DHA is the most biologically useful omega 3 fatty acid. Over the past year sellers of dietary supplements have promoted various forms of DHA-containing oils such as krill oil or green-lipped mussel as superior to DHA-containing fish oil. The purpose of this brief review is to set the record straight as well as explain the extreme value of DHA to your health.
Fish Oil is now recognized as an important nutrient for the prevention of heart arrhythmias that lead to sudden death. These omega 3 oils have significant scientific proof that they can extend your life. They are also a superior nutrient to assist fat-related calorie burning. They promote the health of your white adipose tissue so that you can lose weight or maintain a healthy weight more easily, as well as helping you not become type II diabetic.
What are Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids and How Much Do You Need?
Omega 3 essential fatty acids are a unique type of fat that cannot be produced by your body from other fats and thus must come from your diet. All cell membranes in your body can use them to regulate health, and minimally they are needed for growth - which is the original reason for them being termed essential.
The length of an omega 3 fatty acid, in terms of its carbon spine, is very important. The shorter omega 3 is called α-linolenic acid (ALA). It is 18 carbons long with three unsaturated bonds (starting at the 3rd carbon - thus the name omega 3). ALA is the type that is found in non-animal omega 3 oils such as flax, chia seeds, perilla, and walnuts. Another 18 carbon omega 3 is called stearidonic acid, and this time has four unsaturated bonds. Black current seed oil is a rich source of stearidonic acid.
Fish oil is composed of two main types of omega 3 oils, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These oils are longer in length (EPA is 20 carbons, DHA is 22) and they have more unsaturated bonds (EPA has 5, DHA has 6). The number of unsaturated bonds in an essential fatty acid is also important, as these are points of interaction in your metabolism.
DHA is by far the most biologically active omega 3 oil, due to its length and the number of unsaturated bonds it possesses. It is the dominant type that is found in your cell membranes. DHA, not EPA, is the primary fatty acid associated with cardiovascular health and improved circulation.
Plant-based omega 3 oils can be converted to DHA by your body’s enzyme system; however, this process is inefficient. Research shows that ALA is made into DHA at only a 2 - 5 % rate, meaning it is an inferior source of omega 3 oils for cardiovascular health.
When animals are range raised then the ALA omega 3 in the grass they eat is converted by the animal to EPA and DHA and stored in their fat. Most of the animals in the American food supply do not eat grass and have little omega 3 oils in their fat, leaving fatty fish as the main dietary source of DHA omega 3 oil. Fish have their own problems, meaning they are prone to accumulate mercury, PCBs, and other fat soluble toxins. Farm raised fish are not raised in cold, deep ocean waters, and therefore do not make as much fatty insulation to protect against the cold, and thus have lower levels of EPA and DHA.
Our food supply is lacking in high quality DHA, compared to our evolutionary diet. Making matters worse, omega 3 oils, which are anti-inflammatory in nature, are overwhelmed by the widespread use of pro-inflammatory omega 6 oils such as soy oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and cottonseed oil. The historical ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is 4:1. The typical American diet can be as high as 30:1 in favor of omega 6. Too much omega 6 oil blocks the enzymatic conversion of ALA to DHA. And today, most soy and corn oil is genetically modified with toxins spliced into the DNA of the food, making them even more pro-inflammatory.
Government guidelines for omega 3 consumption are 1600 milligrams per day for men and 1100 milligrams per day for women. Another scale used suggests a range of 0.6% - 1.2% of total energy (1300 - 2600 mg for a 2000 calorie diet). No guidelines are given for the amount of the very important DHA. Since ALA may not be converted to DHA, the government guidelines are somewhat useless.
Studies with a combination of EPA and DHA show that 1000 mg per day (600 EPA/400 DHA) is adequate to protect against a second heart attack. However, a higher level of change occurs at doses in the 3000 - 4000 mg range (1800-2400 EPA/1200-1600 DHA), such as significantly lower triglycerides, lower blood pressure, less sticky platelets, lower inflammation, and improved vascular function (important for changing cardio risk factors and losing weight).
The Need for High Quality DHA
DHA is the key biologically active essential fatty acid that you want to make sure you get in adeqaute amounts. Specific amounts of DHA have been extensively tested in humans.
In patients with persistently elevated triglycerides 2160 mg of DHA lowered their triglycerides by 27% within three months and sustained that reduction at six months, whereas half that dose did not. 1560 mg of DHA has been shown to improve heart rate variability in overweight adults and do the same for athletes. Having better heart rate variability is a main way to stop cardiovascular-related death, as well as to be able to exercise healthier.
In a four ounce serving of salmon or tuna you will get about 2,000 mg of EPA and DHA (1200 mg of EPA and 800 mg of DHA). Japanese men consuming this amount of fish every day have half the rate of heart disease and twice the blood levels of essential fatty acids, compared to Japanese men living in America.
A study in Alzheimer’s patients with 1700 mg of DHA proved significant uptake and incorporation of DHA into cells membranes and significant inflammation reduction. In fact, DHA is known to boost brain cell health and protection by a variety of mechanisms, even protecting against Parkinson’s.
This data means that if you have cardio risk factors, especially if you are overweight, have high blood pressure, elevated triglycerdies, or cognitive decline, a highly protective dose of DHA is in the 1500 - 2000 mg a day range. Data shows that 2000 mg of DHA optimizes plasma levels, though does in the range of 4000 - 6000 mg of DHA per day have been tested in humans. If your problems are less concerning, you can benefit from 400 - 1000 mg of DHA per day.
In my opinion everyone at any age should have at least 100 - 300 mg of DHA per day, as part of a healthy diet, just to meet basic nutritional needs and help prevent obesity (many Americans are lacking). Smaller doses of fish oil have been proven to improve circulation in even healthy young people, meaning that it is likely to help prevent the slow and gradual decline that accompanies the wear and tear of aging by maintaining more optimal health.
The amount of DHA in fish oil will vary from 10% - 20% of most formulations. Thus, in traditional fish oil capsules you will need 5000 - 10,000 mg of fish oil (5 to 10 capsules), to get 1000 mg of DHA. These capsules also contain larger amounts of EPA than DHA. EPA can actually get in the way of DHA getting into your brain, EPA is not the primary oil needed for health benefits, and EPA is a primary blood thinner (meaning you can bruise too easily before you get to a dose that really helps).
When I design dietary supplements I use a special fish oil raw material that is 50% DHA and 10% EPA, so that you can get the higher levels of the beneficial DHA without getting too much of the blood thinning EPA. The material I use is also molecularly distilled, meaning any mercury, PCBs, or other toxins have been removed.
Even the very conservative Mayo Clinic has come out and said that Americans should be taking fish oil for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.
The Krill Oil Exaggeration
The marketing of krill oil as a supplement that is superior to DHA/fish oil has been done in a way that makes individuals think expensive krill oil is what they should consume. The actual scientific facts as they currently stand paint a different picture - DHA is the proven supplement, not krill oil.
One of the problems with krill oil is that a Canadian company owns the patent on it - meaning you are paying for a product with no raw material competition. Krill oil has a grand total of six small published studies, funded by the Canadian company or published by one alternative medicine journal whose owner also owns a dietary supplement company that sells krill oil.
In one small comparative study of krill oil and fish oil the authors claimed krill oil superiority by comparing it to a dose of fish oil (containing 360 mg of DHA) that is known not to be a therapeutic dose for lowering triglycerides - meaning they proved nothing. In reality, krill oil only has 40 milligrams of DHA per capsule. Furthermore, comparing the cost of molecularly distilled fish oil to krill oil you will find you are paying seven times the amount for the DHA in krill oil. To me, that is a rip off.
Proponents of krill oil argue that it has an antioxidant within the oil. This is interesting, but most people taking fish oil take other supplements with many antioxidants. Another argument is that the krill oil contains some choline and that the structure of krill oil DHA is a diglyceride form that is similar to what cell membranes want to use. It is a nice theory, except that humans easily convert the triglyceride form of DHA in fish oil into the form used in their cell membranes - and it has been proven that fish oil DHA significantly raises the cell membrane amount of DHA - something krill oil has not proven.
New science is showing that metabolites of fish oil called protectins and resolvins are important in guarding against type II diabetes. These byproducts of fish oil metabolism will be made in proportion to the amount of fish oil consumed.
There is not one study showing that krill oil prevents heart disease or reduces mortality, not even one study in a large population of users that proves anything. Extrapolating and conjecturing is not science. I have no objection to anyone taking krill oil, but it is not the same thing as taking a cardio-protective dose of proven DHA. The facts are the facts; you need DHA and lots of it. Fish oil has thousands of clinical studies showing its effectiveness, including many human randomized controlled trials.
The Green-Lipped Mussel Fantasy
Taking the cake for ridiculous EPA/DHA health claims is the maker of a green-lipped muscle product. The company promotion on its website states, “The omega-3 fatty acids found in greenlip mussels are up to 250 times more effective than other omega-3 oils in the market... these omega-3s are of such a high concentration and natural balance that it would take 247 capsules of salmon oil for example to equal just 1 capsule.” Other websites promoting this product refer to fish oil supplements as obsolete. Yes, it is just another network marketing company doing its thing. Yet, the message is not truthful and may have the net result of harming those who need proven amounts of DHA and EPA to protect their cardiovascular health.
Green-lipped mussel has been around for several decades and has a handful of studies showing that it has anti-inflammatory properties and may help improve pain in mild to moderate osteoarthritis. Some preliminary test results show that its main biologic activity is to reduce lipoxygenase activity, possibly reduce COX2 activity, and reduce some inflammatory cytokines such as TNFa. However, there are numerous nutrients with proven human clinical trials, which cost far less and have much better studies, that do the same thing (5-Loxin, curcumin, and quercetin to name a few).
Furthermore, new science is showing that excess leptin, due to obesity, is turning on gene signals and inflammatory cytokines that are driving the process of joint destruction in both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. In this study curcumin was able to stop this inflammatory response. However, getting to the source of the joint destruction problem means people should learn to eat in harmony with leptin, at which point there would be less inflammation in the first place (actually solving the source of the problem).
I don’t have a problem with anyone who takes green-lipped mussel for inflammation and likes the result. If something works for you, great. Personally, I have seen consistent improvement for less cost with much better studied and documented nutrients.
What I do have a problem with is green-lipped muscle being promoted as a superior omega 3 supplement, claiming to be hundreds of times more potent than fish oil and therefore fish oil being obsolete as a dietary supplement - translation: buy green-lipped muscle and not fish oil.
These wild claims of superiority are based on one 12-year-old animal study, Anti-inflammatory activity of a lipid fraction (lyprinol) from the NZ green-lipped mussel. The funny thing about this is that the company making the wild claims is using a study done by their competitor’s product as “proof” of their own supplement. This is a first in network marketing hype. Network marketing companies typically concoct their own “studies,” which are seldom published, and then exaggerate the meaning of their findings. In this case we have a situation wherein the findings from another company’s product are being extrapolated over to their own product. In fact, the unsubstantiated claim that their product is twice as potent as the one studied is being used to further exaggerate the claim of potency.
The dose of green-lipped muscle used in the study was abnormally high: 50 mg of Lyprinol per kg, or three capsule per day for a rat. If you are a 132 pound adult that means you have to take 1 bottle (60 capsules) of Lyprinol per day to reach the dose that was studied. However, the new product making the outrageous claims appears to have around 37 mg of green-lipped muscle per capsule, meaning that you will need 83 capsules of it per day to approximate the dose used in the study (retail value = $69 per day).
The study involved inducing inflammation in the paws of rats and then measuring the inflammation by subjective observation over a 16 day period while various doses of different nutrients were used in different groups. The experiment is foolish because the amount of salmon oil used for comparison (1850 mg/kg) would never be consumed by any human; in fact, it would be dangerous to do so.
The results showed less swelling in the Lyprinol group compared to the salmon oil group. However, the results of the study are not statistically significant. In fact, no statistical analysis of the data was published - meaning that the study has no scientific validity.
Currently, this study is being used to claim the superiority of green-lipped mussel to fish oil. Those promoting this notion compared the milligrams of Lyprinol to the milligrams of fish oil, and multiplied that by the statistically insignificant amount of improvement, which was arrived at by subjective measurement in the first place. And now you, the consumer, are supposed to believe that fish oil is obsolete!
In addition to the obvious shortcomings of this study, and preposterous promotion of it as proof of superiority of an ingredient, the primary method of benefit of fish oil in your body is not by modulating inflammation. Fish oil modulation of inflammation is a secondary benefit. This means the study is irrelevant as to whether or not you should be taking fish oil for your cardiovascular health and longevity.
This story actually gets worse. The essential fatty acids in the product are mostly from Hoki fish oil, not green-lipped muscle. Each 150 mg softgel capsule of the product contains a proprietary blend of Hoki fish oil and green-lipped muscle, amounting to 106 mg of fatty acids per capsule. Of the 106 mg, there are 16 mg of EPA and 19.5 mg of DHA. Most of these essential fatty acids are from the Hoki fish oil, since the company has stated that its green-lipped muscle oil is 3% DHA. If it were all from green-lipped muscle the 106 mg would yield 3.18 mg of DHA.
Based on the C of As on the company’s website and various components of the oils, it is possible to reverse engineer an approximation of their proprietary formula. Doing the math suggests that one of their 150 mg capsules is 44 mg white grape seed extract, 37 mg green-lipped muscle oil, and 69 mg Hoki oil. This means that the amount of DHA per capsule from green-lipped muscle is approximately 1.11 mg - i.e., virtually none.
This is actually kind of humorous. The product that makes fish oil obsolete due to its “superior” essential fatty acids is mostly low potency fish oil from Hoki fish. This is now the most expensive DHA supplement on earth. Said another way, this product costs .04 cents for each milligram of DHA, making it 36 times the price of high quality molecularly distilled DHA.
There is solid science that omega 3 fatty acids are vital to health. The EPA and DHA in fish oil is the subject of thousands of studies that now support cardiovascular benefit and reduced cardiovascular mortality as the primary reasons for taking them.
DHA is the most biologically active essential fatty acid, proven to be the main factor behind the cardiovascular protection of fish oil. DHA is used by all cell membranes in your body, especially your brain. It helps your metabolism by boosting the metabolic function of your white adipose tissue and guarding against type II diabetes. It also has anti-inflammation properties.
Every person should be getting 100 mg - 300 mg of DHA per day for general health needs. A basic cardio-protective dose of DHA ranges from 400 - 1000 mg of DHA per day. Maximum doses of DHA that optimize blood level transport capability is 2000 mg of DHA per day, and would be especially helpful for lowering triglycerides and for stubborn weight loss problems.
Take whatever supplements you want, but do yourself a favor and add up all the DHA you are getting so that you arrive at an amount that is scientifically proven to be beneficial to your health for your specific health situation.