Omega 3 fatty acid is the all-important oil that comes from fish like tuna and salmon. This is the reason many experts recommend a more fish in your diet and it’s also the reason that fish oil supplements have become so popular over the years.
But not all omega 3 fatty acids are the same. Let’s take a closer look at the two main types of omega 3 – DHA and EPA – and break down what some of the main differences are.
Omega 3 fatty acids are naturally occurring fatty acids that are most abundantly found in fish. The two found in fish are most commonly known as EPA and DHA, with ALA being the third which can be found in many different plant species. Omega 3's have a large number of benefits with very little downside. The problem is that most of us are not getting enough of them in our modern diets which can lead to all kinds of health problems that may have easily been avoided.
Many experts think the issue has much to do with our evolution. Early in our evolution much of our diet consisted of fish, plants, and fruits. Together, these dietary items would have fueled our bodies with ample omega 3 and thus we adapted in order to thrive with Omega 3's being a large part of our diet. But that's another subject and argument in itself.
More importantly, in our modern world we live in where fast food and simple fixes are more easily accessible we began consuming much more processed foods, preservative oils, poultry, red meat, and soy. All these things are high in omega 6 fatty acids, which are still important but compete with omega 3's for space in the body. In other words, what little omega 3 we are getting these days is often counteracted by the large amounts of omega 6 we consume!
And this issue is exacerbated by the fact that the body cannot produce its own omega 3. The only omega 3 in your system comes from what you consume in your regular diet – so it’s crucial you’re providing yourself with enough!
Omega 3 fatty acids provide a ton of crucial benefits throughout the body. One of the more important being their function in cell membrane permeability. This means that the body can use omega 3 to create cell walls (called membranes) which in turn means it doesn’t have to use other, less suitable ingredients.
That results in cell walls that are more ‘permeable’, meaning that things can pass through them with relative ease. This is super important because it improves the transportation of nutrients, glucose, ATP and signals throughout the nervous system. That’s why omega 3 and fish are considered brain foods – they enhance the communication between brain cells!
At the same time, omega 3 is also used in the creation of numerous important hormones in the body. Specifically, it is critical in the creation of hormones that regulate the blood, which in turn enables omega 3 to help regulate heart rate and improve circulation. This helps to prevent heart disease, reduce inflammation, and even to improve the mood and muscle building properties!
So how can there be different types of omega 3?
The difference comes down the molecular structure, which is slightly different in each case. The interesting thing is that the molecular structure alters the way that omega 3 behaves.
For starters, omega 3 EPA is an inhibitor of the enzyme ‘delta-5-desaturase’. This is an enzyme that creates ‘arachindonic acid’, which is a type of omega 6 fatty acid. While omega 6 fatty acids are not bad for you, they have been shown to lead to inflammation when consumed in high volumes.
Seeing as most of us already get too much omega 6, this is a useful benefit of EPA.
Another handy benefit of EPA is highly useful in the brain for reducing neuro-inflammation. It does this by competing with AA for the same enzymes needed to create inflammatory eicosanoids. By maintaining high levels of EPA you can reduce inflammation, thereby reducing pain, boosting mental performance and even improving your mood!
Does that mean you should write off DHA? Not at all!
Actually, DHA is very good for you too in its own ways. DHA is an essential building block of the brain in infants and is required for maintenance of normal brain function in adults.
Moreover, DHA has extra double bonds compared with EPA therefore it takes up more space in the membrane. What this means, is that DHA helps to improve the membrane permeability much more effectively when compared with EPA. Seeing as this is one of the key reasons many people use fatty acids in the first place, this is nothing to be sniffed at!
DHA also helps to increase the size of LDL particles, which encourages them to be absorbed by the muscle cells. This helps increase muscle size and reduce bad cholesterol.
DHA is the slightly more expensive form of omega 3 fatty acid and is often considered to be the better of the two. However, the reality is that each form has its own advantages and that the best option is to combine the two together. Many experts recommend a ratio of 3:2 EPA to DHA per serving.
And while you’re at it, you might as well consider ALA as well – a type of omega 3 that comes from plant sources but the body has a tough time effectively converting into DHA. For that reason alone we decided to leave it out.
Whatever you do though, supplementing with some form of omega 3 is a great idea and one that can drastically improve your all-round health!