.
Good examples of fatty fish include mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, tuna and salmon.
There are approximately 500 diagnosed cases of SLE in Northern Ireland and it is most common in women of child-bearing age.
Previous research has suggested that a developing foetus uses up large quantities of the mother's omega-3 and makes women more susceptible to degenerative diseases including lupus.