The human body can make most types of fat that it needs but there are 2 fatty acids that we can’t make called “essential” fatty acids: one is an omega 3 FA called alpha-lenolenic acid (ALA) and the other is an omega 6 FA called linoleic acid (LA). Since we cannot make these ourselves, we must get them from food.
While it’s not so hard to get LA and ALA from foods, such as seeds, nuts, leafy greens and plant oils, it’s really the derivatives of ALA (Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid DHA) that most benefit the human body.
The problem is ALA does not break down into these derivatives easily and plant foods (with the exception of algae) don’t contain them. EPA and DHA, on their own, are primarily found in fish.
Why do we care about EPA and DHA?
EPA and DHA are critical to your overall health.
EPA and DHA make up your cell membranes, and are especially abundant in your brain and nervous system. They enhance intracellular signaling between cells and regulate your gene expression.
EPA and DHA are the building blocks for a wide variety of hormone-like compounds, including eicosanoids (prostaglandins, prostacyclins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes), protectins, and resolvins.
These hormone-like substances regulate blood clotting, blood pressure, immune response, cell division, pain control, and inflammation response.
As if that wasn’t enough, they also play a major role in the prevention of several diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, diabetes, and some cancers. Some studies suggest that they may also protect you from dementia.
Best sources of ALA are flax, chia, hemp seeds and walnuts. To maximize conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA,
- Don’t eat too many foods containing high levels of Omega 6 FA’s like sunflower or safflower oils. A high intake of omega-6 fatty acids can reduce conversion by as much as 40 to 60%. Trans fatty acids can also reduce conversion, as well as excess alcohol and caffeine.
- Make sure you are not suffering from nutritional deficiencies. Nutritional deficiencies in vitamin and minerals that work as co-factors to convert the ALA – especially zinc, magnesium, niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6) and vitamin C– will slow the conversion.
- Restrict your calories by eating a low-fat diet. Low-fat or calorie-restricted diets appear to enhance conversion, while fasting slows it down.
- And finally these oils: echium oil, hempseed oil, and black current oil are the only plant sources of stearidonic acid (SDA), the FA that converts more easily into EPA and DHA.
If you want a direct source, consume microalgaes, like spirulina, that contain EPA and DHA.