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EPA vs. DHA: What's the Difference?

Published by Dr. Venn-Watson
Dr. Eric Venn-Watson’s Highlights

That fish oil capsule you swallow every day does more than give you fish burps. It contains essential fatty acids that are supposed to keep you healthy. If you look at the ingredients label, you’ll probably see it contains both EPA and DHA. 

Together, we’ll talk about the benefits of EPA and DHA and how they became the most praised fatty acids to date. We’ll also talk about ALA, another omega-3 fatty acid that might be detrimental to your health in large doses. 

Lastly, we’ll give you an option for supplementing with an essential fatty acid without the fishy aftertaste. 

Omega-3s at a Glance

There are 11 differentomega-3 fatty acids, but the majority of all scientific research on omega-3 fatty acids has only centered around three. They are ALA, EPA, and DHA. 

Omega-3s are considered essential fatty acids. When a fatty acid or other nutrient is essential, it means our bodies need it to thrive and function properly but can’t make it on their own. That means we have to get these fatty acids and vitamins from our food or from a supplement. 

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are fat molecules that have more than one unsaturated carbon bond. The chemical structure of these fats separates them from other fats, like saturated fats and trans fats. 

Why We Need Omega-3s

The omega-3 fatty acids were discovered over ninety years ago by a husband and wife research team. Since then, we’ve discovered that omega-3s can help keep our bodies healthy and lower our risk of developing illness. 

There’s a long list of benefits associated with taking omega-3 fatty acids, including:

  • Lowering your risk of developing heart disease
  • Ensuring proper infant health and neurodevelopment
  • Preventing certain cancers
  • Lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and supporting healthy cognitive function in aging adults
  • Decreasing the occurrence of age-related macular degeneration
  • Giving relief to some forms of arthritis

What About Cholesterol?

You might have started taking an omega-3 supplement to support your cholesterol levels. If you returned an unhealthy lipid panel, your doctor might have suggested trying an omega-3 supplement in addition to other medications, like statins. 

Your cholesterol measurement contains three important markers: 

  • LDL cholesterol. This is your low-density lipoprotein cholesterol marker. It’s also known as your “bad” cholesterol.
  • HDL cholesterol. This is your high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and is also known as your “good” cholesterol.
  • Triglyceride levels. These are fats in your blood. Excess fat in our diets is converted to triglycerides. Higher concentrations of triglycerides in the blood are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. 

Taking an omega-3 supplement may help reduce blood triglyceride levels and may also increase your level of good HDL cholesterol. 

While research is still ongoing, it’s clear that we need our omega-3s, but which ones do we need the most? 

Of the 11, ALA, EPA, and DHA are usually considered the most important. Because most western diets are abundant in ALA, it’s EPA and DHA you’ll usually find in a fish oil supplement. 

What Is ALA?

ALA stands for alpha-linolenic acid. It is found mostly in plant sources and is the most abundant of the three main types of fatty acids found in our bodies. ALA is naturally occurring in soybeans, soy products, walnuts, and canola oil. 

Your body can convert some ALA into EPA and DHA, but it doesn’t do this very efficiently. Thus, even though you probably have a lot of ALA in your diet, it’s likely not enough to compensate for the amount of EPA and DHA recommended for daily consumption. 

ALA is used mostly for energy in our bodies. ALA that isn’t used as energy is stored as fat. Too much ALA can be bad for your health and is even associated with an increased risk of heart disease. 

Ironically, ALA is the only omega-3 that is actually essential. The other essential omega is an omega-6 fatty acid called linoleic acid (LA). 

Differences Between EPA and DHA

The two most important omega-3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA. Much research has been done to determine how these fatty acids help our bodies and how the absence of them affects our health. 

Here, we will examine them both. 

EPA

EPA stands for eicosapentaenoic acid. EPA helps support your body’s immunity. EPA produces molecules called eicosanoids. These molecules are attributed to numerous different physiological processes and help to reduce your body’s inflammation levels. 

Chronic, low-level inflammation is one of the most serious markers for disease, especially age-related diseases. By adding EPA to your diet, you can reduce your risk of carrying higher levels of inflammation. 

Some researchers suggest that, because of EPA’s anti-inflammatory effects, it may also be a solution for helping to manage symptoms of inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that affects the joints and causes inflammation and pain. 

Although it is thought it might be a useful tool in the maintenance of the disease, it does not reverse it or prevent further joint damage from occurring. 

EPA has also been studied as a possible solution for children who suffer from ADHD. Because children’s brains need EPA for development, ensuring they have enough EPA in their diets is essential for keeping their brain functioning and developing properly. 

For menopausal women, EPA may even assist with hot flashes. 

It’s also suggested that EPA could help with your mood, and help alleviate symptoms of depression.

Where Can I Get EPA?

EPA is found in fatty, cold-water fish. It is most abundant in salmon, herring, eel, shrimp, mackerel, sardines, and sturgeon. Some grass-fed meat and dairy products contain EPA, but not as much as fish. 

The recommended daily serving is two to three servings of fatty fish per week. 

DHA

DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid is actually made by our bodies, but only in very small amounts. As such, we need to get the remainder of what we need from food or supplements. 

DHA is especially important for infants and young children. DHA is a major component of the eyes, brain, and nervous system. Infants who do not receive enough DHA in their diets are at risk of developing learning disorders. 

Pregnant women, especially, are encouraged to use a DHA supplement while they are pregnant and while they are nursing. If they are not nursing, a DHA supplement may be given to the baby orally at each bottle feeding (but please check if this is appropriate with your pediatrician before actually administering!). 

As a structural component of the skin and eyes, DHA helps keep your skin and eye cells functioning properly and is a good supplement for supporting skin and eye health. 

DHA’s brain-boosting abilities extend to adults, too. Research shows that higher circulating levels of DHA in adults support cognitive function and can lower the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Where Can I Get DHA?

DHA is found in fatty, cold-water fish (the same ones that contain EPA) and some algae. Grass-fed animal products and dairy also contain a small amount of DHA. 

You can take both EPA and DHA in supplement form. Remember, they are the two main ingredients of your fish oil supplement. 

Facts About Fish Oil

Nowadays, it seems like everyone is taking omega-3 supplements. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and assume we’re getting the health benefits described above anytime we swallow that not-so-burpless capsule. While there are definite benefits of omega-3 supplementation, these don’t come without somewhat of an Achilles heel. 

Rancidity

Because omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, they are subject to oxidation. They’re liquid at room temperature, just like your cooking oil. This means that if they stay on a shelf too long, they can spoil, also like your cooking oil. 

A new study by independent researchers tested different types of omega-3fish oil supplements for sale at various retailers and found that more than one in 10 were rancid. There are limited studies on the effects of rancid fish oil on our bodies, but some of them have associated negative impacts on cholesterol levels. Not only this, but rancid fish oil is toxic for our heart and blood vessels, and should be avoided at all costs.

Even more problematic is that you won’t necessarily know if you’ve purchased a bottle of rancid supplements. The telltale signs are a strong, fishy odor, which can also be common in fish oil supplements that are not rancid. 

Fillers

You’re going to get more in a fish oil capsule than you bargained for. Because there’s a long transit time between harvesting the fish and bottling the oil, these supplements are usually filled with preservatives. 

In addition, manufacturers sometimes add masking ingredients to account for those fishy odors. 

Possible Side Effects

Most people tolerate DHA and EPA supplements with few side effects (other than that trademark fishy aftertaste). 

However, at high levels, the effects of EPA and DHA supplementation (as well as all other omega-3 supplements) have some risks worth consideration:

  • Thinning of the blood
  • Excessive bleeding if an injury were to occur
  • Low blood pressure
  • Increased risk of bruising
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort

If you have certain preexisting health conditions or take medications like blood thinners, you’ll want to speak to your healthcare provider before starting an omega-3 supplementation routine. 

The Cardiovascular Health Benefits Are Conflicting

Many people start taking a combination of EPA and DHA to support their hearts, with the assumption that taking a fish oil supplement will reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. But, a meta-analysis of 20 randomized controlled trials didn’t find a statistically significant link between the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids and a reduction in cardiac-related deaths.

The American Heart Association, however, does recommend at least two servings of fatty fish per week or supplementation of 250-500 mg to reduce the risk of heart disease, based on studies performed between 1989 and 2007. 

Bottom Line

Does your body need fatty acids for their purported anti-inflammatory, brain health, and (possible) cardiovascular benefits? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you’re limited to EPA and DHA.

If you’d like to try a supplement that still supports your body the same way that EPA and DHA do, but without a fishy aftertaste, you’re in luck. 

Elevate your cells. Elevate your self.

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Just like the omega fatty acids were discovered by a husband and wife team (although over 90 years ago), a fatty acid called pentadecanoic acid was recently discovered as an essential fatty acid by a husband and wife physician-veterinarian team working to continually improve the health and welfare of bottlenose dolphins. 

This team studied two populations of dolphins and noticed that one population had strikingly fewer occurrences of age-related illness than the other.† 

The difference? One population was routinely eating a diet of fish that contained pentadecanoic acid (aka C15:0). 

They began studying this fatty acid and its potential to prevent age-related illness in both dolphins and humans.†* An increasing volume of research now supports that this fatty acid as the first essential fatty acid to have been discovered since the omegas.† 

C15:0 is an odd-chained, saturated fatty acid that works to support our bodies on the cellular level.†* This sturdy little fatty acid digs into our cells to strengthen our cell membranes, repair mitochondrial function, and naturally activate PPAR (pronounced pee-par) receptors throughout our bodies that regulate metabolism, immunity, mood, appetite, and sleep.†* While omega-3 fatty acids can make your cell walls flexible and flimsy, C15:0 keeps them strong, especially as you age.†*

A Closer Look

Aging starts in our cells. As we get older, our cells get older too, and they begin to lose some of their primary functions with age. When these functions decline, our homeostatic function declines, which can lead to age-related illnesses. 

Science, (and many peer-reviewed studies) supports that C15:0 helps reverse aging in your cells by:*

  • Clearing damaged cells. By activating AMPK (adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase ) an enzyme that clears out damaged cells.
  • Regulating inflammatory response. By calming and lowering proinflammatory cytokines, C15:0 helps reverse one of the key drivers of aging. 
  • Restoring energy-generating pathways. C15:0 helps restore mitochondrial function so they can create more energy.
  • Increasing cellular energy. Your cells need ATP to function. This energy currency molecule helps cells thrive. C15:0 increases ATP levels in cells by up to 350%. 
  • Bringing back balance. By activating AMPK, C15:0 helps bring back balance to functions like glucose uptake (for healthy blood sugar regulation) and immunity.

Cells that stay healthy as we age lower our risk of developing age-related diseases. C15:0 has been shown to support:†*

  • Heart health
  • Liver function
  • Red blood cell health
  • Balanced immunity
  • Healthy metabolism

Are There Any Side Effects of C15:0?

C15:0 is a very safe and beneficial essential nutrient. The only reported side effect of taking C15:0 is decreased snacking between meals. We’re willing to wager that most people will find this “side effect” a definite benefit. 

Where Can I Get C15:0?

C15:0 is found in trace amounts in whole-fat dairy products and some fish (the skin and heads) and in some plants. Unfortunately, our intake of this essential nutrient has decreased over time with population wide decreases in whole fat dairy intake. As such, it can be difficult to get all the C15:0 you need in your diet. Just like the omegas, you may benefit from a supplement. Unlike the omegas, you won’t have to suffer from large, oily doses and fish breath after taking it. Importantly C15:0 is much safer for our cells and does not oxidize or go rancid like omega-3 fish oils.

Fatty15 is the first and only supplement to give you a day’s worth of C15:0 in one easy-to-swallow, flavorless capsule. Fish oil supplements can contain some fishy ingredients; fatty15 contains just one: FA15™, the vegan-friendly, sustainably-produced, award-winning, and pure powder version of C15:0. 

People only need 100 to 200 mg per day of C15:0, compared to 2,000 to 3,000 mg per day of omega-3. When you compare fatty15 to fish oil, taking fatty15 has more health benefits, has the ability to reverse cellular aging, and is safer for our cells than omega-3 supplements.* 

EPA, DHA, and Fatty15

Science supports the inclusion of C15:0, EPA and DHA in your diet. Taking too much EPA and DHA could have some negative health impacts, so it’s important to monitor closely how much you’re taking and talk with your doctor about whether it’s a good choice for your health stack. 

If you want to support your total health while lowering the number of supplements you take each day, opt for including a little more fish in your diet and switching to the only supplement that gives you a daily dose of C15:0. 

With fatty15, you can give your cells a fighting chance against aging and support your health at the cellular level.* In addition to a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and good stress management, it’s one of the best things you can do to support your overall health and wellness and live a healthier life.*

Sources:

https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/#h7

https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/eicosapentaenoic-acid-epa

https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/docosahexaenoic-acid-dha

Revealed: many common omega-3 fish oil supplements are ‘rancid’

Effect of omega-3 dietary supplements with different oxidation levels in the lipidic profile of women: a randomized controlled trial

Should you still recommend omega-3 supplements? - PMC

Fish Oil|Mayo Clinic

Profile photo for Eric Venn-Watson

Eric Venn-Watson M.D.

Eric is a physician, U.S. Navy veteran, and Co-founder and COO of Seraphina Therapeutics. Eric served over 25 years as a Navy and Marine Corps physician, working with the special forces community to improve their health and fitness. Seraphina Therapeutics is a health and wellness company dedicated to advancing global health through the discovery of essential fatty acids and micronutrient therapeutics.

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