Omega-3’s are an essential fatty acid that has numerous benefits for health.  But not all omega-3 fatty acids are equal.  There are 11 different types believe it or not; but the three most important ones are ALA, EPA, and DHA.  ALA is mostly found in plant foods, while EPA and DHA are most commonly found in animal foods like fatty fish.  Omega-3 Fatty Acids are similar to all fatty acids, omega-3s are chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms together.  Omega-3 fatty acids are a polyunsaturated fat, which means they have two or more double bonds in their chemical structure (poly = many).  Just like the omega-6s, omega-3 fatty acids cannot be made by the body, and we must get them from the diet. This is why they are deemed an essential fatty acid.  Omega-3 fatty acids are not directly stored and used for energy. They have significant roles in all sorts of bodily processes, including inflammation, heart health, and brain function.  Being deficient in omega-3s is directly associated with lower intelligence, depression, heart disease, arthritis, cancer and many other health problems.

Overview of Omega 3’s

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats that we must get for our diet through many different ways. They have too many benefits for your health to look the other way.  See our top 10 Omega-3 supplements reviewed here.

The following is a list of the Omega-3 fatty acids

1. ALA Alpha-Linolenic Acid

ALA is the acronym for alpha-linolenic acid. This is the most common omega-3 acid in our diet.  What the chemical makes up is 18 carbons long, with three double bonds.  ALA is mostly found in plant foods, and while it is in your diet, it needs to be converted into the EPA or DHA before the human body can completely utilize it.  This conversion process is very inefficient in humans. This is because only a small percentage of ALA is converted into EPA, and even less into DHA.  When ALA is not broken down and converted to EPA or DHA, it remains just stored or is used as energy, like other fats.  Some studies have found a direct correlation between a diet rich in ALA and a reduced risk of heart disease deaths, while other studies have found an increased risk of prostate cancer.  This increase in the risk of prostate cancer was not associated with the other main omega-3 fatty acids, in fact, the EPA and DHA fatty acids had a protective effect against this disease.  ALA is found in many different plant foods, such as kale, spinach, purslane, soybeans, walnuts and many other kinds of seeds like chia, flax and hemp seeds. ALA is also found in some animal fats.  Some seed oils like flaxseed oil and canola oil are also very high in ALA.

Overview: ALA is the acronym alpha-linolenic acid. It is mostly found in plant foods and needs to be converted into EPA or DHA to become active in the human body.

2. EPA Eicosapentaenoic Acid

EPA is the acronym for eicosapentaenoic acid. It is 20 carbons long, with five double bonds.  Its primary function is to form molecules called eicosanoids that are used as signals throughout the body, which play numerous roles within the brain. Eicosanoids from omega-3s are used to reduce inflammation, while fatty acids made from omega-6s tend to increase inflammation.  A diet high in EPA can reduce most inflammation in the body. Continuous low-level inflammation is known to drive several common diseases.  There have been many studies that have shown that fish oil, high in EPA and DHA, may reduce symptoms of depression. There is also some evidence that EPA is better than DHA in this regard.  Another study found that EPA reduced the number of hot flashes experienced by menopausal women.

DHA and EPA are mostly found in seafood, which includes fatty fish and algae. For this reason, they are often called marine omega-3s.  EPA concentrations are highest in herring, salmon, eel, shrimp, and sturgeon. Grass-fed animal products, such as dairy and meats, also contain some EPA.

Overview:  EPA is the acronym for eicosapentaenoic acid. It is an omega-3 fatty acid that can reduce symptoms of depression and help fight inflammation in the body.

3. DHA Docosahexaenoic Acid

DHA is the acronym for docosahexaenoic acid. It is 22 carbons long, with six double bonds.  DHA is an essential structural component of skin and the retina in the eye.  Fortifying baby formula with DHA leads to improved vision in infants.  DHA is vital for brain development and function in childhood, as well as brain function in adults.  Childhood DHA deficiency is associated with problems later on, such as learning disabilities, ADHD, aggressive hostility, and several other disorders.  Low levels of DHA during aging is also associated with impaired brain function and acquiring Alzheimer’s disease.  DHA is also known to have positive effects on diseases such as arthritis, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.  DHA can reduce blood triglycerides, and may lead to fewer harmful LDL particles.  DHA also causes the breakup of so-called lipid rafts in membranes, making it more difficult for cancer cells to survive and for inflammation to occur.

As previously stated, DHA is found in high amounts in seafood, including fatty fish and algae. Grass-fed animal products also contain some DHA.

Overview of DHA is short for docosahexaenoic acid. It is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that is imperative for brain development. It may also help protect against heart disease, cancer, and other health problems.
Conversion Process: From ALA to EPA to DHA

ALA, the most common of the omega-3 fats, needs to be converted into EPA or DHA for the body to use it in a nutritional way.On average, only 1–10% is converted into EPA and 0.5–5% is converted into DHA.  The conversion is dependent on an adequate level of other nutrients, such as vitamins B6 and B7, copper, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron. Many of these are lacking in the modern diet, especially among vegetarians.  The low conversion rate is also because omega-6 fatty acids compete for the same enzymes needed for the conversion process. So the high amount of omega-6 in the modern diet can reduce the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA.

Overview: ALA is not biologically active in the body. It needs to be converted into EPA and DHA to become active, but this conversion process is inefficient in humans.

ALA, EPA, and DHA are the most abundant omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.

However, eight other omega-3 fatty acids have been discovered:

  • HTA Hexadecatrienoic acid.
  • SDA Stearidonic acid.
  • ETE Eicosatrienoic acid.
  • ETA Eicosatetraenoic acid.
  • HPA Heneicosapentaenoic acid.
  • DPA Docosapentaenoic acid.
  • Tetracosapentaenoic acid.
  • Tetracosahexaenoic acid.

These fatty acids are found in some foods but are not considered essential. However, some of them do have positive biological effects.