Written by the Progressive Nutritional Education Team
Although it makes sense to get our nutrition from food, it can sometimes be a struggle. Busy lifestyles can interfere with the best laid plans for meal prep, and then there’s the reality that our bodies don’t always process foods efficiently to optimize our health benefits. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are prime examples of nutrients that are impacted by both lifestyle and conversion challenges – and deficiencies can have consequences on health through the years.
EPA and DHA are the active form of omega-3 essential fats, but they are derivatives of alpha linoleic acid (ALA). ALA is found in plant oils including flaxseed, walnut and soy oils, and is converted to the active omega-3 fats through various enzymes. Research suggests that only a small percentage of dietary ALA (between 2-10%) is converted to the active form. Relying on plant sources for omega-3 fats, then, is insufficient for most people.
The other foods in your diet can also negatively impact this conversion. For example, higher intake of omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) found in meat and eggs is associated with a reduced conversion of ALA to the usable forms. In fact, high LA prompts an increased conversion of ALA to pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid. Fortunately, we can by-pass these conversion problems because EPA and DHA are readily available in deep water fatty fish. We should be aiming to fish at least twice a week.
Did you know? A recent clinical study showed that a high omega-6 fat linoleic acid meal led to a post-eating increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin. Notably, ghrelin levels typically fall after a meal to help indicate satiety.
DHA is a structural component of brain membranes that begins to rapidly accumulate in the third trimester of pregnancy until the third birthday. DHA is important for neuronal cell growth and signaling in the young brain. Research also shows protective effects on brain health as we age. For example, research that included over 1100 postmenopausal women found evidence that higher DHA correlated with larger total normal brain and hippocampal volume after 8 years. Lower DHA intakes may signal increased risk of hippocampal atrophy. Significantly, the hippocampus is involved in memory consolidation and in supporting spatial memory that allows us to navigate space. These are obviously skills we wish to protect as we continue to add candles to our birthday cake.
Experimental studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids inhibit fat cell production and support lipid homeostasis. Studies also demonstrate that EPA and DHA increase adiponectin secretion: Low adiponectin levels have been associated with insulin resistance. In a study of women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fish oil supplementation also led to significant reductions in triglycerides levels in those with a more severe metabolic profile.
Research shows that EPA and DHA decrease risk of a cardiovascular event by reducing oxidative stress, improving cellular function and positively manipulating genes responsible for inflammation, plaque formation and healthy blood vessel permeability. In research published by Statistics Canada, however, 43% of adults had serum omega-3 levels associated with high risk for heart disease. High-risk levels were higher among men than women and older adults were at increased risk over young and middle-aged adults.
Some researchers propose that the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio plays a role in chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diseases of the brain. Significantly, the shift in omega-6 to omega-3 intake ratio from 1:1 to greater than 20:1 in the past three decades parallels our collective expanding waistlines. While scientists disagree on the ideal ratio of fat we consume, there is general agreement that we need to increase our intake of omega-3s.
Progressive’s OmegEssentials can help
If fish doesn’t make it to your plate often enough – or you are concerned about mercury and other pollutants – add OmegEssentials daily fish oil supplements to your shopping basket. To reduce the risk of accumulated toxins in fish that are higher up the food chain, OmegEssentials uses oils from small fish including anchovy, sardine, and mackerel. Molecular distillation filters out harmful contaminants.
Support antioxidants to help preserve fish oil include mixed tocopherols, extra virgin olive oil and rosemary leaf, as well as grape seed oil. Choose from softgels or naturally orange flavoured liquid in nitrogen-flushed dark glass bottles.
Langlois, K., Ratnayake, W. (2015). Omega-3 Index of Canadian adults. Health Rep. Nov;26(11):3-11. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2015011/article/14242-eng.htm
Lauritzen, L.; Brambilla, P.; Mazzocchi, A.; Harsløf, L.B.S.; Ciappolino, V.; Agostoni, C. (2016). DHA Effects in Brain Development and Function. Nutrients, 8, 6 https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8010006
Naughton, S. S., Hanson, E. D., Mathai, M. L., & McAinch, A. J. (2018). The acute effect of oleic- or linoleic acid-containing meals on appetite and metabolic markers; A pilot study in overweight or obese individuals. Nutrients, 10(10) doi:10.3390/nu10101376
Pottala, J., Yaffe, K., Robinson, J., Espeland, M., Wallace, R., & Harris, W. (2014). Higher RBC EPA + DHA corresponds with larger total brain and hippocampal volumes. Neurology, 82 (5) 435-442; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000080
Simopoulos A. P. (2016). An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. Nutrients, 8(3), 128. doi:10.3390/nu8030128
Swanson, D., Block, R., & Mousa, S. A. (2012). Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 3(1), 1–7. doi:10.3945/an.111.000893