- The 3 main omega-3 fatty acids
- The differences between EPA and DHA
- The common health benefits of EPA and DHA
Omega-3 fatty acids are among the most popular food supplements out there. They usually are sold in the form of fish oil or krill oil and have many health benefits for your body and mind.
But what are EPA and DHA that everyone is talking about? And what do they have to do with omega-3? This article is here to explain just that and will tell you everything you need to know about the differences between EPA and DHA and their respective health benefits.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a specific type of fat that has a lot of health benefits for your body and mind! They are part of our cell membrane and are essential for our body. This means, that we are not able to produce them in our metabolism but that we need to consume them through food or supplements like fish oil or krill oil.
These fats have some special properties that an impact health conditions associated with heart health, eye-, brain- and skin health. They also have some extra benefits for athletes and anyone who is physically active.
But there is not just one single omega-3 fatty acid, but several.
The 3 main omega-3 fatty acids are ALA, EPA and DHA. These abbreviations stand for:
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Omega-3 fatty acids are good for your body and mind
Let’s talk about the differences between these three and why they matter.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important components of our cell membranes and are vital to other functions or our body and mind. They also provide calories to our body and impact our heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system and the network of hormone-producing glands, the endocrine system.
Plant-Based Omega-3 Fatty Acids
ALA is the only plant based omega-3 fatty acid out of the three named above. It naturally occurs in plants like specific types of algae for example. Other food sources are plant oils like flaxseed, soybean or canola oils.
ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means that our body cannot generate it itself but we need to get it from the foods we eat. Our body can convert some ALA into EPA and DHA, but only in very small amounts. This is why consuming EPA and DHA directly through food or dietary supplements like fish oil or krill oil can be more practical and an easy way to increase your omega-3 intake.
Marine-Based Omega-3 Fatty Acids
EPA and DHA both naturally occur in fatty cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel or anchovies. They are also present in the small crustacean called krill that can be processed into krill oil.
Most omega-3 food supplements are either called fish oil or krill oil, based on where the fatty acids come from.
Now that you understand the different abbreviations for the omega-3 fatty acids, let’s look at the different benefits of EPA and DHA, which are important components of fish oil and krill oil supplements.
While both EPA and DHA have many health benefits, they each have unique properties that address different aspects of health. They are the so-called bioactive components of the fish oil o krill oil supplements, which means that they have an effect upon our organism, tissue and cells.
We can roughly divide the effects in to “neck up” for DHA and “neck down” for EPA, what this means in detail, you will find out below.
But first some more explanations about why they have such different effects on us!
EPA and DHA are very similar but they differ slightly in their molecular structure. This means, the way their atoms are arranged are not the same. This might seem like a small thing but this actually completely changes the way the molecules react with and in our body!
DHA is a bit longer and takes up more space because of its extra double bond. EPA is smaller and has a different configuration that is more similar to other substances in our body, which we will talk about below.
The benefits of EPA – Neck down
EPA is mostly beneficial to our body below the head: your cardiovascular and immune system.
Inflammation plays a role in the emergence of many health issues and chronic diseases, and therefore by reducing inflammation, EPA can contribute towards preventing certain health conditions. These anti-inflammatory effects of EPA may help against conditions that are caused by inflammation such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and psoriasis. While inflammation itself is an important reaction of our immune system, consistent inflammation can cause issues in our body.
So how does EPA reduce cellular inflammation?
EPA works as an inhibitor of an enzyme called delta-5-desaturase (D5D) which produces AA. AA is the abbreviation for arachidonic acid, which is an omega-6 fatty acid. From this AA so-called eicosanoids are made. These eicosanoids are the primary mediator of cellular inflammation and we therefore want to reduce the amount of them. So, EPA is an inhibitor for the enzyme that produces AA, which means that the more EPA you consume, the less AA you produce.
Additionally, EPA also competes with AA for another enzyme that AA needs to be released “into the wild”. By doing so, EPA prevents AA from being released from the cell membrane where they are stored and therefore cannot produce inflammatory eicosanoids.
DHA does not work as an inhibitor for this specific enzyme because it has a different spatial configuration and does not “fit” and so DHA does have only little effect on cellular inflammation, whereas EPA can have a powerful impact. Even though DHA is more dominant in the brain, EPA still plays an important role in reducing neuro-inflammation by competing with AA like we explained above.
Because of its anti-inflammatory effects, EPA may also reduce joint pain and support cartilage recovery.
2. Good for the heart
Evidence suggests that EPA can have a beneficial effect on artery plaque progression and blood clot formation because of its anti-inflammatory effects. This can contribute to reducing the risk of atherosclerosis. Another study also found that EPA levels were associated with less risk for major coronary events like heart attacks.
It has been found, that having enough EPA in your diet can reduce blood pressure, triglycerides and reduce inflammation, all of which can contribute to heart disease.
The benefits of DHA
DHA concentrations in different tissues vary greatly, the brain and eye have high concentrations of DHA in comparison with others. Is especially concentrated in the grey matter of the brain and the rod outer segments of the retina.
1. Good for Brain Health and Vision
DHA is an important building block in the brain cells. It improves how fluid and flexible neurons are and improves communication between them. Overall brain function improves when the neurons are healthier and communicate well with each other. DHA may therefore boost brain health and a high DHA content in your fish oil supplement can support issues such as depression, mood swings, bipolar symptoms or poor memory.
Like we explained in the beginning of this article, EPA and DHA have different molecular configurations. DHA has an extra double bond and increased carbon length, which basically means that it is bigger and bulkier than EPA. While this means it cannot take the same spot as EPA in reducing inflammation, its bigger size gives it other advantages.
Its configuration helps to make cell membranes more fluid, which is especially crucial in the cells in our brain. Improved membrane fluidity means better communication between cells and in the retina it also means that receptors can rotate more effectively and transmit signals from the membrane to the nerve cells better.
DHA has even been shown to reduce brain degeneration, can improve short and long term memory and reduce brain inflammation,
2. Infant Cognitive Development
DHA has been shown to play an important role in childhood cognitive development. Because supports the healthy development of the brain and eye in foetus, infant and throughout early childhood it is especially important for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers to watch their DHA intake.
3. “Sweeps away” cancer and may reduce plaque
The structure of DHA also results in a perpetual sweeping motion, which disrupts clusters of lipids in the cell membrane, which makes it more difficult for cancer cells to thrive. It also helps to increase the size of low density lipoproteins (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) and therefore reduces their ability to seep into the lining of arteries and form plaque.
Both EPA and DHA come from marine sources which are mostly fatty cold-water fish like anchovies or salmon. They share some health benefits and are both important components of fish oil and krill oil supplements
They both reduce triglyceride levels and can support our immune system in its battle against inflammations.
Because of that, they should both be part of your daily diet to make sure, your body gets the best possible nutrition to thrive.
In this article we saw that there is more than one omega-3 fatty acid and that all 3 of the main ones, EPA, DHA and ALA, are essential to our body.
The marine omega-3s EPA and DHA have some powerful health benefits that make then such an important component of your food supplement.
Some of these benefits are
- strong anti-inflammatory
- may be beneficial for your cardiovascular system
- promotes brain and eye health
- important for cognitive development in infants and throughout childhood
All in all, omega-3 fatty acids are a powerful gift from nature that we should make the most off! So make sure to include a high-quality omega-3 supplement into your diet to benefit from all those awesome properties!