The moment you begin paying attention to what you eat you will quickly find that trying to adhere to dietary guidelines can be an anxiety inducing experience. How do you know what you need and how much? Here we will look at two important omega’s and what they mean to your overall health goals.
According to the World Health Organization, chronic degenerative conditions now account for the most health threats worldwide. For the first time in recorded history more humans are dying due to chronic, and possibly preventable conditions than to trauma, infectious diseases, and any other cause. Because diets have shifted significantly over the past twenty years, so too has overall human health. Diets rich in sugar and carbohydrates paired with a more sedentary lifestyle has led to higher risk for degenerative conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, coronary artery disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
One of the best ways to combat this shift is to increase the amount of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are naturally found in fish and shellfish. Hundreds of studies have shown that omega-3s can help avoid a wide range of diseases, like cancer, depression, autoimmune diseases and cardiovascular disease.
AA’s, EPA’s and DHA’s: Sorting It All Out
The American diet is flooded with omega-6s (as opposed to their healthier omega-3 counterparts). Our diet has shifted away from fresh veggies and fish to foods high in omega-6s, such as crackers, cookies, and corn-fed beef. Before this change the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s was two to one. Now, most Americans eat over 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. This excessive amount of omega-6 fatty acids in the blood stream leads to inflammation, which plays a big role in many chronic diseases. Arachidonic acid (AA) is an omega-6 fatty acid, and the primary mediator of cellular inflammation.
So as the omega-6s (AA’s) take over our bloodstream as villainous inflammation promoters, by adding omega-3s (EPA and DHA) we can begin to restore a healthy omega-6 to omega-3 ratio or AA to EPA ratio.
How Much EPA and DHA Do We Need?
The required amount of EPA and DHA change throughout our lifespan, as does the optimal amount of each fatty acid in our diet. Children need more DHA for growth and development, with the brain, central nervous system (CNS) and retina needing a large supply of it during growth in the womb.
After the age of five, the development of the brain and CNS starts to slow and the need for DHA declines. Thus, it’s a good time swap some of the DHA for EPA in our diets. In children EPA has been shown to help with childhood behavior, academic performance, increase focus and attention and reduces aggression. As we age, our need for EPA stays high in order to keep inflammation low, and keep unwanted chronic illnesses at bay. Ideally, you should aim for 1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids each day.
What is EPA?
EPA is a converted type of omega 3 essential fat naturally found in fatty, cold-water fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon, halibut, anchovies, and tuna. The goal of increasing omega-3 fatty acids is to reduce cellular inflammation. To combat the AA buildup, EPA becomes the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids to minimize cellular inflammation. Simply put, the more EPA you have in your diet, the less AA you produce. The EPA cuts off the supply of AA that would be required for the production of the compounds that lead to cellular inflammation. With higher levels of EPA (aka a low AA/EPA ratio), you can reap the benefits of corticosteroids without the unwanted side effects.
Why Do I Need EPA?
EPA plays a huge role in your cellular homeostasis, which affects everything from heart health and cancer fighting to regulating behavior and mood. Between the ages of five and 65, you can meet your EPA needs by both food choices and a high quality EPA-rich supplement.
Low EPA levels in adolescents and adults correlates with development of mental health issues, including depression, dyslexia and dyspraxia, heart problems, joint and bone conditions, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. EPA also helps safeguard our genes and cell cycle, while helping to keep our stress response controlled. An ample supply of EPA throughout adulthood will help prevent a range of chronic illness.
Later in life, when cognitive function and brain deterioration become areas of concern, EPA can also play an important role. High levels of EPA have been proven to minimize the risk of developing and worsening cognitive decline and dementia.
What is DHA?
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is also a converted type of omega 3 essential fat. DHA is among the most prevalent fatty acids in the brain, which may account for why our brains function better with a large supply. DHA is a critical compound required in the pre- and post-natal stages for the health of both mom and baby. Adequate levels of DHA during and after pregnancy lead to better brain development and overall immunity.
Like EPA, DHA is a valuable anti-inflammatory. Several studies have shown that that macrophages (one type of white blood cell) use DHA to produce compounds known to fight inflammation. This means that DHA is a valuable tool to help our bodies deal with cellular inflammation flare-ups.
Why Do I Need DHA?
DHA has been proven to help both young and old bodies and brains alike. A Rush Institute for Healthy Aging study looked at eating patterns of more than 800 men and women, between the ages of 65 and 94. Those who consumed fish at least once a week were much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who didn’t. https://www.rush.edu/news/eating-away-cognitive-decline
Another study showed that DHA actually triggers the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which suggests that it is in fact DHA that initiates the growth of new neurons in our brain. This can lead to improved memory and cognitive function. A 2008 interventional trial showed that after twenty-four weeks of daily DHA supplementation, the researchers saw improved learning and memory function in age-related cognitive decline, proving the benefits of DHA on the aging brain.
Do I Need Both EPA and DHA in my Diet?
EPA and DHA are the mega-stars of bio-available omega 3s. EPA and DHA, in combination, may lead to increased benefits such as:
- Slowing the progression of age-related memory loss
- Supporting memory and learning ability including focus and attention
- Supporting healthy brain function
- Promoting a positive mood and well-being
Balancing EPA and DHA has also been shown to help maintain healthy triglyceride levels, while also promoting the metabolism of dietary fat and cholesterol. While EPA and DHA have individual roles inside the body, by increasing your intake of this dynamic duo you can minimize inflammation at the cellular level and drastically improve your health and well-being.