The vast majority of fish oil supplements on the market contain more EPA than DHA. Taking one of them is a mistake, particularly if you’re a man.
Of the two predominant omega-3 fatty acids involved in human health, EPA has always gotten more press than DHA, always gotten more of the fame, the money, the cardiovascularly healthy babes.
Sure, DHA is nothing but another bumbling, uncharismatic sidekick that meets up in sad little watering holes to commiserate with others of its ilk, the Garfunkels, the Robins, the Dr. Watsons, the Scrappy-Dos and even the bloody-handprint-for-a-face Wilsons. All second rate. All serving no other purpose but to reflect the glory of the masters they serve.
Set 'em up, Joe.
But wait, what’s this? The research scientists seem to have finally recognized DHA’s star quality and are grooming her for stardom. At least that’s what you infer when you read a review of DHA that was just published in Food Science & Nutrition.
Here are just some of the things DHA is reported to play a significant role in:
Developing super smart babies that hopefully don’t use their superior cognitive powers for evil purposes
DHA gets deposited in the gray matter of the infant brain at a fantastic rate during the last trimester of pregnancy. In fact, DHA contributes to 97% of the omega-3 fatty acids in this organ.
Pregnant women whose diets contained a lot of DHA gave birth to children who exhibited improved hand-eye coordination, enhanced problem-solving skills, sustained attention, enhanced gross motor milestones, and increased adjustability to environment.
Likewise, the children of women who took cod liver oil (a rich source of omega-3s) from the 18th week of pregnancy until 3 months after delivery (and who breastfed) did better on the “mental processing composite of the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children” at the age of four than the control group.
Supplementing the infants themselves with DHA paid off too. Six-year-olds who were fed a DHA-rich formula for 4 months showed a faster ability to process information than a control group that didn’t ingest DHA. Additionally, many lost all their scalp hair and vowed to destroy Superman.
Improve memory with an ingredient originally found in jellyfish! Okay, but not the one you’re thinking about
While cognitive function tends to peak in middle age (and then decline), episodic memory starts to slip away at about age 20. Also, episodic memory starts to slip away at about age 20. And don’t forget about episodic memory, either. That really starts to slip after 20.
You can do something about it, though.
You know those annoyingly frequent commercials on television for that memory supplement? They were right about one thing – an ingredient originally found in jellyfish can improve memory and cognitive function in adults, but it’s not the one they’re talking about. Their supposedly active jellyfish ingredient, apoaequorin, plays no known role in human memory.
However, jellyfish do contain lots of DHA, and that substance does seem to improve memory. (Too bad nobody, with the possible exception of some eccentric Trader Joe’s manager, ever carries jellyfish kabobs.)
A meta-analysis that included results from 15 studies found that DHA supplementation above the average Japanese intake of 580 mg. a day improved episodic memory in adults 18 to 90 years old.
Another study found that 18 to 35-year-olds who took 1,160 mg. of DHA and 170 mg. of EPA every day for 6 months exhibited improvements in episodic and working memory over subjects given placebo.
There have been plenty of studies on the combined effects on DHA and EPA on coronary heart disease, but it wasn’t until recently that scientists started teasing apart their effects.
A recent study compared the results of two daily doses of EPA (1,800 mg. and 600 mg.) to one dose of DHA (600 mg.) against plain olive oil and a control group. After 6 weeks, the DHA group showed a significant decrease in postprandial triglyceride levels. Neither the olive oil nor the EPA exhibited the same results, but EPA did decrease levels of lipoprotein-associated phospholipase A2, which is an inflammatory marker.
And while both omega-3s showed that they reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors, it looked like DHA may be more effective in reducing lipid risk factors than EPA.
While it’s not usually thought of as a prebiotic (a “food” utilized by host microorganisms), a few studies have found that DHA does indeed have prebiotic effects.
A randomized crossover trial tested the effects of 4 grams a day of a combination of DHA and EPA or 2 grams of just DHA found that both forms of DHA increased the populations of several beneficial bacteria, including Bifidobacterium, Roseburia, and Lactobacillus.
These bacteria, in turn, produce butyrate, which is a vital nutrient for the colonic mucosa, playing a big role in the modulation of cell inflammation, differentiation, and apoptosis (a beneficial “culling” of senescent cells).
Fish oil, in general, is often touted for its anti-inflammatory effects, but it looks like DHA is the one that really puts out the fire.
A 34-week double-blind trial involving 21 subjects conducted at Tufts University compared the effects of DHA and EPA and found the following:
- DHA lowered the genetic expression of four types of pro-inflammatory proteins, compared to EPA only lowering one type.
- DHA lowered white blood cell secretion of three types of pro-inflammatory proteins compared to EPA only lowering one.
- DHA lowered levels of an inflammatory protein, while EPA didn’t.
The results prompted Stefania Lamon-Fava, a “cardiovascular nutritionist” at Tufts, to opine the following:
“These results suggest that DHA is the more powerful of the two on markers of inflammation in the body…”
A global survey indicated that only about 24% of the world’s population meet their recommended intake of omega-3 fatty acids through eating seafood alone, while 67% had an intake of less than 100 mg. of omega-3 fatty acids a day, which is pitiful.
It’s even worse when you consider DHA by itself. Natural fish oils contain about 18% EPA and 12% DHA, but here’s the rub, particularly if you’re male: Estrogen plays a role in DHA plasma levels. The more estrogen you have, the better the DHA uptake and biosynthesis. The more testosterone you have, the worse the DHA uptake and biosynthesis.
Case in point, one study showed that the cognitive benefits from consuming omega-3 fatty acids were twice more effective in girls than boys (6 to 16 years old).
See what I’m getting at? If you’re a normal, healthy dude, you’re almost certainly low on DHA and the kind of fish oil supplements you need – those that contain more DHA than EPA – are a rarity.
Enter Biotest’s fish oil supplement, Flameout (on Amazon). While it’s great for women, too, it was made with men in mind. Each 4-capsule serving contains 2,200 mg of DHA and 880 mg. of EPA.
I’ll 'fess up, though. It’s really not clear as to how much DHA/EPA we need. Various expert organizations in various countries have suggested varying optimal daily intakes. Some break it down by age, others by sex.
I’ll give you an example: In a lot of countries, the RDI (recommended daily intake) for pregnant or lactating women is about 200 mg. However, Japan recommends a daily omega-3 daily intake of 1800 mg.
That being said, there’s a difference between how much DHA/omega-3 you need for everyday living and how much you need for therapeutic purposes. That’s why most studies of fish oil’s effects on inflammation, cardiovascular disease, etc., use doses that are considerably higher than RDIs; closer to the levels Biotest uses in its Flameout (on Amazon) product.
Aside from hormone levels, there’s something else that influences omega-3 fatty acid uptake, and it’s something almost no one takes into consideration: It seems that you need to ingest fish oil with a fat-rich meal in order for fish oil to do all of its pro-cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory, cognitive-enhancing health things.
A study in Germany (Rauch, et al.) showed “no significant benefits” of omega-3 fatty acids when they were ingested with a relatively low-fat breakfast meal. Another study (Lawson and Hughes) found that the absorption of DHA and EPA, the predominant omega-3 fatty acids crucial to human health, was three times higher when volunteers ingested them with a fat-rich meal (44 grams of fat) than when co-ingested with a low-fat meal (8 grams of fat).
I’ll give you one more: Kling, et al. found plasma concentrations of DHA and EPA were five times higher when administered with a high-fat meal than with a low-fat meal.
The implications are clear, as is the course of action: Take your DHA/fish oil capsules with the fattiest meal of the day, which usually means dinner.
DHA is no sidekick to EPA. It’s at least an equal partner, but based on what I’ve been reading, it may be that DHA needs to put the Batman suit on while EPA can squeeze into the little green shorts.
- Li J et al. Health benefits of docahexaenoic acid and its bioavailability: A review. Food Science & Nutrition. 2021 Sep;9(9):5229-5243.
- Jisun S et al. EPA and DHA differentially modulate monocyte inflammatory response in subjects with chronic inflammation in part via plasma specialized pro-resolving lipid mediators: A randomized, double-blind, crossover study. Atherosclerosis. 2021 Jan;316:90-98. PubMed.