We reviewed available evidence for cardiovascular effects of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) consumption, focusing on long chain (seafood) n-3 PUFA, including their principal dietary sources, effects on physiological risk factors, potential molecular pathways and bioactive metabolites, effects on specific clinical endpoints, and existing dietary guidelines.

Major dietary sources include fatty fish and other seafood. n-3 PUFA consumption lowers plasma triglycerides, resting heart rate, and blood pressure and might also improve myocardial filling and efficiency, lower inflammation, and improve vascular function. Experimental studies demonstrate direct anti-arrhythmic effects, which have been challenging to document in humans.

n-3 PUFA affect a myriad of molecular pathways, including alteration of physical and chemical properties of cellular membranes, direct interaction with and modulation of membrane channels and proteins, regulation of gene expression via nuclear receptors and transcription factors, changes in eicosanoid profiles, and conversion of n-3 PUFA to bioactive metabolites.

In prospective observational studies and adequately powered randomized clinical trials, benefits of n-3 PUFA seem most consistent for coronary heart disease mortality and sudden cardiac death. Potential effects on other cardiovascular outcomes are less-well-established, including conflicting evidence from observational studies and/or randomized trials for effects on nonfatal myocardial infarction, ischemic stroke, atrial fibrillation, recurrent ventricular arrhythmias, and heart failure. Research gaps include the relative importance of different physiological and molecular mechanisms, precise dose-responses of physiological and clinical effects, whether fish oil provides all the benefits of fish consumption, and clinical effects of plant-derived n-3 PUFA.

Overall, current data provide strong concordant evidence that n-3 PUFA are bioactive compounds that reduce risk of cardiac death. National and international guidelines have converged on consistent recommendations for the general population to consume at least 250 mg/day of long-chain n-3 PUFA or at least 2 servings/week of oily fish.