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Whilst EPA and DHA are both considered to be important regulators of immunity, platelet aggregation and inflammation, their health-influencing by-products arise from very different pathways and their effects in the body differ. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes, present in all organs and most abundant in the brain and retina, playing an important structural role. EPA is present structurally only in minute quantities, always being utilised and under constant demand to be replaced. Whilst DHA provides mainly a structural role, it is becoming evident that EPA may be the dominant functional fatty acid out of the two in many areas of health and especially in inflammatory conditions.
In 2016, AHRQ reviewed 143 studies that evaluated the effects of giving omega-3 supplements to pregnant or breastfeeding women or giving formulas with added DHA to infants. They found that when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their babies’ birth weight was slightly higher, but the risk of an undesirably low birth weight did not change. Also, when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their pregnancies lasted a little longer, but there was no effect on the risk of premature birth. Omega-3s were not found to have effects on any other aspects of the mothers’ or infants’ health or the infants’ long-term development. Aspects of the infants’ health that were not shown to be affected by omega-3s include growth after birth, visual acuity, long-term neurological and cognitive development, and the risks of autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and allergies.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Fish oil is LIKELY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Taking fish oil during pregnancy does not seem to affect the fetus or baby while breast-feeding. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant, and nursing mothers should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (also called golden bass or golden snapper), as these may contain high levels of mercury. Limit consumption of other fish to 12 ounces/week (about 3 to 4 servings/week). Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when dietary sources are consumed in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury.
Fish oil is very beneficial for pregnant women because the DHA present in it helps in the development of the eyes and brain of the baby. It also helps to avoid premature births, low birth weight, and miscarriages. Research conducted in Denmark, which involved 8,729 pregnant women, concluded that a diet with low amounts of fish resulted in a higher risk of premature or preterm babies.
Since EPA and DHA are both essential for health and appear together in nature, many studies have attempted to treat clinical conditions with combined EPA and DHA oils, but the outcomes have been varied, contradictory and disappointing. Consequently, researchers have started to investigate the individual actions of EPA and DHA in isolation, in numerous health conditions where an omega-3 deficiency is related to symptoms or known to play a causative role. The emerging evidence shows marked differences between how these two fatty acids affect us – not just at the cellular level but also the body as a whole.