Nov. 7, 2007 (Boston) -- Fish oil supplements may help improve the symptoms of lupus, according to new research presented at the American College of Rheumatology's annual meeting. What's more, the supplements also improve blood flow and blood vessel function in people with lupus who are known to be at increased risk for heart disease.
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when the body engages in friendly fire against its own tissues and organs including the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, heart, lungs, and blood. It affects close to 1.5 million Americans, according to the SLE Lupus Foundation in New York City.
In the new study of 60 people with lupus, participants who took 3 grams of omega-3 polyunsaturated fish oil supplements daily for six months showed improvements in the symptoms of their disease, as measured by two standard tools, when compared to their counterparts who received dummy pills.
In addition, the participants who took the fish oil supplements also showed improved blood vessel function and a reduction in measures of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been linked to heart disease.
"This study confirms the beneficial effects of omega-3 fish oils in improving the symptoms of [lupus] and also provides evidence of the potential cardioprotective effect they may have in this group of patients," researcher Stephen Wright, MD, a specialist registrar in rheumatology at Queen's University of Belfast in Northern Ireland, says in a news release.
Aside from being a disease of the immune system, lupus is also a vascular disease, points out John J. Cush, MD, director of clinical rheumatology at Baylor Research Institute in Dallas.
"We spend a lot of time talking about the immune system in lupus, but we recognize there is a very important vascular component to this disease," he says. "Lupus has cumulative effects on the blood vessels over the years, and this also needs to be addressed."
Fish oil supplements may help address the blood vessel damage seen in the disease, he says.
The new study is "very encouraging and speaks to another way that lupus can be successfully managed," Cush tells WebMD.
Cush says the benefits seen in the study are probably not achievable by simply eating more fatty fish in the diet because the amount of fish that a person would need to eat on a regular basis to get 3 grams of omega-3 is too high.
"Patients with lupus need to control blood pressure, avoid high-fat diets that are bad for vascular diseases of any kind, and maybe use of omega-3 supplements," Cush says. "They are fairly cheap and may produce benefits without producing any harm."
The bottom line? "This is encouraging information that merits larger study in larger number of patients over longer time," he says.
Remember to tell your rheumatologist about whatever supplements you are taking, Cush says.