5 Health Benefits of The Omega-3 Fatty Acids EPA and DHA

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Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that are classified as essential fatty acids. They are called “essential” because the human body needs them, but cannot make them and must obtain them from food or supplements.

The three types of omega−3 fatty acids used by the body are α-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in plant sources, such as walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and leafy vegetables. EPA and DHA are found in marine animals, such as fatty fish (salmon, anchovy, and tuna). ALA is a precursor to both EPA and DHA, however, the conversion rate in the human body is very low; it is estimated to be 6.0% for EPA and 3.8% for DHA.

The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are incredibly important. In fact, every living cell in the human body needs EPA and DHA. Below are 5 health benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA that are supported by science.

1. Omega-3s can reduce inflammation

Studies have consistently shown a link between higher omega-3 intake and reduced inflammation. While inflammation is a natural response to infection, injury, and other damage in the body, chronic inflammation contributes to almost every chronic illness, including heart disease and cancer. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have been found to reduce inflammation through multiple mechanisms. Many of these are mediated by, or at least associated with, changes in fatty acid composition of cell membranes. The cells involved in the inflammatory response are typically rich in arachidonic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid). However, oral administration of EPA and DHA can change the composition of these cells, which leads to a reduced inflammatory response. By reducing inflammation, the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA can help with a variety of diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and more.

2. Omega-3s improve brain health

DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid found in the human brain. DHA is important for maintaining nerve cell structure and function. Both EPA and DHA act as building blocks for cell membranes, which promote new brain cell formation. Furthermore, they bind to cell membranes and increase fluidity, which is important for the functioning of each brain cell and helps the brain change and adapt to new information. Additionally, EPA and DHA promote healthy blood flow, which is essential to optimal brain function and memory retention.

Since both EPA and DHA are important for brain health, it should be no surprise that these omega-3 fatty acids can help improve mental health. Studies indicate that people who consume omega-3s regularly are less likely to be depressed. A 2016 meta-analysis of 26 studies found a 17% lower risk of depression with higher fish intake. Moreover, those with depression or anxiety may see symptom improvement when they start taking an omega-3 supplement.

3. Omega-3s can improve risk factors for heart disease

Decades ago, scientists observed communities that consumed high quantities of fish had very low rates of heart disease. This was later attributed to omega-3 consumption. Thus, regular consumption of marine sources of omega-3s is associated with a decreased risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease (CVD). Omega-3s improve the following risk factors for heart disease:

  • Triglycerides: Omega-3s lower triglycerides by reducing production of very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) and increasing their secretion by the liver

  • Blood pressure: Omega-3s can lower both systolic and diastolic pressure

  • HDL cholesterol: Omega-3s can raise HDL cholesterol levels. HDL is considered the “good” type of cholesterol

  • Blood clots: Omega-3s have antithrombotic effects, which means they can keep platelets from clumping together. This helps prevent the formation of blood clots that can cause a heart attack, stroke, or other damage

  • Plaque: Omega-3s help prevent plaque buildup that can restrict and harden your arteries

4. Omega-3s promote vision and eye health

There are very high levels of DHA present in the eye. DHA is considered to be a major structural component of the retina and accounts for approximately 50% to 60% of the total fatty acid content within the rod’s outer segments of photoreceptors. The exact mechanism of action of DHA on eye health is not fully understood. It is believed that DHA has a protective and anti-inflammatory impact on the structure and function of photoreceptors regarding retinal health. Getting enough of this omega-3 fatty acid is linked to a reduced risk of macular degeneration, one of the world's leading causes of permanent eye damage and blindness.

5. Omega-3s are essential for infant and prenatal health

Pregnant women are recommended to take a supplement with EPA and DHA during the course of their pregnancy because these omega-3 fatty acids have positive effects on the pregnancy itself and for the developing fetus. Increased intake of EPA and DHA has been shown to prevent preterm labor and delivery, lower the risk of preeclampsia, and may increase birth weight. Omega-3 supplementation also reduces the mother’s risk for depression.

EPA and DHA have been found to be essential for both neurological and early visual development of the baby. Consuming enough omega-3s during pregnancy is associated with numerous benefits for your child, including higher intelligence, better communication and social skills, fewer behavioral problems, decreased risk of developmental delay, and decreased risk of ADHD, autism, and cerebral palsy.

Are you reaping the benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA?

As you can see, the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA play an important role in many different bodily functions and provide numerous health benefits when consumed in the right amounts. Now you may be wondering how you can obtain more EPA and DHA and what is the right dose.

Omega-3s are available in supplement form in several different ways, for example, fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil, and algal oil. However, the amounts of EPA and DHA present in omega-3 supplements vary, depending on the source (i.e. salmon, krill, mackerel, algae, etc) and how it was processed. The intake recommendations for omega-3 fatty acids developed by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) are 1.1 grams for adult females and 1.6 grams for adult males. However, studies have shown that dosing of omega-3s varies greatly depending on the disease state and the needs of the patient. If you want to start taking a supplement with EPA and DHA as a treatment for a disease or condition, it is best to talk with your physician in order to determine the required dose based on your specific needs.


References:

Pharmacy Times, “Improving Patients' Understanding of the Clinical Benefit of EPA and DHA Omega-3s”

Adv Nutr. 2012 Jan; 3(1): 1–7.

Healthline, “17 Science-Based Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids”

BrainMD Life, “EPA and DHA are Essential to Your Brain Health”

Nutrients. 2010 Mar; 2(3): 355–374

American Pregnancy Association, “Omega-3 Fish Oil and Pregnancy”

National Institutes of Health, “Omega-3 Fatty Acids”