The relaxant responses of the rat thoracic aorta to omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic and eicosapentaenoic, on norepinephrine- and potassium-induced contractions were investigated. Relaxation was enhanced in vessels contracted with norepinephrine. Docosahexaenoic acid at concentrations as low as 1, 3, and 10 microM evoked significant relaxant responses (15, 23, 30%) in norepinephrine-contracted vessels as compared with responses (5, 9, 12%) in potassium-contracted vessels. Results for eicosapentaenoic acid under similar conditions were 3, 8, and 19% in norepinephrine-contracted vessels and 3, 3, and 8% in potassium-contracted vessels. Pretreatment with eicosapentaenoic (10 microM) or docosahexaenoic acids (1-10 microM) decreased the contractile response to physiologic concentrations of norepinephrine. In the presence of calcium-free medium, the omega-3 fatty acids (1-30 microM) significantly abolished sustained norepinephrine contractions but did not reduce the phasic contractions when incubated prior to norepinephrine contraction. Comparatively, the effects of docosahexaenoic acid were greater than eicosapentaenoic acid. These findings suggest that the relaxant effects of the omega-3 fatty acids are specific to the mode of contraction, i.e., alpha-adrenoceptor stimuli. This effect may be related to intracellular calcium mechanisms, since both fatty acids reversed norepinephrine-induced sustained contractions in the absence of extracellular calcium.