Whether you take dietary supplements regularly or consume a decent amount of seafood or not, you have more than likely heard about the “miracle” supplement that has been all the rage the past few years. Of course there are no real miracle supplements outside of doctor hosted tv shows, but this one is definitely up there when it comes to a great benefit to risk ratio for general health. As you might already know, we are talking about primarily fish oil and its main ingredients that provide us with a wide range of health benefits.
If you have bought a bottle of fish oil before, more than likely you turned it over to see what was actually in it (if not you should with any supplement you buy). Below the normal fat, carbohydrate and protein amounts, it lists two different ingredients that you probably just accepted as the two ingredients that benefit us so greatly. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, these two ingredients are DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). If this whole situation hasn’t confused you yet then I’m very impressed… because it took me a lot of research to understand it all.
Just to recap, we have Omega-3 from fish (which is actually two different Omega-3’s) that is a dietary fat, but is called an acid, and provides a plethora of health benefits that fat is supposed to do the opposite of. In this article we will be diving into the benefits of these fatty acids, why we need both of them, how vegans can get Omega-3 benefits too, and how much you actually need for these benefits.
What Are The Benefits Then?
Don’t worry, I did not overhype the variety of benefits for you to keep reading, they are actually extremely beneficial and diverse. What most articles don’t talk about is how DHA and EPA benefit you uniquely though, and instead simply talk about the benefits of Omega-3’s as a whole. Since each Omega-3 does have specific benefits I will talk about them separately for ultimate clarity.
While everybody should be supplementing with both Omega-3’s throughout their lives, DHA has been shown to actually be more useful in the early and late stages in life. Even with expecting mothers, a higher level of DHA in the body was shown to produce healthier babies in terms of mental and physical health. For the first few years of life, DHA is vital for proper cerebral and nervous system development as well as even retinal development (i.e. healthy eyesight).
For children more than a few years old, DHA can even help blunt the development of mental disorders such as ADD/ADHD. For healthy adults, DHA is still used to keep mental health sharp by lowering the chances of developing diseases such as Parkinsons or Alzheimers. Beyond its mental rigidity benefits, DHA is also important for lowering your blood pressure and triglyceride levels in your body as well as increasing your levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.
EPA has just as many equally important benefits in the body as DHA. As you grow out of your adolescent years, your needs for DHA lessen and your needs for EPA go up as it is very important for controlling inflammation, stress, and clotting. Specifically for inflammation, EPA is a powerhouse as it can lessen the negative effects of almost every form of it. From muscle inflammation (the main source of soreness and chronic injuries) to joint inflammation (which can lead to forms of arthritis), to cell inflammation (i.e. cancer and other diseases), and even mental inflammation (whether it’s as a result of an injury or age-related degradation).
Beyond its immense benefits in lowering bodily stress, EPA has been shown to benefit your mood by lowering cortisol, decreasing the symptoms of depression and increasing brain cognition (thinking and memory). Finally, EPA is a potent blood thinner, in the way that it can stop platelets from clotting in your bloodstream. Not a good thing if you are already on a blood thinning medication, but great if you are otherwise healthy and want to decrease your chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke.
Where Should You Get Your Omega-3’s From And How Much Do You Need?
The main source of DHA and EPA you can find nowadays is in the form of a supplement, usually in pill form. Most good fish oils contain between 250-500mgs of combined Omega-3’s in one pill. For partial benefits this will definitely be sufficient, but to receive the full benefits it is recommended to consume close to a gram or two of EPA and DHA a day.
While extra benefits have not been confirmed at higher doses, some individuals consume closer to five to ten grams a day since this amount is still well within the safe range. Pills are definitely the most concentrated source of fish oil, but real seafood will also provide a ton more benefits because of the extra protein, healthy fats, and vitamins found in them. Because of this, a combination of fish oil in pill form and from actual fish is recommended.
For vegetarians and vegans, getting enough EPA and DHA is a bit harder to do. ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) is an Omega-3 found in vegan sources such as walnuts, hemp, flaxseed and more, but isn’t quite the same. Unfortunately ALA has to be converted into DHA and EPA, but only happens at a percentage of about 10%. What this means is for every gram of ALA consumed, only about 100 mgs of EPA and DHA is used by the body. Luckily a vegan form of pure DHA does exist in the form of certain algae that is now being turned into Omega-3 supplements. Along with other plant-based oils that contain EPA, it is becoming more possible as a vegan/vegetarian to get the recommended 250-500 mgs a day for all the benefits found in fish oil.
Take Home Message
You probably already knew about the benefits of Omega-3’s, but now you can know for sure that each of those ingredients on the back of your fish oil container have unique benefits that necessitate a good combination of both to optimize the benefits at any age. A different Omega does exist, Omega-6 fatty acids which are found abundantly in the western diet in the form of certain vegetable oils, grains and breads.
The issue with these Omegas is that they can do the opposite of Omega-3’s when consumed in excess: facilitating the clotting of platelets in the blood vessels, and increasing inflammation. The current western diet is comprised of over 10 times as much Omega-6 fatty acids than Omega-3, which can lead to many negative side effects. This is why many nutritionists are now recommending that we all consume much less Omega-6 containing foods/oils while also increasing our consumption of Omega-3’s, hopefully equaling out the amount of each we eat daily if possible.
With all this information already been laid out I won’t even try to get into Omega-9 fatty acids! What you need to remember about this article is simple, EPA and DHA are both uniquely amazing for your body and you should consume anywhere from 250 mgs to a few grams of them combined everyday to optimize your health. Omega-6’s should be limited in the diet, and hopefully a decent amount of your EPA and DHA is coming from actual seafood or algae that is also full of protein, other unsaturated fats, and vitamins.