Last week, I gave you a primer on essential fatty acids—omega-3s and omega-6s. I explained the differences, the benefits, and how much you should ideally be getting of both every day.
Today, I want to focus on omega-3 fatty acids, particularly the two most important types—docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
As you likely know (and as I’ve been discussing for years), omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties. They have been studied for the treatment and prevention of many diseases, several of which are related to inflammation, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. They have also been shown to be extraordinarily helpful in preventing and treating other brain conditions such as depression and other psychiatric disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and concussions.
While the omega-3s DHA and EPA have different functions in the body, both are important for optimal health.
Benefits of EPA
There is still confusion, even among experts, as to the individual roles of EPA and DHA—especially given the fact that EPA can be converted to DHA. That being said, much of the data supports the role of EPA as a potent anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting compound.
How does this work? Well, there is a family of inflammatory compounds, collectively known as eicosanoids, derived from the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid. EPA lessens the production of these eicosanoids and their resulting inflammation in a number of important ways.
First, EPA inhibits the enzyme that produces arachidonic acid. Second, EPA impedes the release of arachidonic acid from cell membranes (where it is stored) and its metabolization once it is released. Without this release and metabolization, your body can’t make eicosanoids. The result is lower risk of the inflammation that would have been caused by all that arachidonic acid going to eicosanoids.
What about blood clotting? Circulating cells called platelets are critical in causing your blood to clot. When platelets are activated, they aggregate and cause clots. If these clots occur in particularly sensitive regions of your body, they can lead to a heart attack or stroke. EPA reduces platelet activation, an early step in platelet aggregation to help to reduce clotting. One study found that EPA was superior to DHA in decreasing platelet activation, a precursor to blood clotting.1
While the anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties of EPA are instrumental in many areas of health, you can’t discount EPA’s partner in crime, DHA…
Benefits of DHA
The other omega-3, DHA, is most highly concentrated in the eyes and brain. It’s crucial for proper brain development and function and also helps maintain strong cellular structure and membranes.
DHA is especially vital for infant and child brain and nervous system development, as well as visual function. In older children, high DHA levels have been shown to improve learning ability, while deficiencies have been linked to learning problems and ADHD. And in adults, some studies have shown that DHA helps protect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Low levels of DHA have also been found to decrease function of the retina—the part of the eye that captures what you see and transmits those images to the brain. But robust DHA within the eye helps keep tissues porous and enhances nerve transmission, both important for proper eye function.
In addition, DHA helps with heart disease by lowering blood pressure and triglycerides and increasing beneficial HDL cholesterol. One study also found that DHA, more than EPA, helped to prevent heart failure.2
Which Should You Take?
You might read other articles or studies that tell you to choose EPA over DHA if you want to reduce inflammation, and DHA over EPA if you want to prevent brain diseases.
Which should you take? I strongly believe the answer to this is both. EPA and DHA both have powerful health promoting properties and work together synergistically in the body, which amplifies their beneficial effects.
For example, even though DHA is thought to be the “brain protective” compound, EPA is associated with prevention of mental health disorders like depression and ADHD as well as brain traumas such as concussions. So you really need a good balance of both to reap their full health benefits.
I take an omega-3 formulation every single day that contains both compounds, with confidence that I’m doing my heart, brain, and entire body a world of good.
- Park Y and Harris W. Lipids 2002 Oct;37(10):941-6.
- Khairallah R, et al. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2010 Oct;335(1):155-62.