EPA and DHA: Brain Food and Much More

As you read this, a fatty acid called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is helping to regulate your blood pressure, immune system, heart health, and various organ systems throughout your body. A related substance, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an important building block in your brain and eye, and is essential in helping you think and see. For you men, DHA also is a component of sperm.

EPA and DHA are members of the omega-3 family of fats that are commonly found in seafoods. Yet many people are finding plenty of sound reasons to forgo fish. Seafoods are concentrated sources of two types of contaminants: heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, and industrial pollutants such as PCB’s, DDT and dioxin, and flame-retardants. Fish is a primary source of food-borne illness. There are compelling ecological and ethical arguments for avoiding fish, too. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that about 70 percent of the world’s fish populations are now fully fished, overexploited, depleted or only very slowly recovering. Furthermore, commercial fishing operations generally have huge by catches and the fish and sea mammals that are unintentionally caught do not generallysurvive. 

Fortunately, seafoods are not essential to our health. Apart from fish, there are two ways in which we can get the two long chain omega-3 fatty acids that do such important jobs for us. First, our bodies can build EPA and DHA from another member of the omega-3 family, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that is found in flaxseed, hempseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy. A good choice is to include in your daily diet about 2 teaspoons of flaxseed oil, or 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed, or a handful of walnuts (1-2 ounces).

In theory we all should be able to convert the omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed to both EPA and DHA. Yet it seems that some of us are less efficient at convertingALAto EPA and DHA. The following people may benefit by consuming direct sources of EPA and DHA:

  • Pregnant women, due to their fetus’ requirements for EPA and DHA
  • People with conditions that are linked with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids (depression, schizophrenia, ADHD)
  • People with diabetes, who have limited capacity to convertALAto EPA and DHA
  • The elderly
  • People with high intakes of fats that inhibit the conversion process (omega-6 fatty acids, trans fats, and saturated fats).

Thus for direct sources of EPA and DHA may be beneficial. Recent research has shown EPA to lessen the symptoms of schizophrenia for some people. Low levels of DHA have been associated with depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Low levels of DHA can impair brain and eye development in infants.

Fortunately, EPA and DHA also are available in sea plants (seaweed and cold water microalgae); in fact this is where fish actually get their EPA and DHA. (Note: Here we refer to DHA-rich microalgae, not blue-green algae.) Recent scientific breakthroughs allow us to get these omega-3’s in a vegetarian form that comes directly from the microalgae. Omega-3 DHA and Omega-Zen-3 at www.veganessentials.com  are vegan DHA. A very new organic, vegan British product, V-Pure at www.water4.net  combines both EPA and DHA.

For people in good health, flaxseed provides theALAwe need, and our bodies covert it to EPA and DHA. Two tbsp of Liquid Gold Dressing (below), delicious on salad, baked potatoes, rice, and steamed broccoli, provides your days’ supply of omega-3 fatty acids.

Liquid Gold Dressing

Blend together:


Blend together:

1/2 cup flaxseed oil
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 Tbsp Balsamic, raspberry, or cider vinegar
1/4 cup Bragg Liquid Aminos or Tamari
1/4 to 1/2 cup nutritional yeast
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp ground flaxseed (optional, for thickness)

Vesanto Melina, MS, Registered Dietitian, is co-author of seven food and nutrition classics. For more on omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients, read “Becoming Vegetarian” (US title), “Becoming Vegetarian” (Canadian title) Raising Vegetarian Children”, and “Becoming Vegan”. For omega-3’s and various conditions, read “The Food Allergy Survival Guide”. Web: www.camd58.sg-host.com ; Email: vesanto@camd58.sg-host.com ; Phone: 604-882-6782.  


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