Omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid and their mechanisms of action on apolipoprotein B-containing lipoproteins in humans: a review

Lipids Health Dis. 2017 Aug 10;16(1):149. doi: 10.1186/s12944-017-0541-3.


Background: Epidemiological and genetic studies suggest that elevated triglyceride (TG)-rich lipoprotein levels in the circulation increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Prescription formulations of omega-3 fatty acids (OM3FAs), mainly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), reduce plasma TG levels and are approved for the treatment of patients with severe hypertriglyceridemia. Many preclinical studies have investigated the TG-lowering mechanisms of action of OM3FAs, but less is known from clinical studies.

Methods: We conducted a review, using systematic methodology, of studies in humans assessing the mechanisms of action of EPA and DHA on apolipoprotein B-containing lipoproteins, including TG-rich lipoproteins and low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). A systematic search of PubMed retrieved 55 articles, of which 30 were used in the review; 35 additional arrticles were also included.

Results: In humans, dietary DHA is retroconverted to EPA, while production of DHA from EPA is not observed. Dietary DHA is preferentially esterified into TGs, while EPA is more evenly esterified into TGs, cholesterol esters and phospholipids. The preferential esterification of DHA into TGs likely explains the higher turnover of DHA than EPA in plasma. The main effects of both EPA and DHA are decreased fasting and postprandial serum TG levels, through reduction of hepatic very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL)-TG production. The exact mechanism for reduced VLDL production is not clear but does not include retention of lipids in the liver; rather, increased hepatic fatty acid oxidation is likely. The postprandial reduction in TG levels is caused by increased lipoprotein lipase activity and reduced serum VLDL-TG concentrations, resulting in enhanced chylomicron clearance. Overall, no clear differences between the effects of EPA and DHA on TG levels, or on turnover of TG-rich lipoproteins, have been observed. Effects on LDL are complex and may be influenced by genetics, such as APOE genotype.

Conclusions: EPA and DHA diminish fasting circulating TG levels via reduced production of VLDL. The mechanism of reduced VLDL production does not involve hepatic retention of lipids. Lowered postprandial TG levels are also explained by increased chylomicron clearance. Little is known about the specific cellular and biochemical mechanisms underlying the TG-lowering effects of EPA and DHA in humans.

Keywords: Apolipoprotein B; Apolipoprotein CIII; Apolipoprotein E; Chylomicrons; Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA); Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA); Lipoprotein lipase; Low-density lipoproteins; Triglycerides; Very-low-density lipoproteins.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apolipoproteins B / blood*
  • Apolipoproteins E / blood
  • Biotransformation
  • Chylomicrons / blood
  • Dietary Supplements*
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / administration & dosage*
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / metabolism
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / administration & dosage*
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / metabolism
  • Fasting
  • Humans
  • Hypertriglyceridemia / diet therapy
  • Hypertriglyceridemia / metabolism
  • Hypertriglyceridemia / physiopathology
  • Lipoprotein Lipase / metabolism
  • Lipoproteins, HDL / blood
  • Lipoproteins, LDL / blood*
  • Lipoproteins, VLDL / blood*
  • Liver / drug effects
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Postprandial Period
  • Triglycerides / blood*


  • Apolipoproteins B
  • Apolipoproteins E
  • Chylomicrons
  • Lipoproteins, HDL
  • Lipoproteins, LDL
  • Lipoproteins, VLDL
  • Triglycerides
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid
  • Lipoprotein Lipase