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Breaking Down Fish Oil: DHA and EPA

Fish oils have become a very popular supplement in today's society with many people choosing to add it to their daily vitamin routine. With so many people buying fish oil, the real question comes down to is it beneficial and do I really need it? The answer to this question isn't a simple yes or no as there are so many factors that play into it. Fish Oil supplements contain Omega 3 fatty acids which are considered an essential nutrient. This means that majority needs to come from our diet as our bodies don't produce enough for to meet our daily requirements. Typically diets need to include foods such as fish, dark leafy vegetables, vegetables oils and certain oily nuts, which are all good sources of omega 3, to reach our daily allowance. The main reason why we aren't reaching our omega 3daily recommended allowance is because of the standard North American diet. Many of the foods we eat are high is Omega 6 fatty acids but low in Omega 3 fatty acids such as fast food, packaged foods and oils. Unfortunately, there is no conversion between Omega 3 and Omega 6, but that's a whole other story.

Breaking Down Omega 3

Let's take a close look at Omega 3. Omega 3 can be broken down into three molecules: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Each plays a different but significant role in the body and can be used to target health concerns. ALA naturally converts to EPA and DHA in the body, but in very small amounts.

EPA is the best omega 3 fatty acid for the reduction of cellular inflammation. It reduces inflammation by inhibiting the enzyme that produces arachidonic acid, found in the production of pro- inflammatory eicosonoids. Arachidonic acid (an Omega-6 fatty acid) is converted to pro-inflammatory markers which cause local and systemic inflammation. To further reduce inflammation, EPA competes with arachidonic acid for the enzyme phospholipase A2 preventing the release of arachidonic acid from phosphlolipid membranes. When it comes to inflammation, there are times when it is beneficial such as after an injury. Inflammatory markers help bring more nutrients to the area and increase healing. Too much inflammation or systemic inflammation is bad for the body as it causes damage to healthy tissue.

DHA doesn't have the same anti-inflammatory effect as EPA. Instead, it plays a greater role in development and function of the brain, central nervous system, and even the eyes. Blood vessels also see a health benefit from DHA as it helps to increase the size of LDL (the bad cholesterol), decreasing its ability to gain access into vessel muscle cells. With less LDL accessing cells there is a large reduction in the likely hood of developing fatty vessels which can lead to atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Health Benefits of Fatty Acids

  • Increased cardiovascular health

  • Blood sugar level stabilization

  • Joint lubrication

  • Skin benefits, improved appearance

  • Reducing inflammation and pain reduction

  • Cholesterol balance and triglyceride reduction

  • Improving mood and preventing depression

  • Increasing cognitive function

  • Increased immunity

  • Reducing ADHD in children

By taking fish oil supplements we can get reach higher doses that would otherwise be difficult with diet alone and treat specific health concerns. If you or someone you know is concerned with their heart health, joints, cognitive function or want to learn more about which fish oils, book in for a free consult with Dr. Hatton. As always, this post is not designed to diagnose or treat you, but instead to give you something to think about. Please book a consult with a naturopathic physician prior to changing, starting, or stopping medications or protocols.


Angerer P, von Schacky C. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and the cardiovascular system. Curr Opin Lipidol. 2000;11(1):57-63.

Balk EM, Lichtenstein AH, Chung M et al. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on serum markers of cardiovascular disease risk: A systematic review. Atherosclerosis. 2006 Nov;189(1):19-30.

Boelsma E, Hendriks HF. Roza L. Nutritional skin care: health effects of micronutrients and fatty acids. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001;73(5):853-864.

Mori TA. Omega-3 fatty acids and blood pressure. Cell Mol Biol (Nosiy-le-grand). 2010;56(1):83-92.

Silvers KM, Woolley CC, Hamilton FC et al. Randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trial of fish oil in the treatment of depression. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2005;72:211-8.

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