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

So you’ve been told to take Omega 3s. For inflammation, for brain health, for your skin, for your baby, or for simply feeling like you’re doing something right nutritionally. But what’s up with all the lingo? You know you want Omega 3, but do you want EPA or DHA? And what about ALA?


For the science nerds out there, here’s some biochem to chew on. ALA stands for alpha-linolenic acid, and is the only officially “essential” Omega 3 fatty acid. It is essential in our diet because we cannot make it. We get plenty of ALA from nuts, seeds and grains like flax, hemp, walnut and wheat germ. EPA stands for eicosapentaenoic acid and is a longer Omega 3 fatty acid we can get from our diet or make from ALA. DHA stand for docosahexaenoic acid and is an even longer Omega 3 fatty acid we can get from our diet or make from EPA. We can get DHA and EPA from fish (or directly from algae), but since we can also make them from ALA, they are not considered “essential” fatty acids. It takes three reactions in our body to convert ALA into EPA, and another four reactions to convert EPA into DHA.


Not into science? Let’s try fashion. ALA is a versatile dress. Everyone needs to buy one because you can wear it anywhere on its own. EPA is your fun summer dress that you don’t technically need, because you can take your versatile ALA dress and add a hat, wedges and a belt and it would do just fine. But if you don’t have all the pieces for the outfit, maybe just go get the EPA dress and call it a day. DHA is your formal business dress. Again, you don’t technically need it, because you can add heels, jewelry and a clutch to your ALA dress. But let’s be real, no one is that good at transforming their everyday dress to a business formal-worthy outfit.


Just as most people lack the fashion ability, accessories, or energy to successfully upgrade their everyday outfits into formalwear, most people lack the enzymatic ability to successfully convert ALA into DHA. This biochemical conversion requires adequate zinc, magnesium and vitamins B3, B6 and C, which are deficient in the standard American diet. And if you aren’t eating fatty, wild-caught, cold-water fish a couple times a week, you are most likely low in dietary sources of EPA and DHA. Bottom line – you probably need to get your EPA and DHA in a supplement form.


While both important, EPA and DHA have different roles in our body. To be very general, EPA is our anti-inflammatory Omega 3 and DHA is our brain-building Omega 3. EPA is a precursor to anti-inflammatory signaling molecules in the body, which not only do their own job, but also box out pro-inflammatory signals. Meanwhile, DHA improves brain function by increasing membrane fluidity to facilitate cellular communication. Think about it as opening all the doors and windows so you can breathe fresh air and hear your music throughout the whole house. Your creativity sparks, your motivation increases and your mood improves. DHA causes these same improvements in mood and cognitive function by facilitating the transfer of information such as nerve impulses and hormonal signaling between cells. 


When it comes to Omega 3s, it is safe to assume that your diet contains ALA, but don’t bet on your diet being complete in EPA, DHA, or the nutrients you need to make the conversions from ALA. But if brain health is on your mind, keep the good vibes flowing with Ora Organic’s plant-based Omega-3 supplement.


Lindsea Willon, MS, NTP

IG: @lindseawillonNTP

Lindsea is a Clinical Nutritionist and Exercise Physiologist in Santa Monica, California. She supports her clients with real food and therapeutic supplementation to make lasting improvements in overall health.

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