BACKGROUND: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is characterized by an adverse metabolic profile. Although dietary changes are advocated, optimal nutritional management remains uncertain. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), particularly long-chain (LC) n-3 (omega-3) PUFAs, improve metabolic health, but their therapeutic potential in PCOS is unknown.

OBJECTIVES: We aimed to determine the associations between plasma PUFAs and metabolic and hormonal aspects of PCOS to investigate the efficacy of LC n-3 PUFA supplementation and to support the findings with mechanistic cellular studies.

DESIGN: We selected a cross-sectional PCOS cohort (n = 104) and conducted a principal component analysis on plasma fatty acid profiles. Effects of LC n-3 PUFA supplementation on fasting and postprandial metabolic and hormonal markers were determined in PCOS subjects (n = 22) by a randomized, crossover, placebo-controlled intervention. Direct effects of n-6 (omega-6) compared with n-3 PUFAs on steroidogenesis were investigated in primary bovine theca cells.

RESULTS: Cross-sectional data showed that a greater plasma n-6 PUFA concentration and n-6:n-3 PUFA ratio were associated with higher circulating androgens and that plasma LC n-3 PUFA status was associated with a less atherogenic lipid profile. LC n-3 PUFA supplementation reduced plasma bioavailable testosterone concentrations (P < 0.05), with the greatest reductions in subjects who exhibited greater reductions in plasma n-6:n-3 PUFA ratios. The treatment of bovine theca cells with n-6 rather than with n-3 PUFAs up-regulated androstenedione secretion (P < 0.05).

CONCLUSIONS: Cross-sectional data suggest that PUFAs modulated hormonal and lipid profiles and that supplementation with LC n-3 PUFAs improves androgenic profiles in PCOS. In bovine theca cells, arachidonic acid modulated androstenedione secretion, which suggests an indirect effect of n-3 PUFAs through the displacement or increased competition with n-6 PUFAs.