DPA - The Missing Omega-3 Fatty Acid

By Karen Jones, Nutritional Therapist

The benefits of fish oils are clear from the wealth of research available, most of which has focused on the two best known Omega 3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  However, there is a third Omega 3 fatty acid, docosapentaenoic acid or DPA, which is increasingly being shown by research to be critical to human health.  But why have most of us never even heard of it?

The answer lies in technology.  It is only with the recent advances in purifying fish oil that it has become possible to extract consistent and standardised levels of DPA as well as EPA and DHA.  This has led to an increasing number of studies into DPA’s effects.

It is now understood that DPA acts as a reserve of both EPA and DHA in the body.  DPA can be thought of as an intermediary between EPA and DHA in the metabolic pathway and can convert easily to either depending on need.  The body preferentially stores DPA as it is less easily oxidised and its shape (as defined by its double bonds) when incorporated into the cell membrane has a different effect on the molecular organisation than EPA or DHA.  Forty percent (40%) of the omega-3 fatty acids in human breast milk are in DPA form, probably for these very reasons.

Including a standardized amount of DPA in a fish oil supplement allows the body to improve its omega-3 status more quickly.  One study showed that supplementing DPA alongside DHA and EPA for just 14 days increased tissue omega-3 levels by 63% as compared to 41% in those not receiving the DPA.

So, what other benefits of DPA has the research shown?

DPA enhances the ability of DHA to:

            - improve cognitive development in the first 2 years of life

            - slow cognitive decline

            - reduce the risk for mood disorders

             - support optimal eye health

 DPA enhances the ability of EPA to:

             - repair damaged blood vessels

 DPA itself has been shown to: 

             - reduce the risk of thrombosis

            - improve wound healing 

            - turn on fat-burning genes

            - turn off genes that lead to excessive inflammation

Another recent interesting area of research into omega-3 metabolites has looked at the importance of Specialised Pro-resolving Mediators (SPMs) in the resolution of inflammation.  These important substances evoke cellular and tissue responses that help to conclude inflammatory episodes, promote host defences and stimulate tissue regeneration. Each of the omega-3 fatty acids releases its own individual series of these. They have different effects on any inflammation, and obviously, having easy access to the full spectrum of SPMs is more beneficial.

So, to conclude, including DPA in a fish oil supplement ensures a higher absorption of all three omega-3 fatty acids. This then provides the body with a ready reserve, which is easier converted to whichever form the body needs.  The research clearly shows that DPA enhances the actions of DHA and EPA, whilst also having its own beneficial effects.  Including DPA in a fish oil supplement also ensures that any inflammation will be tackled with the full range of omega-3 fatty acid SPMs.      

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