Very long-chain n-3 fatty acids and human health: fact, fiction and the future

Proc Nutr Soc. 2018 Feb;77(1):52-72. doi: 10.1017/S0029665117003950. Epub 2017 Oct 17.


EPA and DHA appear to be the most important n-3 fatty acids, but roles for n-3 docosapentaenoic acid are now also emerging. Intakes of EPA and DHA are usually low, typically below those recommended. Increased intakes result in higher concentrations of EPA and DHA in blood lipids, cells and tissues. Increased content of EPA and DHA modifies the structure of cell membranes and the function of membrane proteins. EPA and DHA modulate the production of lipid mediators and through effects on cell signalling can alter the patterns of gene expression. Through these mechanisms, EPA and DHA alter cell and tissue responsiveness in a way that often results in more optimal conditions for growth, development and maintenance of health. DHA has vital roles in brain and eye development and function. EPA and DHA have a wide range of physiological roles, which are linked to certain health or clinical benefits, particularly related to CVD, cancer, inflammation and neurocognitive function. The benefits of EPA and DHA are evident throughout the life course. Future research will include better identification of the determinants of variation of responses to increased intake of EPA and DHA; more in-depth dose-response studies of the effects of EPA and DHA; clearer identification of the specific roles of EPA, docosapentaenoic acid and DHA; testing strategies to enhance delivery of n-3 fatty acids to the bloodstream; and exploration of sustainable alternatives to fish-derived very long-chain n-3 fatty acids.

Keywords: ADHD attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; ALA α-linolenic acid; ARA arachidonic acid; DPA docosapentaenoic acid; MI myocardial infarction; RA rheumatoid arthritis; RCT randomised controlled trial; SDA stearidonic acid; Brain; CVD; Cancer; DHA; Development; EPA; Eicosanoids; Fish oil; Inflammation.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Dietary Fats / pharmacology*
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / pharmacology*
  • Eating / physiology
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / pharmacology*
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / pharmacology*
  • Gene Expression / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Lipid Metabolism / drug effects
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism


  • Dietary Fats
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid
  • docosapentaenoic acid