The two most important omega 3 fatty acids; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential for human health and support numerous vital processes in the body.
The omega 3 fats provide a long list of health benefits and support many functions in the body including brain health, mood, eye health, growth and development, blood sugar control, heart health, and a healthy inflammatory response,
Because these fats are essential, they must be obtained through the diet or from supplementation. The body cannot manufacture them itself.
When choosing a supplement, you will find EPA and DHA indicated on the label. Depending on the supplement, these will be delivered in different ratios and dosages to meet different needs.
So how do you choose? Today we'll be diving into the two omega 3 fatty acids so you can better understand their functions and choose the best supplement for you and your needs.
What's the difference between EPA and DHA?
Though these fatty acids provide similar and overlapping benefits, there are a few key differences between the two. Understanding the difference between these omega 3 fats is important in order to supplement effectively to best meet your own unique needs, wherever you are on your health journey.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the most abundant omega 3 fat found in the brain, and it can affect cognitive function in a number of ways (1).
This fatty acid is not only vital for brain health, but also for the skin and eyes.
DHA is found mainly in cell membranes and supports electrical signalling between nerve cells (2). Low levels of DHA can lead to slower cell signalling and as a result, poorer eyesight and lowered cognitive functioning (3).
Docosahexaenoic acid is extremely important for growth and development, especially of the eyes and brain tissue. This is why it is an essential nutrient for pregnant women in order to support healthy development of the growing baby.
Not only is it important for baby's brain, it is also important for healthy brain function in adults. DHA has been shown to help slow cognitive decline during aging and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease (4).
Low levels of DHA are linked to poorer cognitive development and visual function (5).
You can obtain DHA from seafood as it is especially abundant in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, halibut, tuna, mackerel.
If you're not so into seafood it can also be supplemented from fish oil or algae oil as a vegan alternative.
Eicosapentaenoic acid, though similar to docosahexaenoic acid, has a few differentiating factors. EPA is particularly supportive to the immune system and may help to improve conditions associated with inflammation in the body.
As such, EPA may positively affect cardiovascular disease risk factors as well as symptoms of depression, menopause, and rheumatoid arthritis.
This fatty acid may be particularly beneficial for heart health. The EPA in fish oil has been shown to lower multiple markers associated with cardiovascular disease including arterial calcification, high blood pressure, and elevated triglycerides (6)(7)(8).
When it comes to mental health, EPA has been studied for its beneficial uses to treat depression. In fact, studies suggest it may outperform DHA for its anti-depressive effects (9)(10). Compared to DHA, eicosapentaenoic acid seems to exert greater efficacy in the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression (11).
Different mechanisms of action might play a role in EPA's efficacy as a therapeutic treatment for depression (12). EPA may help to alleviate symptoms of depression by reducing inflammation and influencing mood related chemicals in the brain like serotonin, however more research is needed to confirm how EPA improves depressive symptoms (13).
Due to it's potent anti-inflammatory effects, EPA may also help to ease symptoms in inflammatory related conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis by improving the balance between pro- and anti-inflammatory proteins (14)(15). The use of EPA may be a beneficial alternative treatment to improve the quality of life of patients with RA and even slow disease progression (16)(17).
Both omega 3 fatty acids have proven beneficial in alleviating joint pain associated with RA (18).
Which one do you choose?
So which one do you go for, EPA or DHA? Well, it depends.
Both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have proven to provide important health benefits though they may differ slightly in functions that they deliver.
If you had to make a choice between the two, DHA is typically recommended for pregnancy and improving cognitive function while EPA is more geared towards inflammatory conditions such as arthritis as well as improving mood.
Depending on your needs, goals, and life stage you may require more or less of a particular fatty acid thus we recommend checking with your practitioner or nutritionist if you are unsure of the best choice for you.
That being said, consuming both EPA and DHA will provide complementary benefits that neither one fatty acid will provide by itself. Taking a vegan or fish oil omega 3 supplement that naturally provides both fatty acids is typically enough for the general population to maintain their intake of these important fats. Whichever way you choose to go, you'll be sure to reap the benefits!
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