Differentiating Fish Oils Part 3 – DHA and EPA: The Dynamic Duo of Omega-3 Fish Oils

Reading a fish oil supplement label can be a daunting task. Understanding the difference between DHA and EPA, the active ingredients in fish oil, is even more complex. The reason for this complexity resides in the fact that our understanding of these two fatty acids is in its infancy. Still, let’s try to make some sense of what we’ve learned over the past decade or so.

Fatty acids are comprised of just three different atoms, carbon (the long backbone or skeleton of the fatty acid), hydrogen, and oxygen.  That’s it. The difference among the various fats lies in the length of the backbone (how many carbon atoms there are) and the number of “double bonds” between carbon atoms. Other than these two distinctions, the fatty acids are really the same. So, then why are there such great differences among the fats if they’re so similar, you might ask? It turns out that longer chains tend to be more biologically active, and more double bonds results in more twisted and misshapen molecules which can then take on characteristics akin to complex locks or keys. As signaling and communication between cells often occurs through a lock and key mechanism, the fatty acids with many double bonds turn out to be great candidates for this task.

EPA is shorter than DHA (perhaps a bit less biologically active) and has fewer double bonds (less effective as a lock or key). EPA tends therefore to serve more as a precursor for other molecules that can diminish inflammation, clotting, oxidation, and cell death. DHA is also a precursor for some wonderful molecules that cause reversal of inflammation and tremendous protection of nerve tissue. Additionally, DHA is actively incorporated in our cell membranes where it can help cells communicate with other cells.

Other attributes shared by these two omega-3s include: Lowering triglycerides; raising HDL: and lowering the risk of lethal heart rhythms during and following heart attacks. Our bodies contain far more DHA than EPA, and DHA lasts longer in our bodies than does EPA, but both of these fatty acids have very important roles to play, and should be emphasized in our diets.

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