Omega 3: DHA, EPA, ALA -- What Is The Best?
First, what are the types of Omega 3s?
Omega 3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids essential for our good health. There are many types of omega 3s, but the most important ones for health are DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), followed by ALA (alpha linolenic acid) in a distant third. These are long-chain, highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA) of the omega-3 family. Image courtesy of praisaeng / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
DHA and EPA are only found in fish or algae. ALA is only present in plant and nut oils like flax seed, walnuts & chia.
The Superior Omega 3: DHA
DHA is the most complex of the Omega 3 fatty acids because it contains 22 carbon molecules and 6 double bond molecules. EPA is less complex with 20 carbon molecules and 5 double bonds. ALA has 18 carbon molecules and one double bond.
This might sound like a foreign language for many readers but we mention it because it is important...important because many fish oils are high in EPA and low in DHA, unfortunately.
DHA in particular is a building block for tissue in the brain, nervous system, and retina of the eye. It helps with forming neural transmitters, such as phosphatidylserine, which is important for brain function.
So, why is it important?
Well, in simple terms, EPA only has 20 carbon molecules and 5 double bonds. So, if your body needs more DHA than EPA (which is normally the case), it is very difficult for it to convert the EPA to the DHA as it has to ‘manufacture’ 2 additional carbon bonds and an extra double bond!
Theoretically it can do this (EPA to DHA), but studies show that the conversion is minimal (maximum 10%). On the other hand, it is easy for the body to do the opposite and convert DHA to EPA, if it is needed. This follows good scientific reasoning as it is easier to ‘drop’ molecules off than ‘add’ them. Therefore, it is essential to choose a pure fish oil supplement with high levels of DHA.
DHA is needed for the membranes of all our body cells, encompassing not only heart and brain function, but also in the normal function of the eyes, nervous system, kidneys, liver, contraction of muscles, dilation/constriction of blood vessels, blood health, and anti-inflammatory processes.
Flax Oil Only Contains ALA
Although it's possible for your body to ultimately convert ALA to DHA, you cannot rely on it. Why? Because ALA has even less carbon molecules than EPA at just 18. So, your body would first have to convert it to EPA, and then to DHA -- and studies have shown only 2-5% actually gets converted.
The bottom line is to find a fish oil that contains both DHA and EPA but with substantially more DHA. If a fish oil manufacturer only prints the "total omega 3" and does not publish its DHA and EPA content separately, that should be a red flag for the conscientious consumer.
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