The Alphabet Soup of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

By Anne Wilfong, R.D., L.D. – June 1, 2014

A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids fortifies functions of the heart and brain. Many who are interested in a healthy diet have incorporated two servings of fish per week or a vegetarian source, like flaxseed, into their diet to help promote a healthy level of omega-3s in the body. But is it necessary to supplement what’s received in the diet?

Understanding the three essential omega-3s — DHA, EPA, and ALA— and the bodily functions they support is important to understanding whether a nutritious diet is satisfactory for receiving these health benefits. Here are the basics of the omega-3s.

Most research looking at the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is conducted using whole food sources (such as seafood) rather than supplements. These studies, as is common in nutritional research, don’t provide a definitive answer as to whether taking a supplement provides the same benefits found in whole foods. As with taking any supplements, there are some things to consider; omega-3 fatty acids can interfere with certain medications and can affect blood clotting, so always check with a doctor before starting supplements.

Fish burps are also a yucky side effect for some, but don’t despair.  Just try taking a different fish oil, one that has been formulated to reduce the incidence of burping, and spreading the dosage throughout the day. 

Bottom line question: Does everyone need an omega-3 supplement? Probably not. After examining your current diet, see if there is room to increase sources of DHA, EPA, and ALA. If so, you will most likely get the best benefit—and protect your heart and brain along the way—from eating a whole food diet rich in a variety of sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)

It’s found in flax seed, walnuts, canola, and soybean oil. The body can make some DHA and EPA from ALA, but this process isn’t very efficient or a 1-to-1 conversion. For example, ALA to DHA is “limited in humans with studies showing a conversion rate of about 0.05 percent.” For EPA, “estimates of the conversion of ALA to EPA are 0.2 percent to 8 percent, with young women showing a conversion as high as 21 percent.”   

EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)

Considered to be important in heart health, EPA is found in fatty fish. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends two 3.5-ounce servings per week. The AHA has said that research shows omega-3 fatty acids decrease the risk of abnormal heartbeats and triglycerides, slow the growth of plaques, and slightly lower blood pressure. 

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)

The brain and eye retina are full of DHA; it’s the most concentrated omega-3 fatty acid in the body. Studies have looked at the effects of DHA on depression and Alzheimer’s disease. As a sole source of treatment, DHA doesn’t appear to reduce the symptoms of depression; however, studies have shown that those taking omega-3 fatty acids with a prescribed antidepressant saw a benefit. Additionally, scientists have noted that people with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids are at an increased risk for cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease; some population research studies indicate eating a diet higher in DHA may potentially lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. 



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