• Open Access

Low breast milk levels of long-chain n-3 fatty acids in allergic women, despite frequent fish intake


Sara Johansson, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Food Science, Chalmers University of Technology, SE-412 96 Göteborg, Sweden. E-mail:


Cite this as: S. Johansson, A. E. Wold and A-S Sandberg, Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 2011 (41) 505–515.


Background Long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) have immune regulating and anti-inflammatory effects. However, their role in allergic disease is unclear. Allergic diseases are immunologically heterogeneous, and we hypothesized that n-3 fatty acid composition in serum and breast milk may vary according to clinical manifestations. Further, animal studies have shown reduction of serum-PUFA levels during allergic inflammation.

Objective To investigate fatty acid composition in breast milk and serum from women with different atopic disease manifestations. Secondly, to determine whether low PUFA levels reflected insufficient intakes.

Methods Fatty acids were analysed in breast milk and serum of women with atopic eczema and respiratory allergy (n=16), only respiratory allergy (n=7), as well as healthy women (n=22). Dietary intake of foods expected to affect long-chain n-3 PUFA levels were estimated by food-frequency questionnaire. The fatty acid pattern was related to diagnostic group and intake of relevant food items using a multivariate pattern recognition method (partial least squares projections to latent structures and discriminant analysis).

Results Women with a combination of eczema and respiratory allergy had lower breast milk levels of several PUFAs (arachidonic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, docosahexaenoic acid, DHA, and docosapentaenoic acid, DPA), and a lower ratio of long-chain n-3 PUFAs/n-6 PUFAs. Their PUFA levels differed not only from that of healthy women, but also from that of women with only respiratory allergy. The latter had a fatty acid pattern similar to that of healthy women. Despite low EPA, DHA and DPA levels women with eczema and respiratory allergy consumed no less fish than did healthy women.

Conclusion & Clinical Relevance Our data suggest that reduced levels of long-chain n-3 fatty acids in serum and breast milk characterize women with extensive allergic disease including eczema, and are not related to low fish intake. Consumption of PUFAs during the allergic process may explain these findings.