Omega-3 fatty acids don't work on Crohn's
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supplements of omega-3 fatty acids, taken by many with Crohn's disease, do not work to manage the incurable inflammatory bowel ailment, an international team of researchers said on Tuesday.
The findings cast doubt on a popular alternative treatment used by perhaps a fifth of Crohn's patients to try to stave off symptoms that can be painful and debilitating.
The researchers studied 738 Crohn's patients in Canada, Europe, Israel and the United States whose symptoms were in remission.
Patients were given either four grams a day of omega-3 free fatty acids in capsules or a placebo for up to 58 weeks to see if the treatment would prevent relapse, but both groups relapsed at essentially the same rate.
"We're still looking for the optimal drug or combination of drugs to prevent relapse. But I think we can take omega-3 fatty acids off the list," said Dr. R. Balfour Sartor of the University of North Carolina, who serves as chief medical adviser to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines as well as some other foods such as walnuts. They provide an anti-inflammatory effect and thus are used to fight inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, the researchers noted.
The group said there are 1.4 million people in the United States with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
"It's very disappointing for patients particularly," Dr. Brian Feagan of the University of Western Ontario in Canada, who led the research, said in a telephone interview.
"There's a lot of reasons for using alternative medicine. You could start by saying that existing conventional therapies aren't that effective, so there's a desire to try other options," added Feagan, whose research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In Crohn's disease, the digestive tract becomes inflamed, causing diarrhea, abdominal pain and rectal bleeding. It most often impacts the lower part of the small intestine.
Swelling can make the intestines empty frequently, causing severe diarrhea. It can be painful and debilitating, sometimes leading to life-threatening complications.
Its cause remains unclear, but may involve a problem with the immune system. There is no known cure, but drugs including corticosteroids, immune system suppressors and antibiotics, as well as surgery, can reduce the symptoms and bring about a long-term remission.
Crohn's disease tends to run in families. Scientists have identified genes that boost one's risk of developing it, indicating a significant genetic component.
Sartor said an estimated 20 percent of people with Crohn's in the United States use alternative medicines such as omega-3 fatty acids, which are widely available in supplement form, to try to manage the disease.
This interest in omega-3 fatty acids stems in large part from a small Italian study published in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed a benefit for preventing relapse of Crohn's disease.
The new research involved about 10 times as many patients as that earlier study, and found no such benefit.
(Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Walsh)