F is for fatty acid part 4: DHA, the membrane fat!

H to the izz-O,   D to the HA.  That’s the anthem get’cha damn hands up!

I’d like to introduce you to the super cool and fabulous fatty acid, DHA. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) has an amazingly complex structure and because of this; very significantly alters the physiology of the body.  DHA is the longest and most unsaturated omega-3 fatty acid and has several different applications compared to EPA.

DHA

DHA

DHA has an extremely kinky chain and is the omega-3 with the most double bonds lending to its special role in dynamic, fast-acting cells.

Dynamic quick acting muscles like the flight muscles in hummingbirds have extremely high levels of DHA but not their leg muscles while

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Pretty flutter wings full of DHA

the muscles found in the rattle of a rattle snake are very high in DHA whereas the stomach muscle has very little.

DHA containing rattle

Rattle containing DHA

Areas of the body with high DHA content

DHA is found in its highest concentrations in the membranes of brain cells, our eyes, sperm, and the heart, making it the fatty acid for neural health, cardiovascular health and issues surrounding fertility and birth

Areas of the body that benefit most from D to the HA

Areas of the body that benefit most from DHA

DHA’s ability to flip-flop between hundreds of different shapes, billions of times per second, enables nerve cells to send their rapid signals, allows the heart to contract and integrate its beat and permits the eye to see and interpret the world around us.

DHA is of most benefit in:

            1. Heart health
            2. Neural health and cognition
            3. Pregnancy and child development

DHA for heart health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in North America. Several studies support the use of omega-3 fatty acids in heart disease.  The heart health benefits of fish oils are so well supported in the literature that even health canada has approved claims for DHA and EPA in support of heart health.

http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodnatur/applications/licen-prod/monograph/mono_fish_oil_huile_poisson-eng.php

DHA + EPA are great for the heart!

DHA + EPA are great for the heart!

DHA is found in large concentrations in the heart (more so then EPA).  Specifically, the kinky and flexible DHA is very involved in proper membrane function in the heart and regulates heart rate by modulating how and when potassium and sodium ions cross the cardiac membrane.  Thousands of studies have been done to assess the heart health benefits of omega-3s and research has revealed that DHA combined with EPA effectively decreases triglycerides, raise good (HDL) cholesterol, lower heart rate, prevent arrhythmias, and decrease blood pressure. All of these effects are extremely beneficial for the heart.  Studies have even shown that omega-3 supplementation with statin administration lowers cholesterol and reduces negative effects better then statins alone!

Most importantly adequate levels of DHA and EPA have been shown to prevent and reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, ischemic event, atherosclerosis and death from a cardiac event.

DHA for cognitive health

The human brain is 90% fat and a good 30-50% of those are omega-3s. In fact, it has been speculated that the development of the large human brain and our evolution as human race depended on early man consuming a rich source of DHA.  The availability of DHA is literally a limiting factor in the evolution of the brain and research suggests that high levels of DHA optimize neural function.  Clinical research has demonstrated that DHA supplementation is effective for preventing cognitive decline in early stage memory decline and supplementation throughout adulthood with a high DHA formula has a positive effect on the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  Adequate levels of omega-3 reduce risk of dementia by as much as 67%.  DHA also enhances cognition in healthy adults and teens as well.  It has been shown to improve reaction time, concentration, memory and possibly sudoku skillz? (j j/k).

DHA is prevents dementia

DHA is prevents dementia

DHA for pregnancy and fetal health

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DHA supplementation is required during pregnancy

Adequate levels of omega-3 are associated with enhanced fertility.  They reduce the risk of miscarriage and have been shown to increase the likelihood of becoming pregnant.

Once pregnant, omega-3 intake during pregnancy and lactation modulate the growth, development, and health of infants. DHA is found in large concentrations in the brain and eyes of mom and her baby too! WIthout DHA, fetal development is severely compromised.  Adequate maternal intakes of DHA are very important for establishing optimal health of infants.  Birth outcomes such as intelligence, eye hand co-ordination and athleticism are enhanced in mothers with higher DHA status.  Adequate DHA during pregnancy also creates a longer gestation time, reduces the risk of preterm birth and leads to higher birth weight and length which reduces the risk of children that are small for gestational age.

Maintaining levels of DHA and EPA during infancy and breast-feeding is just as crucial.  Higher omega-3 intake throughout lactation leads to more mature and favorable behaviors in infants and children, such as: accelerated attentional functions; improved cognitive function; greater visual acuity; and improved immune responses, among other super kid benefits.

Two of the best ways to get DHA are algae oil and calamari oil.  My favorite is Ascenta’s NutraSea DHA.  I think its one of the world’s most sustainable high DHA omega-3s

Summary:

High DHA omega-3 supplements are best for pregnant and lactating women (or women trying to conceive), seniors, individuals looking to maximize brain health and those who are at increased risk for heart disease.

DHA is the best fatty acid for areas where membrane functioning is crucial like the heart, the eye and the brain.

Finally since calamari (in NutraSea DHA) and algae oil (in NutraVeg) are high in DHA and more sustainable then fish, high DHA fish oil is also a great choice for individuals looking to a choose a more sustainable marine source of omega-3.

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F is for fatty acid part 3! EPA for the win!

Fresh off the super fun talk I gave this past Thursday to the lovely BC employees of wholefoods, on omega-3s; I shall as promised, finally deliver the 3rd part of our discussion about all things fatty acid.

get it in ya!

get it in ya!

One of the points I really wanted to emphasize with the whole foods crew is that there are specific instances when we want more EPA and those during which we need more DHA instead.  Just like we talked about omega-6s and omega-3s competing for cellular absorption in part 2 of F is for fatty acid, so too do EPA and DHA compete with each other for incorporation, metabolism and use through-out the body.

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The clinical benefits of daily fish oil

Omega-3s are one of THE most researched topics in medicine.  Close to 2000 papers are published per year and currently there are about 20,000 research articles on the health benefits of omega-3s.

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Geeks love omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids biggest claim to fame is heart health and prevention of cardiovascular disease. It all started in Greenland, where eskimos paradoxically were living longer and had lower risks of heart disease despite consuming diets that were ridiculously high in fat.  Dr Dyerberg (considered by many to be the father of omega-3s) traveled to Greenland and discovered that their high fat diets weren’t made up of the usual fats, but were very high in omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, and so the era of studying the health effects of omega-3s began.

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The health effects of omega-3s:

Fish oil modifies a number of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including blood pressure, blood clotting, triglyceride (blood fat) concentrations, irregular heart beats, heart rate and blood vessel health. Because of this,  increased intake of omega-3s is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality and supplementation in at-risk patients also reduces mortality.

As mentioned in fatty acids part 2, omega-3s are awesomely anti-inflammatory. They are beneficial in any disease with an inflammatory component, such as pain, arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, psoriasis, eczema, lupus, asthma, and basically any condition that ends in “itis”, as that means inflammation. In fact I challenge you to google any condition, especially an inflammatory one + omega-3 or fish oil and I guarantee you’ll get multiple hits.

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Research also suggests that omega-3 fatty acids improve immune function,  boost metabolism and improve body composition, which can help overweight or obese people achieve weight loss.

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Omega-3s have been shown to help maintain bone mass and therefore help in the prevention of osteoporosis or loss of bone density and are very involved in visual development so they can help to improve eye health.

Because omega-3 fatty acids comprise a large part of the fats in the brain, they help to improve brain health and learning processes, which therefore make them valuable in infant and childhood learning, as well as behavioral or attention issues.  They also decrease the inflammation associated with an aging brain making them great for prevention of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and memory decline.

Finally, research suggests that omega-3s can help to stabilize mood imbalances, which is helpful in depression, anxiety, and hostility/aggression.

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Lets talk about each of these effects in more detail and specifically address which conditions EPA is of benefit, and which ones require DHA.

EPA

EPA is the best choice for any condition modulated by, or due to inflammation.  The anti-inflammatory actions of omega-3 fatty acids are mainly attributed to EPA.

When inflammation becomes chronic is destroys healthy cells and tissues in our bodies contributing to a great deal of diseases such as:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • cancer
  • allergies
  • asthma
  • eczema
  • depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • obesity 
  • arthritis and joint pain
  • ulcerative colitis
  • crohns disease and others

One of the conditions newly thought to be due to inflammation is depression.

  • In the past the etiology of depression was widely assumed to be due to serotonergic dysfunctions.  However, the current theories that rely solely on serotonin function and cortisol hypersecretion are insufficient. 
  • More then half of depressed individuals with depression relapse despite conventional management with anti-depressants. 

One of the new hypotheses for depression etiology is inflammation and several studies have been done to assess the inflammatory hypothesis of depression. 

  • Depressed patients have higher levels of inflammatory cytokines and when exogenous inflammatory molecules are administered they induce a depressed state. 
  • Chronic inflammation generates what is known as sickness behavior and signs and symptoms match those of depression almost completely.
  • Depression has been described as the “brain on fire”
  • Research reveals that EPA is actually the main effective component in omega-3 treatment of depression
  • Several meta-analysis have discovered that a ratio of at least 3:1 of EPA to DHA is required for anti-depressant effectiveness.

Inflammation is also a common factor in brain disorders, including attention deficit disorder.

You can’t feel brain inflammation the way you can feel an inflamed finger from a splinter or an arthritic joint, however, brain inflammation when present can generate a foggymind, difficulty concentrating, and an inability to focus.

An excellent way to control inflammation in the brain is to maintain high levels of EPA in the blood through the consumption of a high EPA omega-3 product

Finally,

EPA is of GREAT benefit to athletes and those looking to loose weight. EPA improves body composition by accelerating fat loss and increasing muscle growth and strength; this can have important implications for athletic performance. When EPA is consumed it promotes recovery from exercise by reducing exercise-induced inflammation and soreness while also improving heart efficiency and lung function.

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Next week we’ll tackle the clinical indications of DHA and GLA 🙂

If you’d like to know specifically how omega-3s modulate joint pain and arthritis, how they can generate weight loss or how they reduce and improve symptoms of colitis, IBS or poor memory, comment on the post and I’ll reply!

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)