Understanding The Anti-inflammatory Effects of Long Chain Omega 3 Fatty Acids

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Chronic inflammation can be a serious issue, linked to many serious degenerative diseases like cardiovascular disease and man y cancers. Keeping it at bay is of vital importance to maintain our health into later life.

There are many things that we can do in our diet to ease the inflammatory load, but one of the most powerful and most effective dietary components to push down inflammation, ar ethe long chai n omega 3 fatty acids - specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel and frequently supplemented (I’m a big proponent of that), these powerful lipid derived substances are vital for long term disease protection. They represent the most powerful nutritional interventions for inflammation (Calder, 2017).


Omega 3 fatty acids and inflammatory signalling

Omega 3 fatty acids are incorporated into the membranes of our cells. EPA & DHA become part of the phospholipid bilayer that makes up the membrane. They help to keep the membrane nice and fluid and support cell signalling (Jump et al, 2012). They can be liberated from the cell membranes via an enzyme called phospholipase. When liberated they act as the building blocks for some important signalling molecules.

One of the most significant things they produce is a group of substances called eicosanoids. These are powerful lipid derived compounds that regulate the inflammatory response. Some of them activate inflammation. Some of them reduce inflammation.  The long chain omega 3 fatty acids reduce inflammation. EPA is the precursor to series 3 prostaglandins and thromboxanes which are potently anti-inflammatory, in comparison to the series 2 group that are made from arachidonic acid, an omega 6 derivative (Serhan & Chang, 2008).

Long chain omega 3’s go way beyond just pushing inflammation down, they also help to reverse or resolve the damage. They do this by synthesising ‘Specialised Pro-resolving Mediators’ (SPM’s) such as resolvins, protectins and maresins. These substances help to clear inflammatory cells and return tissues back to their original healthy state (Serhan, 2014).


Influences on the immune system

Long chain omega 3 fatty acids also influence the immune system in a way that reduces inflammation, by means of influencing the communication proteins expressed by immune cells. . They can inhibit the manufacture of pro-inflammatory cytokines like TNF Alpha, and the interleukins IL-6 & IL-1beta. This manipulation of communication proteins is also a key regulator of inflammation (Wall et al, 2010).

EPA & DHA can affect the functioning of immune cells directly too. They can alter the way in which macrophages behave, moving them from pro-inflammatory (M1) behaviour to anti-inflammatory (M2) behaviour, which further facilitates inflammation resolution (Calder, 2017).

Additionally, the long chain omega 3’s can also influence a group of immune cells called T cells. They can reduce the proliferation of the Th1 subset of T cells, and in doing so reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines (Gutierrez et al, 2019).


How does this impact chronic disease?

The influence on inflammation is one of the most protective things imaginable against chronic disease. In cardiovascular diseases for example, long chain omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the formation of atherosclerotic lesions aka ‘plaques’ in the artery walls, lower triglycerides and improve cholesterol ratios. and of course reduce inflammatory damage to the endothelium in the first place (Skulas-Ray et al, 2019).

They also help to reduce inflammation and pain in issues such as arthritis. For example, in rheumatoid arthritis long chain omega 3 fatty acid supplementation helped to reduce inflammation, pain and stiffness (Gioxari et al, 2018). When it comes to supplementation by the way, opt for a marine derived supplement with around 750mg EPA and 250mg DHA. Vegans, you will need a supplement derived from algae that contains both EPA & DHA (Swanson et al, 2012).

There is also a great deal of research now taking place in relation to omega 3 fatty acids and neurological issues and neurodegenerative diseases. Early stage research shows promise for issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, and there are possible links to improving depression via means of reducing neuro-inflammation, part of the pathophysiology of depression (Weiser et al, 2016).


As you can see, long chain omega 3 fatty acids have a powerful influence on our physiology, especially in relation to reducing inflammation. Ensuring adequate intake of these vital substances across the lifespan maybe one of the best things that you can do to safeguard your long term health.



Calder, P.C. (2017). Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes. Nutrients, 9(3), 325.

Gioxari, A., Kaliora, A.C., Marantidou, F., & Panagiotakos, D.B. (2018). Intake of ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition, 45, 114-124.e4.

Gutiérrez, S., Svahn, S.L., & Johansson, M.E. (2019). Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Immune Cells. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 20(20), 5028.

Jump, D.B., Tripathy, S., & Depner, C.M. (2012). Fatty acid-regulated transcription factors in the liver. Annual Review of Nutrition, 32, 249-269.

Serhan, C.N., & Chiang, N. (2008). Endogenous pro-resolving and anti-inflammatory lipid mediators: a new pharmacologic genus. British Journal of Pharmacology, 153(S1), S200-S215.

Serhan, C.N. (2014). Pro-resolving lipid mediators are leads for resolution physiology. Nature, 510(7503), 92-101.

Skulas-Ray, A.C., Wilson, P.W.F., Harris, W.S., Brinton, E.A., Kris-Etherton, P.M., Richter, C.K., Jacobson, T.A., Engler, M.B., Miller, M., Robinson, J.G., Blum, C.B., & Braun, L.T. (2019). Omega-3 Fatty Acids for the Management of Hypertriglyceridemia: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 140(12), e673-e691.

Swanson, D., Block, R., & Mousa, S.A. (2012). Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Advances in Nutrition, 3(1), 1-7.

Wall, R., Ross, R.P., Fitzgerald, G.F., & Stanton, C. (2010). Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutrition Reviews, 68(5), 280-289.

Weiser, M.J., Butt, C.M., & Mohajeri, M.H. (2016). Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan. Nutrients, 8(2), 99.

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