Eicosapentaenoic acid isn’t a nutrient you are likely to see on the nutrition facts label of your favorite foods, but it can play a key role in promoting your health. This underrated nutrient can help support everything from your heart health to your immune system, but if you don’t pay attention to it, you are likely missing out on it.
This guide will provide all you need to know about EPA, including what it does, why it matters, and how you can start including it in your daily diet.
What Is Eicosapentaenoic Acid?
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is a type of long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that has a valuable influence on regulating the function of several bodily systems. To zoom out, omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acids that form the building blocks of cell membranes. By influencing how cells in the body interact with each other, omega-3s like EPA serve a helpful role in keeping systems running smoothly.
There are two ways that your body can get EPA omega-3s. First, your body can convert it from another type of short-chain omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
When you consume ALA, which is abundant in foods like plant oils, nuts, and seeds, the nutrient is converted into EPA, and another type of omega-3 called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). However, these conversions are not very efficient, and ALA is considered a precursor to true omega-3.
Studies suggest that only around 8% of consumed ALA is converted to EPA, and less than 4% is converted to DHA in men. In women, these numbers were slightly higher, but not exactly enough, with 21% of ALA being converted into EPA and 9% being converted into DHA.
Second, the most direct way to obtain EPA omega-3s is through food or supplements. Since the body can only convert small amounts of ALA omega-3s into EPA, your best bet for getting enough of these important nutrients is to obtain them through your diet.
How Does EPA Work?
In the body, EPA helps produce a type of signaling molecule called eicosanoids. Eicosanoids tell your body how to respond to various events, and different types of eicosanoids send different messages.
The eicosanoids produced by EPA help neutralize eicosanoids produced by other components in the body. For example, arachidonic acid produces eicosanoids which signal to the body to increase inflammation.
Of course, inflammation has its role in the body, helping to respond to events like injury and sickness, but too much can be negative. EPA naturally competes with arachidonic acid, supporting this inflammatory response for the healthy function of bodily systems. Consuming more EPA helps to balance out these two nutrients and ensures that the levels of arachidonic acid do not rise too high.
The supportive functions of EPA help provide a wide range of health benefits, from supporting your heart health to promoting overall cognitive health.
What Are the Health Benefits of EPA?
Although EPA may often be overlooked as an important nutrient to include in your diet, there are many important health benefits. As a result, there are many reasons to be mindful of how you include this important nutrient in your diet.
The following are some of the most important health benefits associated with consuming a regular amount of EPA.
May Support Heart Health
The eicosanoids produced by EPA are vital for the body in helping to maintain healthy blood pressure and a healthy heart. EPA’s ability to support the proper balance of signaling molecules may extend to helping to maintain healthy long-term heart function. In one study, higher levels of EPA in the blood were associated with positive outcomes for heart health.
Research surrounding the study suggests that EPA provides more benefits for heart health and maintaining healthy function than DHA. Low levels of EPA have also been common in conjunction with certain cardiovascular risks.
There is still more research to be done surrounding the relationships between EPA, DHA, and these events. However, these findings provide some confidence that EPA can support a healthy heart with proper supplementation over an extended period of time.
May Help Support Cholesterol Levels Already Within the Healthy Range
There are two main types of cholesterol in the body: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is referred to as the “bad” cholesterol because it can combine with triglycerides, or fats, in the blood to cause build-up and affect circulation.
Triglyceride levels in your blood can build up and line the walls of the arteries, affecting blood flow through the passageways. High triglyceride levels are often associated as a risk factor for conditions like heart disease.
Meanwhile, HDL is considered the “good” cholesterol because it can help to carry bad cholesterol in the blood and transport it to the liver to be disposed of by the body. Therefore, higher levels of HDL are good and lower levels of LDL are not.
In a meta-analysis of the effects of omega-3s on cholesterol and lipid levels, EPA demonstrated the ability to help support overall healthy levels of triglycerides in the blood, when these levels are already within a healthy range, compared to participants taking a placebo, thus helping to support healthy circulation. The nutrient also demonstrated the ability to support cholesterol levels already within the healthy range, promoting overall heart health.
May Support Emotional Wellness
There has been some evidence that EPA has demonstrated supportive effects for emotional well-being. EPA has the ability to support healthy neuron function, which may support the healthy regulation of emotions.
Although more research is necessary to support clinical conclusions, clinical trials have demonstrated a positive relationship between EPA intake and emotional wellness. Compared to a placebo, participants taking EPA saw small benefits in their mood. In these cases, it appears that EPA may offer more pronounced benefits in supporting emotional wellness than DHA. EPA has also demonstrated the ability to promote perceived quality of life.
May Support Brain Function and a Healthy Nervous System
EPA omega-3s may also be beneficial for promoting a healthy nervous system and brain pathways, which could have important implications for their ability to promote healthy cognitive function throughout the aging process.
The ability of EPA to support a healthy balance of inflammatory markers in the body seems to play the most important role, supporting the health of the cells in the brain. This balance corresponded with lower levels of harmful proteins in the brain, as well as positive outcomes on maintaining healthy cognitive function despite age.
Higher levels of EPA in the blood have also been associated with healthy maintenance of the gray matter in the brain.
EPA also supports neurogenesis, or the process of forming new neurons for healthy brain function. Altogether, these findings may have important implications for the role of EPA in supporting brain health and nervous system function.
May Support a Healthy Immune System
The immune system is an incredibly complex system that relies on cells working carefully together and jumping into action when necessary to respond to pathogens that can cause sickness. With its regulatory functions, EPA demonstrates the ability to support a healthy immune system.
In tandem with DHA, EPA has shown the ability to influence the immune system in several ways. Specifically, these omega-3s have demonstrated the ability to regulate different cells in the immune system in different ways.
Omega-3s appear to promote some immune cell processes, like phagocytosis, where immune cells consume foreign invading pathogens. However, in other cells, omega-3s appear to have a suppressing effect.
These findings suggest that EPA omega-3s can help to support immune function in a way that provides a healthy balance between overreacting to pathogens entering the body and underreacting. This process seems to be largely driven by EPA’s ability to support a proper balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory proteins.
Because this process is so complex, there is still plenty of research to be done surrounding the benefits of EPA on the immune system. However, research so far demonstrates the potential for omega-3s to play a positive role in supporting the regulation of the immune system.
May Support a Healthy Pregnancy
EPA may provide benefits by supporting a healthy pregnancy, specifically by promoting longer gestation periods. In other words, EPA and DHA supplementation together can work to support an optimal length for a gestational period.
Maintaining adequate EPA intake during pregnancy is also crucial for the healthy development of the baby, specifically when it comes to eye and brain development.
May Support Muscle Growth and Development
On top of its many other benefits, EPA may play a helpful role in promoting muscle growth. In one study, EPA demonstrated more success in supporting protein synthesis compared to a group taking DHA and a control group.
This ratio of protein synthesis to breakdown highlights the potential for EPA to support proper use of protein in the body to promote improved muscle mass and growth in response to strength training. As a result, high doses of EPA compared to DHA may be beneficial in supporting a strength training routine. EPA may also help support the maintenance of muscle over extended periods of time.
How Does EPA Compare to DHA?
EPA and DHA often come in tandem, as foods almost never contain one without the other. Both of these omega-3s are considered long-chain fatty acids and can provide several benefits for the body when working together. As an example, both DHA and EPA can help to support cholesterol levels already within the healthy range.
Despite their similarities, EPA and DHA do have different functions. Many of these functions are related to their different physical shapes, causing them to interact with different systems.
For example, EPA has a shorter carbon length, allowing it to interact with cells that provide signals to increase tension in the body and support the body’s inflammatory response. Meanwhile, DHA serves a greater purpose in other areas of the body, like the retina, where its longer shape makes it better at transporting signals from the eyes to the brain.
How Can You Get More EPA in Your Diet?
Although EPA is a vital nutrient, there are, unfortunately, very few ways to incorporate it into our diets. The most popular and common source for EPA is oily, fatty fish. Examples of fatty fish include cold-water fish, like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines, among others.
Generally, cooking fish twice a week is enough to obtain your recommended daily intake of EPA, according to experts. But not everyone has the time or resources to do so. In these cases, fish oil supplements provide a quick and simple alternative to eating fish, providing the nutrients in a bottle of oil or a small capsule. Krill oil from small ocean crustaceans provides a second supplement option.
However, fish and krill oil can come with some inconvenient side effects, like unpleasant fishy breath. The inconveniences are even more pronounced if you have a seafood or shellfish allergy. The risks of mercury contamination may cause hesitancy around eating fish during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
As a result, eating fish is not a realistic option for everyone. Fortunately, algae provides an excellent plant-based and completely safe alternative. This aquatic plant contains both EPA and DHA omega-3s, giving you both hard-to-come-by nutrients in one place. Not only is algae a great plant-based source of the two fatty acids, but it is also the only source.
When you choose an iwi life algae-based supplement, you can fill in a vital gap in your daily nutrient intake. Plus, you may even see more benefits than from other omega-3 supplements, as the omega-3s from algae provide a 1.7x higher absorption rate than those from fish or krill oil. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether an omega-3 dietary supplement is a good option, and discuss how you can benefit from incorporating fatty acids into your diet.
Boost Your EPA Intake and Reap the Benefits
Despite playing hard to get, EPA offers many potential health benefits. When you include the right sources of EPA in your diet, you can support your heart health, maintain healthy cognitive function, and promote your overall emotional wellness all at the same time.
iwi life provides an easy way for you to obtain essential EPA omega-3s without the drawbacks of fish. Just one of our EPA omega-3 supplements provides 250mg of EPA in addition to other important fatty acids. If you want to discover all of the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, you can explore our complete family of iwi life products.