Omega-3 (n-3) fatty acids are essential for proper neuronal function, and they possess prominent analgesic properties, yet their underlying signalling mechanisms are unclear. Here we show that n-3 fatty acids interact directly with TRPV1, an ion channel expressed in nociceptive neurones and brain. These fatty acids activate TRPV1 in a phosphorylation-dependent manner, enhance responses to extracellular protons, and displace binding of the ultrapotent TRPV1 ligand [3H]resiniferatoxin. In contrast to their agonistic properties, n-3 fatty acids competitively inhibit the responses of vanilloid agonists. These actions occur in mammalian cells in the physiological concentration range of 1-10 mum. Significantly, docosahexaenoic acid exhibits the greatest efficacy as an agonist, whereas eicosapentaenoic acid and linolenic acid are markedly more effective inhibitors. Similarly, eicosapentaenoic acid but not docosahexaenoic acid profoundly reduces capsaicin-evoked pain-related behaviour in mice. These effects are independent of alterations in membrane elasticity because the micelle-forming detergent Triton X-100 only minimally affects TRPV1 properties. Thus, n-3 fatty acids differentially regulate TRPV1 and this form of signalling may contribute to their biological effects. Further, these results suggest that dietary supplementation with selective n-3 fatty acids would be most beneficial for the treatment of pain.