We are now fortunate to understand how these fats work in combination and in isolation, how they are digested, absorbed and utilised in the body, so we are able to tailor different blends of EPA and DHA according to the health benefits we are seeking to achieve. At Igennus, we have long specialised in the role of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA in clinical nutrition, as a powerful tool in the patient’s ‘toolkit’ for helping to regulate inflammation by restoring several biological markers, known as the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and AA to EPA ratio. Before we discuss the therapeutic role of EPA in nutritional medicine, here’s a very brief summary of the role of both EPA and DHA in health throughout life.
After the age of five, the development of the brain and CNS starts to reduce and the body’s need for DHA reduces. This is a good time to increase EPA in the diet, as studies show that EPA can help with childhood behaviour and academic performance, as well as focus, attention and reducing aggression. Dry skin conditions, asthma and allergies are also common in children and good levels of EPA at this time can help reduce the inflammation associated with these issues.
Increased EPA levels in the blood and cell membranes effectively regulates inflammatory pathways and reduces total inflammatory ‘load’, so for any inflammatory conditions or concerns, we recommend a phase of pure EPA supplementation for at least 3-6 months. Pre-loading the body with pure EPA (without the opposing actions of DHA for uptake and utilisation) ensures constant replenishment of EPA ’supplies’ to support its high rate of turnover. Since DHA levels remain fairly stable and much lower daily amounts are required, DHA levels can be supported continually through dietary intake, or increased to 250 mg daily in later stages of treatment through supplementation.
Children require DHA for growth and development, and the brain, CNS and retina rely heavily on the adequate supply of DHA during growth in the womb. Thus women should emphasise DHA in their diets when they become pregnant and continue to take this until they cease breastfeeding. Children continue to need DHA up until the age they start school, so if children under the age of five are taking an omega-3 supplement, it should contain DHA. The exception is for children with developmental problems – where pure EPA or high EPA omega-3 has been shown to be most effective for supporting cognitive function. We would still recommend, where possible, naturally derived sources of omega-3 such as oily fish to support a balanced EPA and DHA intake.
4. Omega-3 has been found to save the lives of children going through short bowel syndrome (SBS), which is uncommon but impacts thousands of people in the United States. SBS can occur from birth (when a portion of the intestine fails to develop) or due to an infectious inflammatory disease striking premature newborns. In adults, it can be caused by surgery for Crohn's disease or injury.
In another study, Australian researchers looked at whether giving infants added omega-3 fatty acids might improve health,4 including reducing their risk for heart disease. They gave 420 infants either an omega 3 supplement or olive oil from birth through six months, then revisited that at age 5 years to see if either group appeared healthier from a heart risk point of view.
Not surprising, there are some areas in which both EPA and DHA appear to be equally beneficial. As an example, both are equally effective in reducing triglyceride levels (10). This is probably due to the relatively equivalent activation of the gene transcription factor (PPAR alpha) that causes the enhanced synthesis of the enzymes that oxidize fats in lipoprotein particles. There is also apparently equal activation of the anti-inflammatory gene transcription factor PPAR-gamma (11). Both seem to be equally effective in making powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids known as resolvins (12). Finally, although both have no effect on total cholesterol levels, DHA can increase the size of LDL particle to a greater extent than can EPA (10).
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, which include EPA, DHA and ALA, which is alpha-linoleic acid. Although EPA and DHA are found to have high amounts from animal sources, ALA is found in rich concentrations in plant sources, including certain vegetable oils and flaxseeds, although fatty fish and shellfish are the best sources of EPA and DHA, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Examples of these fatty fish and shellfish include salmon, tuna, trout, crab, oysters and mussels.
Results of studies investigating the role of LCPUFA supplementation and LCPUFA status in the prevention and therapy of atopic diseases (allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, atopic dermatitis and allergic asthma) are controversial; therefore, at the present stage of our knowledge (as of 2013) we cannot state either that the nutritional intake of n−3 fatty acids has a clear preventive or therapeutic role, or that the intake of n-6 fatty acids has a promoting role in context of atopic diseases.
Fish oil is also used for diabetes, prediabetes, asthma, a movement and coordination disorder called dyspraxia, dyslexia, eczema, autism, obesity, weak bones (osteoporosis), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis, psoriasis, an autoimmune disease called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis, gum disease, Lyme disease, sickle cell disease, and preventing weight loss caused by some cancer drugs.