Vitamin D and Omega-3 Supplements Reduce Autoimmune Disease Risk

Neil Osterweil

November 07, 2021

For those of us who cannot sit in the sun and fish all day, the next best thing for preventing autoimmune diseases may be supplementation with vitamin D and fish oil derived omega-3 fatty acids, results of a large prospective randomized trial suggest.

Dr Karen Costenbader

Among nearly 26,000 adults enrolled in a randomized trial designed primarily to study the effects of vitamin D and omega-3 supplementation on incident cancer and cardiovascular disease, 5 years of vitamin D supplementation was associated with a 22% reduction in risk for confirmed autoimmune diseases, and 5 years of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation was associated with an 18% reduction in confirmed and probable incident autoimmune diseases, reported Karen H. Costenbader, MD, MPH, of Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

"The clinical importance of these results is very high, given that these are nontoxic, well-tolerated supplements, and that there are no other known effective therapies to reduce the incidence of autoimmune diseases," she said during the virtual annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR 2021).

"People do have to take the supplements a long time to start to see the reduction in risk, especially for vitamin D, but they make biological sense, and autoimmune diseases develop slowly over time, so taking it today isn't going to reduce risk of developing something tomorrow," Costenbader said in an interview with Medscape Medical News.

"These supplements have other health benefits. Obviously, fish oil is anti-inflammatory, and vitamin D is good for osteoporosis prevention, especially in our patients who take glucocorticoids. People who are otherwise healthy and have a family history of autoimmune disease might also consider starting to take these supplements," she said.

After watching her presentation, session co-moderator Gregg Silverman, MD, from the NYU Langone School of Medicine in New York City, who was not involved in the study, commented "I'm going to [nutrition store] GNC to get some vitamins."

When asked for comment, the other session moderator, Tracy Frech, MD, of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, said, "I think Dr Costenbader's work is very important and her presentation excellent. My current practice is replacement of vitamin D in all autoimmune disease patients with low levels and per bone health guidelines. Additionally, I discuss omega-3 supplementation with Sjögren's [syndrome] patients as a consideration."

Evidence Base

Costenbader noted that in a 2013 observational study from France, vitamin D derived through ultraviolet (UV) light exposure was associated with a lower risk for incident Crohn's disease but not ulcerative colitis, and in two analyses of data in 2014 from the Nurses' Health Study, both high plasma levels of 25-OH vitamin D and geographic residence in areas of high UV exposure were associated with a decreased incidence of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Other observational studies have supported omega-3 fatty acids for their anti-inflammatory properties, including a 2005 Danish prospective cohort study showing a lower risk for RA in participants who reported higher levels of fatty fish intake. In a separate study conducted in 2017, healthy volunteers with higher omega-3 fatty acid/total lipid proportions in red blood cell membranes had a lower prevalence of anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies and rheumatoid factor and a lower incidence of progression to inflammatory arthritis, she said.

Ancillary Study

Despite the evidence, however, there have been no prospective randomized trials to test the effects of either vitamin D or omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the incidence of autoimmune disease over time.

To rectify this, Costenbader and colleagues piggybacked an ancillary study onto the Vitamin D and Omega-3 Trial (VITAL), which had primary outcomes of cancer and cardiovascular disease incidence.

A total of 25,871 participants were enrolled, including 12,786 men aged 50 and older, and 13,085 women aged 55 and older.

The study had a 2 x 2 factorial design, with patients randomly assigned to vitamin D 2000 IU/day or placebo, and then further randomized to either 1 g/day omega-3 fatty acids or placebo in both the vitamin D and placebo primary randomization arms.

At baseline 16,956 participants were assayed for 25-OH vitamin D and plasma omega 3 index, the ratio of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to total fatty acids. Participants self-reported baseline and all incident autoimmune diseases annually, with the reports confirmed by medical record review and disease criteria whenever possible.

Results

At 5 years of follow-up, confirmed incident autoimmune diseases had occurred in 123 patients in the active vitamin D group, compared with 155 in the placebo vitamin D group, translating into a hazard ratio (HR) for vitamin D of 0.78 (P = .045).

In the active omega-3 arm, 130 participants developed an autoimmune disease, compared with 148 in the placebo omega-3 arm, which translated into a nonsignificant HR of 0.85.

There was no statistical interaction between the two supplements. The investigators did observe an interaction between vitamin D and body mass index, with the effect stronger among participants with low BMI (P = .02). There also was an interaction between omega-3 fatty acids with family history of autoimmune disease (P = .03).

In multivariate analysis adjusted for age, sex, race, and other supplement arm, vitamin D alone was associated with an HR for incident autoimmune disease of 0.68 (P = .02), omega-3 alone was associated with a nonsignificant HR of 0.74, and the combination was associated with an HR of 0.69 (P = .03).

Costenbader and colleagues acknowledged that the study was limited by the lack of a high-risk or nutritionally-deficient population, where the effects of supplementation might be larger; the restriction of the sample to older adults; and to the difficulty of confirming incident autoimmune thyroid disease from patient reports.

Cheryl Koehn, an arthritis patient advocate from Vancouver, Canada, who was not involved in the study, commented in the "chat" section of the presentation that her rheumatologist "has recommend vitamin D for years now. Says basically everyone north of Boston is vitamin D deficient. I take 1000 IU per day. Been taking it for years." Koehn is the founder and president of Arthritis Consumer Experts, a website that provides education to those with arthritis.

"Agreed. I tell every patient to take vitamin D supplement," commented Fatma Dedeoglu, MD, a rheumatologist at Boston Children's Hospital.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health. Costenbader, Silverman, Koehn, and Dedeoglu have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

ACR Convergence 2021. Abstract 0957. Presented November 7, 2021.

Neil Osterweil, an award-winning medical journalist, is a long-standing and frequent contributor to Medscape.

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