Fish oil for kidney transplant recipients

This review set out to assess any benefit or harm in using fish oil to reduce the risk of kidney damage and heart disease in people who have had a kidney transplant and are receiving standard drugs to prevent rejection. Information from 15 studies was used and showed that fish oils provide a slight improvement in HDL cholesterol and diastolic blood pressure. These studies did not provide enough information on the differences in the risk of death, heart disease, kidney transplant rejection or kidney function between patients receiving fish oils and those receiving placebo. There appeared to be no harmful effects of taking fish oil. The benefits of taking fish oil after a kidney transplant are a mild improvement in some heart disease risk factors. There was not enough information to show any benefit in preventing heart disease or reduction in kidney function. Larger, better studies are needed before regular use of fish oil can be recommended.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is insufficient evidence from currently available RCTs to recommend fish oil therapy to improve kidney function, rejection rates, patient survival or graft survival. The improvements in HDL cholesterol and diastolic blood pressure were too modest to recommend routine use. To determine a benefit in clinical outcomes, future RCTs will need to be adequately powered with these outcomes in mind.

Read the full abstract...

Calcineurin inhibitors used in kidney transplantation for immunosuppression have adverse effects that may contribute to nephrotoxicity and increased cardiovascular risk profile. Fish oils are rich in very long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce nephrotoxicity by improving endothelial function and reduce rejection rates through their immuno-modulatory effects. They may also modify the cardiovascular risk profile. Hence, fish oils may potentially prolong graft survival and reduce cardiovascular mortality.


This review aimed to look at the benefits and harms of fish oil treatment in ameliorating the kidney and cardiovascular adverse effects of CNI-based immunosuppressive therapy in kidney transplant recipients.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Kidney and Transplant Specialised Register (up to 17 March 2016) through contact with the Information Specialist using search terms relevant to this review.

Selection criteria: 

All randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs of fish oils in kidney transplant recipients on a calcineurin inhibitor-based immunosuppressive regimen. RCTs of fish oil versus statins were included.

Data collection and analysis: 

Data was extracted and the quality of studies assessed by two authors, with differences resolved by discussion with a third independent author. Dichotomous outcomes were reported as risk ratio (RR) and continuous outcome measures were reported as the mean difference (MD) with 95% confidence intervals using the random effects model. Heterogeneity was assessed using a Chi2 test on n-1 degrees of freedom and the I2 statistic. Data not suitable for pooling were tabulated and described.

Main results: 

Fifteen studies (733 patients) were suitable for analysis. All studies were small and had variable methodology. Fish oil did not significantly affect patient or graft survival, acute rejection rates, or calcineurin inhibitor toxicity when compared to placebo. Overall SCr was significantly lower in the fish oil group compared to placebo (5 studies, 237 participants: MD -30.63 µmol/L, 95% CI -59.74 to -1.53; I2 = 88%). In the subgroup analysis, this was only significant in the long-course (six months or more) group (4 studies, 157 participants: MD -37.41 µmol/L, 95% CI -69.89 to -4.94; I2 = 82%). Fish oil treatment was associated with a lower diastolic blood pressure (4 studies, 200 participants: MD -4.53 mm Hg, 95% CI -7.60 to -1.45) compared to placebo. Patients receiving fish oil for more than six months had a modest increase in HDL (5 studies, 178 participants: MD 0.12 mmol/L, 95% CI 0.03 to 0.21; I2 = 47%) compared to placebo. Fish oil effects on lipids were not significantly different from low-dose statins. There was insufficient data to analyse cardiovascular outcomes. Fishy aftertaste and gastrointestinal upset were common but did not result in significant patient drop-out.