Over the past few years, research documenting the relationship between essential fatty acids (EFAs) and health has exploded. Many people now know that the 12 kinds of omega-3s are perhaps the most important of these EFAs, and as a result have received a great deal of attention for their wide ranging health effects. Having said that, necessary to point out that not all omega-3s are alike. The purpose of this report is to focus on one specific omega-3: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Read on to learn what EPA is, how it works, and see what has been published about it.
What is EPA?
First, consider the fact that your brain is mostly made up of fat. In fact, your brain’s white matter (this is the stuff that coats the neurons in your brain for speedier communication between regions) is made up of approximately 70% fat! We are not talking about just any fat, though. Your body does not produce this fat on its own, yet slows brain aging when it’s consumed through your diet. This is where EFAs come in!
Basically, there are two distinct types of EFA. You have the short-chain and long-chain flavors. It’s helpful to know that the “short” and “long” part describes the length of the carbon chain on each EFA. Stay with me here! You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand this, I promise. Just know that EPA is one of the long-chain fatty acids and has 20 carbon atoms.
How Does EPA Work?
You will not be surprised to learn that there is no magic involved with the process of how EPA works. It’s actually a fairly simple process. Researchers have discovered that omega-3 and omega-6 actually compete with one another as soon as your body starts to break them down. More specifically, it is the EPA (from omega-3), linoleic acid and arachidonic acid (from omega-6) that results in the most important changes in your body.
At the most simplified level, this competition results in the production of eicosanoids, which your body uses to fight off the inflammation process. However, this process depends very heavily on the *right* balance of arachidonic acid (AA) to EPA. In fact, it is so important it has a special name: the AA to EPA ratio.
If AA is too high, inflammation runs rampant in your body wreaking havoc on your immune system. Too low, and your brain doesn’t have the right tools to function properly. You can take a test called the Silent Inflammation Profile, which measures how much EPA you need.
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself: “I don’t have any inflammation”…in which case you really need my post: What Is Silent Inflammation? So, let’s move on to some of the other research published on EPA.
What Has Been Published About EPA?
Apart from their anti-inflammatory role, EPA also appears to be key in the development and treatment of several conditions.
EPA & Autism
Today, fish oil supplements for autism is on the rise. Autism is arguably the most popular of the pervasive developmental disorders otherwise known as Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASD. The exact cause of this disorder is unknown, but evidence suggesting a link between lower levels of EPA and autism is mounting. Findings from double-blind randomized control studies suggest at in at least a subset of individuals, taking fish oil improves language and learning skills for autistic children.
EPA & Cancer
Cancer is defined by the American Cancer Society as not one disease, but a whole grouping of them (you can read more about breast cancer in one of my other posts). Most cancers involve the faulty life-cycle of cells in the body, where division and mutations are sped up and lead to tumors which can cause serious problems. Some of the existing treatments for cancer are taxing on the body and are not effective in some cases. However, there is strong evidence suggesting the positive effects of omega-3 effects on cancer. For instance, in one study involving non-human subjects, EPA was found to significantly reduce the growth of tumors and even lessen the extent to which subjects were negatively effected by the tumor (such as weight loss). The researchers who led this study added that effects were not seen with doses less than five grams.
EPA & Heart Health
Heart health is a term commonly used to talk about ways of preventing risk factors such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and stroke that are normally associated with heart disease. There was a lot of buzz when news came that Consumer Reports Votes ‘Yes’ on Fish Oil and recent findings suggest that EPA may be more responsible for the prevention of blood clots which are commonly seen in cases of heart attacks or stroke. Analysts note that higher levels of EPA actually help the body produce a substance that stops blood from clotting.
Further evidence for the positive effects of EPA on the circulatory system can also be seen in Eskimos whose diet is rich in EPA. Eskimos have a significantly lower risk of developing heart attacks and also tend to be free from blood clots.
Other researchers have noted that another reason for this observation may be in EPA’s ability to improve the elasticity of red blood cells, which may play some role in allowing them to pass more freely through veins.
EPA & Mental Health
Mental health is one of the newer and more popular areas of fish oil research now, and exactly how fish oil helps depression is a top question among researchers. The causes for mental illness are widely varied, but modern day scholars agree that a dynamic model makes more sense than a strictly nature vs nurture approach. In light of this holistic approach to psychology, researchers are very interested in recent discoveries of a link between lower levels of EPA and Depression. In particular, researchers have found that AA:EPA ratio is negatively correlated in at least some cases of self reported symptoms of depression.
The notion that the AA:EPA ratio is correlated with depression has been further supported in findings from additional researchers. In a study involving nearly 1,400 participants, researchers looked at the relationship between EPA and depressive symptoms. The results revealed that individuals with depression related symptoms had EPA levels that were .16% lower than people without such symptoms.
EPA also appears to play a role in the treatment of more severe types of mental illness. In at least one study9, EPA was found to be superior to DHA when treating schizophrenia symptoms. The findings showed a significant decrease in “positive”, or outward manifestations of the disorder when participants were treated with EPA for a period of three months.
EPA & High Cholesterol
Cholesterol levels are another important part of heart health, and higher levels are frequently seen in individuals with heart disease. Some researchers now believe EPA may be just as effective as statins, the drugs normally given to treat high cholesterol. Evidence for this claim comes from a study with 18,000 patients with unhealthy cholesterol levels. Following treatment with 1,800 mg of EPA/day, researchers noted a 25% reduction in LDL (the bad kind of cholesterol) in both the experimental group, and a group receiving statins alone. Moreover, the researchers noticed there was also a 19% decrease in the number of heart related problems, when compared to the “statin-only” group.
EPA & Skin Health
UV rays from the sun are one of the main culprits in producing wrinkles. In a recent study, researchers decided fish oil prevents wrinkles after they applied EPA to human skin cells. They then applied UV radiation to the skin cells to simulate the effects of sun exposure, which results in wrinkles and sagging of the skin. They concluded from the study that fish oil is “a potential agent for the prevention and treatment of skin aging.”
Inflammation of the skin, psoriasis in particular, is arguably one of the most difficult to treat types of skin condition. However, new research suggests that EPA may be a suitable alternative treatment. Following a twelve-week study, researchers concluded that giving participants 1.8grams of EPA/day resulted in a reduction of scaly skin, itchiness, and severity of symptoms.
More from FishOilBlog.com: Fish Oil & Your Skin: A Primer
Want More EPA In Your Diet?
Lax environmental policies throughout most of the 20th century have led to the dumping of all kinds of waste products into rivers, lakes and oceans, making it impossible to get the amount of omega-3s we need without exposure to dangerous amounts of toxins. A safer way for the average healthy person is to obtain about 2.5g of omega-3 fatty acids a day, provided they have no existing health conditions.
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