(n-3) PUFA are a family of biologically active fatty acids. The simplest member of this family, α-linolenic acid, can be converted to the more biologically active very long-chain (n-3) PUFA EPA and DHA; this process occurs by a series of desaturation and elongation reactions, with stearidonic acid being an intermediate in the pathway.

Biological activity of α-linolenic and stearidonic acids most likely relates to their conversion to EPA. The very long-chain (n-3) PUFA have a range of physiological roles that relate to optimal cell membrane structure and optimal cell function and responses. Thus, (n-3) PUFA play a key role in preventing, and perhaps treating, many conditions of poor health and well-being.

The multiple actions of (n-3) PUFA appear to involve multiple mechanisms that connect the cell membrane, the cytosol, and the nucleus. For some actions, (n-3) PUFA appear to act via receptors or sensors, so regulating signaling processes that influence patterns of gene expression. Some effects of (n-3) PUFA seem to involve changes in cell membrane fatty acid composition. Changing membrane composition can in turn affect membrane order, formation of lipid rafts, intracellular signaling processes, gene expression, and the production of both lipid and peptide mediators.

Under typical Western dietary conditions, human cells tend to have a fairly high content of the (n-6) fatty acid arachidonic acid. Increased oral intake of EPA and DHA modifies the content of arachidonic acid as well as of EPA and DHA. Arachidonic acid is the substrate for eicosanoids involved in physiology and pathophysiology.

The eicosanoids produced from EPA frequently have properties that are different from those that are produced from arachidonic acid. EPA and DHA are also substrates for production of resolvins and protectins, which seem to be biologically extremely potent. Increasing the contents of EPA and DHA in membranes modifies the pattern of production of these different lipid mediators.

PMID 22279140

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