Fatty Acids Help Control Crohn’s Disease

Healthnotes Newswire (March 30, 2006)—Children suffering from Crohn’s disease (CD) may prolong symptom-free periods by adding omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil to their usual medications, reports the World Journal of Gastroenterology (2005;11:7118–21).

CD and ulcerative colitis together make up the illness referred to as inflammatory bowel disease. CD affects about 500,000 Americans; 10% of the cases involve children under the age of 18. It appears that a combination of genetics, immune system dysregulation, and environmental factors play a role. People with relatives who have CD are 10 to 30 times more likely to develop the condition themselves. Some researchers believe that CD may begin when the intestines come in contact with certain viruses or bacteria that start an inflammatory process that becomes difficult to control.

CD most frequently affects the end of the small intestine and the beginning of the colon. Damage to these areas occurs when the immune system releases inflammatory substances that create ulcerations and other changes in the structure of the intestines. As the disease progresses, nutritional deficiencies can develop; vitamin B12, protein, and fat malabsorption are common in people with CD. Symptoms of CD include persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain, lack of appetite, fever, bloody stools, fatigue, and weight loss. Children with CD may also suffer from delays in growth and sexual development. Periods of active disease are interspersed with symptom-free remissions.

The goal of medical treatment for CD is to control the inflammation and to maintain symptom-free periods. This is accomplished by using combinations of drugs such as the anti-inflammatory aminosalicylates, such as mesalamine (Asacol), and corticosteroids like prednisone. Because corticosteroids carry the risk of serious side effects (increased susceptibility to infections, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and stunted growth in children), they are usually used only short-term and in combination with other medications to induce remissions. Other agents, such as infliximab (Remicade), may be used to help maintain remission by suppressing the immune system.

Studies have shown that supplementing with fish oil, which has potent anti-inflammatory actions, is beneficial for adults with CD. The new study investigated the use of concentrated omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil in combination with mesalamine to maintain CD remission in 38 children (average age ten years) with the disease. The children were treated for 12 months with either 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids (containing 1,200 mg of EPA and 600 mg of DHA) per day plus mesalamine, or placebo plus mesalamine. The children were assessed before the study and again after 6 and 12 months.

After one year, 95% of the children in the placebo group had a relapse of their CD, compared with 61% in the fatty acid group. No relapses were seen in the fatty acid group for a full eight months, whereas relapses occurred as early as one month in the placebo group. No side effects were reported with use of the fatty acids.

The combination of mesalamine and omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish oil offers a promising treatment option for extending symptom-free periods in children suffering from CD. These results are especially encouraging, as the risk of side effects from drugs such as prednisone are of particular concern in children.

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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