Multiple recent studies have sparked intense interest in the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids derived from marine sources. Taking recommended amounts of docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, and eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, from fish, fish oil or dietary supplements lowers triglycerides and reduces risk of heart attack, strokes and cardiovascular disease. Blood pressure lowers slightly, but a possible side effect of high doses is increased risk of bleeding.
EPA is the 20-carbon, five double-bond member of the omega-3 fatty acid series and DHA is the 22-carbon, six double-bond member. Both are synthesized from alpha-linolenic acid, which is the primary member of the omega-3 family. These fatty acids are essential to ensure normal growth and development. They play a role in preventing and treating heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and cancer, according to Eleanor Whitney and Sharon Rolfes in “Understanding Nutrition.”
Consume cold water fatty fish for their DHA content. Commonly available fatty fish include salmon, mackerel, bluefin tuna, sardines, herring and shellfish. Some cold-water fish contain mercury, but the FDA reports that consuming a few servings of these fish per week does not harm healthy people. Pregnant women should avoid Atlantic mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish and should limit consumption of white albacore tuna to less than 6 ounces per week, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. High-quality DHA supplements are tested for mercury content. Breast milk contains DHA, but infant formulas may not. DHA is an important nutrient for an infant’s developing nervous system during the first six months and for brain functioning for adults.
EPA also comes from oily fish or fish oil. Fish get the EPA from consuming algae. Microalgae and supplements are alternative sources of EPA. Your body can convert alpha-linolenic acid to EPA and EPA is a precursor of DHA. Breast milk also contains EPA. As with DHA, check the labels of infant formulas to determine if EPA is included. EPA is used in metabolic pathways that produce compounds mediating artery flexibility and inflammatory processes. EPA and DHA have been shown to reduce the aggressive inflammatory response in the body. EPA and DHA are important throughout the life span during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adulthood and aging life stages.
Functional foods with added DHA and EPA will likely gain popularity as important sources of these essential nutrients because of a widespread reluctance of many people to consume enough fish, according to Dr. Bruce Holub, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph in Canada. Holub has researched omega-3 fatty acids for three decades.
Fish oil may lower the risk of developing heart disease and positively affect existing heart disease, according to the UMMC. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil help lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides and reduce plaque that narrows coronary arteries. DHA’s role in growth and development of the central nervous system and vision in infants is critical.
- Krause’s Food, Nutrition, & Diet Therapy, 10th Edition; L.K. Mahan and S. Escott-Stump
- Understanding Nutrition, Ninth Edition; Eleanor Noss Whitney and Sharon Rady Rolfes
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
- DHA-EPA Omega 3 Institute: Recent Research
- Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images
This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.