Know Your EPA from Your DHA: Essential Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Health

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Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for supporting your health, and among these, EPA and DHA are the most crucial. Understanding the differences between EPA and DHA, their health benefits, and how to include them in your diet can positively impact your well-being.

 Know Your EPA from Your DHA Essential Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Health

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: What do They Do?

Omega-3s are known as essential fatty acids because, unlike some other fats that the body can produce, the human body cannot synthesise omega-3s. Therefore, they must be obtained through the diet. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
  • ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)

Omega-3s play many important roles in the body through all stages of life. These vital nutrients contribute to the development of vision and brain health in early life.

In addition to foetal and infant development, EPA and DHA also may help support many functions of the heart.

DHA in particular, is found in higher amounts within retina and brain, supporting their function.  

 

Omega-3 vs. Omega-6

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both essential, but they serve different functions. However, the typical Western diet tends to have an imbalance, with too much omega-6 and not enough omega-31. This imbalance can contribute to a higher risk of chronic diseases1.

 

The Importance of EPA and DHA

EPA and DHA play vital roles within various systems in the body:

  • Heart and Blood Vessels: EPA and DHA may help with improved cardiovascular function2.
  • Brain Function: Researchers have hypothesised that DHA may help protect and support cognitive function3
  • Vision Support: DHA plays a role in eye health, and contributes to normal vision4.
  • Foetal Development: DHA is important during pregnancy, as it contributes to the development of the foetus’ brain and eyes5.

 

Dietary Sources of DHA and EPA
DHA and EPA are primarily obtained from dietary sources like cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and certain types of algae.

 

Brief Mention of ALA

ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid) is a precursor to EPA and DHA and is part of the Omega-3 family. ALA is primarily found in plant-based foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds.

However, the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA in the human body is relatively inefficient6.

 

Who Might Be Lacking EPA and DHA?

Certain groups may be at risk of not getting enough EPA and DHA:

Vegetarians and Vegans: Since EPA and DHA are primarily found in marine sources, those following plant-based diets might not consume adequate amounts. Algae oil supplements can be a good alternative for these individuals.

Individuals with Seafood Allergies: People allergic to fish and shellfish need alternative sources of EPA and DHA. Algae-based supplements are a suitable option.

People with Limited Access to Fresh Fish: Those living in regions without easy access to fresh fish might struggle to include enough EPA and DHA in their diets. Fish oil supplements can help bridge this gap.

Elderly Individuals: Older adults may have reduced dietary intake and impaired conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA. Supplements can help ensure they get enough of these essential fatty acids.

Understanding the differences between EPA and DHA and ensuring you get enough of these essential omega-3 fatty acids from your diet is crucial when supporting your health. Including sources such as fatty fish, fish oil supplements, and algae oil can help you achieve the necessary intake.

Additionally, being mindful of the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can further support your health. By making informed dietary choices, you can help support your heart, brain, and overall well-being effectively.

 

References:

1 DiNicolantonio JJ, O'Keefe J. The Importance of Maintaining a Low Omega-6/Omega-3 Ratio for Reducing the Risk of Autoimmune Diseases, Asthma, and Allergies. Mo Med. 2021 Sep-Oct;118(5):453-459. PMID: 34658440; PMCID: PMC8504498.

2 Khan SU, Lone AN, Khan MS, Virani SS, Blumenthal RS, Nasir K, Miller M, Michos ED, Ballantyne CM, Boden WE, Bhatt DL. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on cardiovascular outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. EClinicalMedicine. 2021 Jul 8;38:100997. doi: 10.1016/j.eclinm.2021.100997. PMID: 34505026; PMCID: PMC8413259.

3 Suh, S.W., Lim, E., Burm, SY. et al. The influence of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on cognitive function in individuals without dementia: a systematic review and dose–response meta-analysis. BMC Med 22, 109 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-024-03296-0

4 Katerina Prokopiou, Panagiotis Kolovos, Haritini Tsangari, Francesco Bandello, Luca M Rossetti, Leonardo Mastropasqua, Saddek Mohand-Said, Tassos Georgiou; A prospective, multicentre, randomised, double-blind study designed to assess the potential effects of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in dry age-related macular degeneration or Stargardt disease. Invest. Ophthalmol. Vis. Sci. 2022;63(7):377 – F0208.

5 Shahabi B, Hernández-Martínez C, Voltas N, Canals J, Arija V. The Maternal Omega-3 Long-Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Concentration in Early Pregnancy and Infant Neurodevelopment: The ECLIPSES Study. Nutrients. 2024; 16(5):687. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu16050687

6 Brenna JT. Efficiency of conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to long chain n-3 fatty acids in man. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2002 Mar;5(2):127-32. doi: 10.1097/00075197-200203000-00002. PMID: 11844977.

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