The 3 Most Important Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
By Freydis Hjalmarsdottir, MS
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that have numerous health benefits.
However, not all omega-3s are created equal. Among 11 types, the 3 most important are ALA, EPA, and DHA.
ALA is mostly found in plants, while EPA and DHA are mostly found in animal foods like fatty fish.
This article takes a detailed look at the 3 most important types of omega-3s.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They're deemed essential fatty acids because they're necessary for health but cannot be made by your body.
Thus, you must get them from your diet.
Rather than being stored and used for energy, they play important roles in many bodily processes, including inflammation, heart health, and brain function.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats that you must get from your diet. They have numerous health benefits.
1. ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid)
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in your diet.
It's mostly found in plant foods and needs to be converted into EPA or DHA before it can be utilized by your body for something other than energy.
However, this conversion process is inefficient in humans. Only a small percentage of ALA is converted into EPA — and even less into DHA (3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source).
When ALA is not converted to EPA or DHA, it is simply stored or used as energy like other fats.
Some observational studies link a diet rich in ALA to a reduced risk of death from heart disease, while others show an increased risk of prostate cancer (7Trusted Source).
This increase in prostate cancer risk was not associated with the other main omega-3 types, EPA and DHA, which seem to protect against this cancer (8Trusted Source).
Some seed oils, such as flaxseed and rapeseed (canola) oil, are also high in ALA.
ALA is mostly found in plant foods. Your body can convert it into EPA or DHA, though this process is highly inefficient.
2. EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid)
Your body uses eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to produce signaling molecules called eicosanoids, which play numerous physiological roles and reduce inflammation (9Trusted Source).
Chronic, low-level inflammation is known to drive several common diseases (10Trusted Source).
Various studies indicate that fish oil, which is high in EPA and DHA, may reduce symptoms of depression. Some evidence suggests that EPA is superior to DHA in this regard (11Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source).
One study in menopausal women noted that EPA reduced their number of hot flashes (13Trusted Source).
Both EPA and DHA are mostly found in seafood, including 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.
EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid that can reduce symptoms of depression and help fight inflammation in your body.
3. DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an important structural component of your skin and the retinas in your eyes (14).
Fortifying baby formula with DHA leads to improved vision in infants (15Trusted Source).
DHA is vital for brain development and function in childhood, as well as brain function in adults.
Early-life DHA deficiency is associated with problems later on, such as learning disabilities, ADHD, and aggressive hostility (16Trusted Source).
A decrease in DHA in later life is also linked to impaired brain function and the onset of Alzheimer's disease (17Trusted Source).
As mentioned above, DHA is found in high amounts in seafood, including fatty fish and algae. Grass-fed animal products also contain some DHA.
DHA is very important for brain development and may protect against heart disease, cancer, and other health problems.
ALA, the most common omega-3 fat, is not biologically active until it's converted into EPA or DHA, which are essential for your body (3Trusted Source).
However, this conversion process is inefficient in humans. On average, only 1–10% of ALA is converted into EPA and 0.5–5% into DHA (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source).
Furthermore, the conversion rate depends on adequate levels of other nutrients, such as copper, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and vitamins B6 and B7. The modern diet, especially vegetarianism, lacks some of these (23Trusted Source).
In addition, some omega-6 fatty acids compete for the same enzymes needed for this process. Therefore, the high amount of omega-6 in the modern diet may reduce the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA (5Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source).
Other than being used for energy, ALA is not biologically active in your body. It needs to be turned into EPA and/or DHA to become active, but this conversion process is inefficient in humans.
8 Other Omega-3 Fatty Acids
ALA, EPA, and DHA are the most abundant omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.
However, at least eight other omega-3 fatty acids have been discovered:
- hexadecatrienoic acid (HTA)
- stearidonic acid (SDA)
- eicosatrienoic acid (ETE)
- eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA)
- heneicosapentaenoic acid (HPA)
- docosapentaenoic acid (DPA)
- tetracosapentaenoic acid
- tetracosahexaenoic acid
These fatty acids occur in some foods but are not considered essential. Yet, some of them do have biological effects.
At least eight other omega-3 fatty acids have been discovered. They're found in some foods and may have biological effects.
Which Omega-3 Fatty Acid is Best?
The most important omega-3s are EPA and DHA.
They're mainly found in seafood, including fatty fish and algae, meat and dairy from grass-fed animals, and omega-3-enriched or pastured eggs.
If you don't eat a lot of these foods, you may want to consider supplements.
EPA and DHA are generally considered the most important omega-3 fatty acids.
The Bottom Line
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to maintain good health.
The most important types are EPA and DHA, which are abundant in fish oil, fatty fish, and many other seafoods. Algal oil is a good option for vegetarians and vegans.
Notably, EPA and DHA can also be formed from ALA, which exists in certain high-fat plant foods, such as flax seeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and chia seeds.
If you are eating inadequate amounts of omega-3-rich foods, supplements are generally recommended. You can easily buy them in stores or online.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.
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By Lindsey Schneider, Joshua Sbicca and Stephanie Malin
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, but pandemic threats to indigenous peoples are anything but new. Diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu have decimated Native American communities ever since the arrival of the first European colonizers.
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History Reverberates on Native Lands<p>Native communities in North America have been disrupted and displaced for centuries. Many face long-standing food and water <a href="http://www.nativepartnership.org/site/DocServer/2017-PWNA-NPRA-Food-Insecurity-Project-Grow.pdf?docID=7106" target="_blank">inequities</a> that are further complicated by this pandemic.</p><p>On the Navajo reservation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, 76% of households already <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235390130_High_levels_of_household_food_insecurity_on_the_Navajo_Nation" target="_blank">have trouble affording enough healthy food</a>, and the nearest grocery store is often hours away. COVID-related restrictions have further curtailed access to food supplies.</p><p>Clean water for basic sanitary measures like hand-washing is also scarce. Native Americans are <a href="http://uswateralliance.org/sites/uswateralliance.org/files/Closing%20the%20Water%20Access%20Gap%20in%20the%20United%20States_DIGITAL.pdf" target="_blank">19 times more likely</a> to lack indoor plumbing than whites in the U.S. Nearly one-third of Navajo households <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-hits-indian-country-hard-exposing-infrastructure-disparities-n1186976" target="_blank">lack access to running water</a>.</p><p>Many <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6915e3.htm" target="_blank">health issues</a> that can increase COVID-19 mortality rates occur at high levels among Native Americans. These <a href="http://www.ncai.org/news/articles/2020/03/18/the-national-congress-of-american-indians-calls-for-more-attention-to-covid-19-impacts-to-indian-country" target="_blank">underlying</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30893-X" target="_blank">preexisting</a> conditions – things like hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease – are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6913e2.htm" target="_blank">linked to diet</a> and stem from <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank">disruption and replacement</a> of Indigenous food systems.</p>
High Exposure Rates<p>These factors have clear health impacts. On the Navajo reservation, for instance, through May 27, 2020, <a href="https://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2020/May/FOR%20IMMEDIATE%20RELEASE%20-%201620%20recoveries_102%20new%20cases%20of%20COVID-19_and%20one%20more%20death%20reported.pdf" target="_blank">4,944 people</a> out of a population of 173,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, and 159 had died.</p><p>This infection rate per capita exceeds those in hot spots such as <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2020/05/19/navajo-nation-has-most-coronavirus-infections-per-capita-in-us-beating-new-york-new-jersey/#11a4fac08b10" target="_blank">New York and New Jersey</a>. Importantly, however, it may also reflect a much <a href="https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/04/19/navajo-nation-has-higher/" target="_blank">more proactive approach to testing</a> on reservations than in many other jurisdictions.</p><p>The fact that elderly people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 could worsen the pandemic's effects in Indian Country. Elders are the <a href="https://ais.washington.edu/research/publications/spirits-our-whaling-ancestors" target="_blank">keepers of traditional knowledge, tribal languages and culture</a> – legacies whose loss already threatens the persistence of indigenous communities.</p><p>Elders also play key roles in preserving traditional plant and medicine knowledge. In the absence of COVID-19 interventions from Western medicine, many elders have been called on to perform healing practices, which increases their exposure risk.</p>
Little Help From Federal and State Governments<p>Many tribal members rely on the federal government's <a href="https://www.ihs.gov/" target="_blank">Indian Health Service</a> for health care. But <a href="https://theconversation.com/tribal-leaders-face-great-need-and-dont-have-enough-resources-to-respond-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic-134372" target="_blank">lack of capacity</a> at the agency has hampered its response. Budget shortfalls, <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/report-grossly-inaccurate-data-used-to-divvy-up-relief-funds-for-tribes-9qkkHmeXj0uhRC42mXYqCA" target="_blank">inaccurate data</a>, the challenges of providing <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/coronavirus-risk-is-compounded-by-the-rural-DC-rMTUzzE6WDGee8jbENQ" target="_blank">rural health care</a> and ongoing personnel shortages in IHS clinics are compounded by staff being <a href="https://navajotimes.com/reznews/dikos-ntsaaigii-doodaa-nation-musters-defense-against-covid-19/" target="_blank">pulled away</a> to fight the virus in large cities.</p><p>And while many states have raised frustrations with the Trump administration's unwillingness to distribute protective supplies from the <a href="https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/3/21206170/us-emergency-stockpile-jared-kushner-almost-empty-coronavirus-medical-supplies-ventilators" target="_blank">dwindling national stockpile</a>, IHS and tribal health care authorities <a href="https://www.azpm.org/p/home-articles-news/2020/3/17/167874-bill-calls-for-more-tribal-community-access-to-federal-stockpile-of-medical-supplies/" target="_blank">never had access</a> to the stockpile at all.</p><p>Although the federal government has begun <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/05/22/hhs-announces-500-million-distribution-to-tribal-hospitals-clinics-and-urban-health-centers.html" target="_blank">distributing relief funds</a> to IHS agencies, there have been serious problems with the accompanying supplies. The Navajo Nation has received <a href="https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/05/22/propublica-former-trump-aide-provided-fa.asp" target="_blank">faulty masks</a>, and a Seattle Native health center asked for tests but <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/native-american-health-center-asked-covid-19-supplies-they-got-n1200246" target="_blank">received body bags instead</a>.</p><p>Meanwhile, federally imposed limits on tribal sovereignty have obstructed tribal governments' efforts to deal with the pandemic themselves. Federal and state governments are <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/makah-tribe-fights-coronavirus-with-self-reliance-and-extreme-isolation/" target="_blank">challenging tribes' jurisdictional authority</a> to <a href="https://www.azfamily.com/news/mayor-of-page-accused-of-racist-social-media-comment-toward-navajo-nation-president/article_e2e6efd6-8db4-11ea-a8a2-7f6976d702f6.html" target="_blank">close borders to tourists</a> who may carry the virus. South Dakota's governor has <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/14/sioux-coronavirus-roadblocks-south-dakota-governor" target="_blank">threatened legal action</a> against two tribes who set up checkpoints to monitor incoming traffic on their reservations.</p>
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Environmental Injustices on Native Land<p>Energy development and resource extraction have had <a href="https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/898-all-our-relations" target="_blank">disproportionate impacts</a> on tribes for many years. Today, many Native American leaders worry that ongoing energy production – <a href="https://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/covid-19-essential-workers-in-the-states.aspx" target="_blank">an "essential" activity under federal guidelines</a> will bring outsiders into close contact with reservation communities, worsening COVID risks.</p><p>The owners of the Keystone XL oil pipeline have announced that they intend to continue construction, which will bring an influx of workers along the proposed route through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and Fort Belknap Indian community in Montana have filed for a <a href="https://www.narf.org/keystone-xl/" target="_blank">temporary restraining order</a>, and a key permit for the pipeline was <a href="https://www.democracynow.org/2020/4/16/headlines/us_judge_revokes_crucial_permit_for_keystone_xl_pipeline" target="_blank">revoked in April 2020</a>, but work continues at the U.S.-Canada border.</p><p>Construction is accelerating on the <a href="https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2020/03/17/border-patrol-waives-laws-border-wall-construction-southern-arizona/5063618002/" target="_blank">southern border wall</a>, which bisects the <a href="http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/" target="_blank">Tohono O'odham reservation</a> in Arizona and Mexico. The Trump administration has <a href="https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/border-coronavirus-military-immigration/" target="_blank">increased patrols at the border</a>, despite the tribe's concern that the patrols' presence is <a href="https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/06/coronavirus-cbp-160-cases-covid-19-officers-agents/2958736001/" target="_blank">spreading coronavirus</a> on the reservation.</p><p>And in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a salmon fishing season that brings in thousands of temporary workers is <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/it-s-hard-when-you-love-something-xlS49l2N20KZjqumwfzZfQ" target="_blank">set to open in June</a> because the federal government has also deemed commercial fishing "<a href="https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/CISA-Guidance-on-Essential-Critical-Infrastructure-Workers-1-20-508c.pdf" target="_blank">essential critical infrastructure</a>." Many local Native villages depend on the fishery for income, but have nonetheless pleaded with state regulators to <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/urgent-calls-to-close-the-massive-bristol-bay-fishery-8lYsGkUeDUyCBW7FMwpSfA?fbclid=IwAR1710u4rQnriq_MgH2ueQxOFtfGiGiH8I2ZdJRCZS9f28Zl-JNkPLpnzZo" target="_blank">cancel the season</a>. The regional hospital has just four beds for possible COVID-19 patients.</p>
Bold Action in Native Communities<p>Native communities are taking decisive action to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They're imposing aggressive <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/us/coronavirus-navajo-nation.html" target="_blank">quarantine</a> measures like lockdowns, curfews and border closures. Communities are <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/18/covidcoronavirus-native-american-lummi-nation-trailblazing-steps" target="_blank">ramping up health care capacity</a> and elder support services, and banishing nontribal members who <a href="https://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/oglala-sioux-council-banishes-non-member-with-covid-19-from-reservation/article_60b665c3-9d1b-5d48-a576-51774e4fb41a.html" target="_blank">violate travel restrictions</a>.</p><p>Other strategies include helping hunters <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/ammo-fuel-for-hunters-to-feed-others-Ki3zK6du-ky-UogoB9-aNQ" target="_blank">provide traditional foods</a> to their communities, <a href="https://ndncollective.org/indigenizing-and-decolonizing-community-care-in-response-to-covid-19/" target="_blank">mobilizing to support tribal health care workers</a>, and <a href="https://www.ehn.org/coronavirus-native-americans-2645923635.html" target="_blank">linking the pandemic and the climate crisis</a>. Looking ahead to a post-COVID future, we believe one priority should be attending to <a href="http://www.beacon.org/As-Long-as-Grass-Grows-P1445.aspx" target="_blank">front-line environmental justice struggles</a> that center tribes' sovereignty to act on their own behalf at all times, not just during national crises.</p>
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