Omega-3 fatty acids and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: Evidence of efficacy and mechanism of action

Mol Aspects Med. 2018 Dec:64:135-146. doi: 10.1016/j.mam.2018.03.001. Epub 2018 Mar 22.


For many years it has been known that high doses of long chain omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial in the treatment of hypertriglyceridaemia. Over the last three decades, there has also been a wealth of in vitro and in vivo data that has accumulated to suggest that long chain omega-3 fatty acid treatment might be beneficial to decrease liver triacylglycerol. Several biological mechanisms have been identified that support this hypothesis; notably, it has been shown that long chain omega-3 fatty acids have a beneficial effect: a) on bioactive metabolites involved in inflammatory pathways, and b) on alteration of nuclear transcription factor activities such as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs), sterol regulatory element-binding protein 1c (SREBP-1c) and carbohydrate-responsive element-binding protein (ChREBP), involved in inflammatory pathways and liver lipid metabolism. Since the pathogenesis of non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) begins with the accumulation of liver lipid and progresses with inflammation and then several years later with development of fibrosis; it has been thought in patients with NAFLD omega-3 fatty acid treatment would be beneficial in treating liver lipid and possibly also in ameliorating inflammation. Meta-analyses (of predominantly dietary studies and small trials) have tended to support the assertion that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial in decreasing liver lipid, but recent randomised controlled trials have produced conflicting data. These trials have suggested that omega-3 fatty acid might be beneficial in decreasing liver triglyceride (docosahexanoic acid also possibly being more effective than eicosapentanoic acid) but not in decreasing other features of steatohepatitis (or liver fibrosis). The purpose of this review is to discuss recent evidence regarding biological mechanisms by which long chain omega-3 fatty acids might act to ameliorate liver disease in NAFLD; to consider the recent evidence from randomised trials in both adults and children with NAFLD; and finally to discuss key 'known unknowns' that need to be considered, before planning future studies that are focussed on testing the effects of omega-3 fatty acid treatment in patients with NAFLD.

Keywords: Docosahexanoic acid; Eicosapentanoic acid; Fatty liver; Liver fibrosis; NAFLD; Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease; Nutrition; Omega-3 fatty acids; n-3 fatty acids.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / metabolism
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / therapeutic use*
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / therapeutic use*
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Hypertriglyceridemia / diet therapy
  • Inflammation / diet therapy*
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Inflammation / pathology
  • Lipid Metabolism / drug effects
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Liver / pathology
  • Liver Cirrhosis / diet therapy
  • Liver Cirrhosis / metabolism
  • Liver Cirrhosis / pathology
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / diet therapy*
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / metabolism
  • Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease / pathology
  • Triglycerides / metabolism


  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Triglycerides
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid