ALA vs. EPA vs. DHA: Decoding the Omega 3 Alphabet Soup

Grandma knows best

So you’ve heard your grandmother swear by her fish oil tablets: the ones that look like they belong in an equestrian medical kit with marine-flavored burps to boot. Yum. Surely you don’t need those? After all, your ticker is in perfectly good health (you workout for a reason, after all, and it’s not just to look good nekked - I mean, or maybe it is, but still: cardio is cardio).



Well, think again. The fact is that omega 3s aren’t just for heart health. They fight inflammation, boost brain health and cognitive function, are imperative for healthy fetal development, combat depression, and help with diseases of mental decline such as Alzheimer's - just to name a few. But what’s up with all the lingo: EPA, DHA, ALA? IDK WTF LOL.

 

Let’s break it down, Yeezy style.


What makes Omega 3 essential?

Essential nutrients are nutrients that we need to ensure normal physiological functioning but that we’re unable to synthesize in our own bodies. Essential nutrients must, therefore, be acquired through diet or supplementation. A few other common essential nutrients include Vitamin D, Calcium, Potassium, Iron, and B12 (B12 specifically is a concern for vegans because there are no natural, vegan dietary sources of this vitamin). 

For Omega 3s it’s the ALA, a short-fatty acid, that’s essential. The good news is that ALA, or alpha-linoleic acid, is readily found in many (vegan) foods! Flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds are at the top of the list - so throw a tablespoon or two of flaxseed in that morning smoothie while you’re at it (and thank me later).



The less good news is that, while ALA is technically the only “essential” omega 3 (in that we’re unable to produce it within our bodies), DHA and EPA are the biologically active forms of this fatty acid and, therefore, more important for your health in the long run.

 

But my body can synthesize those, right?

 

Well, technically.


EPA and DHA

EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA, which stands for docosahexaenoic acid, are both long-chain omega 3 fatty acids. They can be created in the body from ALA or absorbed dietarily by eating fish or algae (but fish get their omega 3s from algae so let’s just skip the sushi altogether). Generally speaking EPA supports the heart, immune system, and inflammatory response while DHA strengthens the brain, eyes, and central nervous system.



The trouble lies in the conversion rates from ALA.


EPA and DHA synthesis

It takes three reactions in our body to make EPA from ALA and another four reactions to change that EPA into DHA. And, in order to successfully complete these reactions, the body needs an adequate supply of B3 and B6 vitamins, magnesium, and zinc.

The greatest inhibitor of this lengthy chemical process for most people isn’t the absence of nutrients, however, it’s the enzymatic activity (or lack-thereof) required to make it all happen. Enzymes act as catalysts to get things rolling; think of them as the spark needed to ignite the gas on that old stovetop your grandma has. Without enzymes, converting ALA into DHA and EPA wouldn’t be possible.



The enzymes needed in this particular series of reactions are fickle things that are easily disrupted. Additionally, enzymatic activity is negatively affected by genetics, age, health, and diet. Too many omega 6 fatty acids, for example, throw off the entire EPA/DHA conversion process. In western diets this problem is more common than you’d think given that our omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is seriously out of whack. (For those interested: a healthy ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is 1:1. Because of the prevalence of vegetable oils, fried foods, and processed things, however, our ratio looks something close to 16:1. YIKES.)



At the end of the day the rate of conversion from ALA to EPA and then DHA is, unfortunately, not great. It’s estimated to sit around 6% for EPA and 3.8% for DHA. Factor in the declined rate of conversion when too much omega 6 is present and those (already small) percentages decrease by an additional 40-50%. Seriously, yowza.

 

If you’ll allow me to do the math for you, assuming that we’re all at least somewhat out of whack in the omega 6: omega 3 department, that’s a conversion rate of roughly 3% for EPA and 1.9% for DHA.


Why this is worrisome

Our brains are made up of 60% fat by dry weight. Of those fats, omega 3s are the most important for ensuring good brain function and structural integrity. DHA makes up 97% of those omega 3s.


*Math Calculations*

Your brain is literally 58% DHA, but your body is only converting it at a rate of 1.9%.



DHA deficiencies result in learning deficits. A lack of DHA can also lead to sudden-onset Alzheimer’s. Even just 200mg a day has the ability to lower the risk of heart attack by 50% (grandma was onto something).

And EPA? Well, EPA prevents inflammation by inhibiting synthesis of the molecules responsible for the inflammation in the first place. And, as we now know, inflammation can cause a whole host of diseases including, but not limited to, stroke, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, eczema, and Crohn’s.


The moral of the story

You deserve to function at peak capacity. And, although diet alone may miss the mark a bit, you have options that don’t include gigantic horse tablets or eating fish (because you’re vegan and/or worried about heavy metal toxicity). Fish get their omega 3s from algae, so why shouldn’t you?



 

Too Long, Didn't Read (TLDR)

Omega 3 is best for: Fighting inflammation, boosting brain health, and ensuring healthy fetal development.
Omega 3 ALA is: A form of Omega-3 that cannot be created in our bodies (aka an essential nutrient) and must, therefore, be acquired from diet or supplements.
ALA vs EPA vs DHA: ALA is good but EPA and DHA are better (EPA=for inflammation and DHA=for brain health).
Omega 3 and the brain: Your brain is made up of 58% DHA by dry weight.
Why you should supplement: Although we’re technically able to synthesize our own EPA and DHA from ALA we don’t do so very efficiently (in fact, the rates of conversion are quite low at 3% and 1.9%, respectively).
Takeaway:  Supplementation isn't just a good idea. It’s a no-brainer!



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