BACKGROUND: Breast milk contains many immunomodulatory factors (soluble CD14 (sCD14), IgA and cytokines) with the potential to influence infant immune development.

OBJECTIVE: To determine if changes in breast milk omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (n-3 PUFA) composition as a result of maternal dietary fish oil supplementation during pregnancy can modify levels of these immunological parameters in breast milk.

METHOD: In a randomized controlled trial, 83 atopic women received either 4 g fish oil capsules (containing 3.7 g n-3 PUFA) (n = 40) or 4 g olive oil capsules (n = 43) from 20 weeks gestation until delivery. Breast milk was collected 3 days post-partum and fatty acids were analysed by gas liquid chromatography and IgA, sCD14 and cytokines (IL-5, IL-6, IL-10, TNF-alpha and IFN-gamma) were quantitated by ELISA or time resolved fluorescence (TRF).

RESULTS: Omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22:6n-3) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; 20:5n-3) levels were significantly higher (P < 0.001) in breast milk from women supplemented with fish oil (n = 33, DHA mean 1.15%, SD 0.47% and EPA mean 0.16%, SD 0.07%) than in samples from the control group (n = 40, DHA mean 0.50%, SD 0.17% and EPA mean 0.05%, SD 0.02%). Breast milk arachidonic acid (AA; 20:4n-6) levels were significantly lower (P = 0.045) in the fish oil group (mean 0.55%, SD 0.12%) compared with the control group (mean 0.61%, SD 0.14%).

Breast milk IgA was positively correlated with DHA (P = 0.046) and 22:5n-3 (P = 0.003), but inversely correlated with linoleic acid (LA; 18:2n-6) (P=0.034). Levels of sCD14 were also positively correlated with 22:5n-3 (P=0.009). Cytokines involved in IgA synthesis (IL-10 and IL-6) were also significantly correlated with both IgA and n-3 PUFA levels, although there were no differences in the levels of breast milk IgA, sCD14 or cytokines between study groups.

CONCLUSION: Supplementation with fish oil during pregnancy significantly alters early post-partum breast milk fatty acid composition. omega-3 PUFA levels were positively associated with IgA and sCD14 levels, suggesting a relationship between fatty acid status and mucosal immune function.