Food and Behaviour Research

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Gender differences in the n-3 fatty acid content of tissues

Childs CE, Romeu-Nadal M, Burdge GC, Calder PC. (2008)  Proc Nutr Soc. 2008 67(1) 19-27. doi: 10.1017/S0029665108005983 

Web URL: View this and related abstracts via PubMed here


Dietary n-3 PUFA have many beneficial effects on cell and tissue function and on human health. In mammals the n-3 essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALNA) can be converted into longer-chain (LC) n-3 PUFA such as EPA and DHA via a series of desaturase and elongase enzymes that are mainly active in the liver. Human studies have identified that males and females appear to differ in their ability to synthesise EPA and DHA from ALNA, with associated differences in circulating concentrations. Based on studies of women using the contraceptive pill or hormone-replacement therapy and of trans-sexual subjects it is suggested that sex hormones play a role in these differences.
The rat has been used to investigate gender differences in n-3 PUFA status since this model allows greater dietary control than is possible in human subjects. Like human subjects, female rats have higher plasma DHA concentrations than males. Rats also respond to increased dietary ALNA in a way that is comparable with available human data. The concentrations of LC n-3 PUFA in rat plasma and tissues are positively associated with circulating concentrations of oestradiol and progesterone and negatively associated with circulating concentrations of testosterone.
These findings suggest that sex hormones act to modify plasma and tissue n-3 PUFA content, possibly by altering the expression of desaturase and elongase enzymes in the liver, which is currently under investigation.


Previous studies in adult humans have shown that males have significantly more difficulty than females in converting the short-chain omega-3 fat (alpha-linolenic acid or ALA) into the long-chain omega-3 (EPA and DHA) that are most critical to brain and body health - and that this is particularly true for omega-3 DHA. See
Studies of transexual people undergoing hormonal therapy have further shown that these sex differences are affected by sex hormones.

Results from this new study in animals support this conclusion, as tissue levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) were inversely related to circulating levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, but directly related to female sex hormone levels. 

These sex differences in fatty acid metabolism might go some way towards helping explain why males are more vulnerable than females to ADHD, dyslexia, autism and other developmental conditions, as there is increasing evidence that relative deficiencies of long-chain omega-3 can contribute to these conditions via their effects on brain development and function.