DPA Omega 3. The Forgotten Omega 3

Canned sardines with the top pulled back - by Doug Cook RD

By now, everyone and their uncle has heard of omega-3 fatty acids.

 

Almost everyone I encounter, counsel or talk to seems to have a good sense that they do a body good.

 

From conception and throughout life, well into old age, omega 3 fats are crucial for optimal health.

 

Whether we’re talking about heart health, joint, cognitive & mental health or reducing the risk for certain cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure and more.

 

Savvy consumers might even be able to list the more commonly known omega 3 fatty acids:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid or ALA found in walnuts, hemp, soy, chia & flax seeds, and other plant foods
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA found in fish & seafood, fish and seafood supplements, omega-3 fortified eggs and algae oil
  • Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, also found in fish & seafood, fish & seafood supplements, omega-3 fortified eggs and algae oil

 

……but almost everyone has never heard of docosapentaenoic acid or DPA omega 3

What is DPA omega 3 and why is it important?

DPA is another type of long chain omega-3 fatty acid.

 

Like EPA & DHA, DPA is found in fish, seafood, certain omega-3 supplements and to a lesser extent in meats and poultry.

 

DPA omega 3’s biological properties have not been studied to the same extend as EPA & DHA which have stolen the spotlight when it comes to health promotion. Despite this, DPA is starting to be seen as an unsung hero in the world of omega-3 fats and is starting to enjoy the attention it deserves.

 

Omega 3 supplements - by Doug Cook RD

DPA and its role in omega 3 metabolism

It’s too bad that DPA hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. DPA omega 3 plays a central role in how your body uses EPA and DHA. It this sense, DPA is the omega 3 resource manager.

 

Foods that have the longer chain omega 3 fats such as fish and seafood, have all 3 types EPA, DPA and DHA. Your body will use all 3 as needed but it’s also able to reassemble some of them if more of a particular omega 3 fat is needed. That’s pretty freaking amazing!

 

So, like EPA and DHA, DPA is absorbed from foods that contain it. But, as you can see from the diagram below, some of the EPA you get from food is converted to DPA. Conversely, some of the DPA is ‘retro-converted’ back to EPA as needed.

 

Also, some of the DPA is converted to DHA, and DHA can be retro-converted back to DPA as well. Yes, technically speaking you could just take EPA and some of it, but not a lot, would be converted to DPA and further to DHA. Likewise, you could just take DHA and a small amount of it can be converted ‘upstream’ to DPA and then to EPA

But, and it’s an important but. Your physiology and omega 3 metabolism relies on having all 3 present for best results. It’s inefficient, and therefore less effective, to overly rely on just EPA or DHA to supply DPA from their respective conversion.

 

In this sense, DPA can be seen as reservoir for EPA and DHA given its ability to be converted to both as need. This is why getting whole foods that contain all three omega 3 fats is better. As dietary intake of DPA increases, tissue concentrations, or levels, of both EPA and DHA increase too.

 

Boosting DPA omega 3

Do you want to boost your levels of EPA and DHA? You can when you eat foods or take supplements that also contain DPA.

 

Getting DPA along with EPA and DHA increases the amount of all three fatty acids in tissues where you want them the most. This includes the heart, brain, eyes, never tissue and in the membranes of all cells.

 

DPA increase levels of EPA and DHA to a greater extend than just getting EPA or DHA alone or in combination.

 

In a study comparing fish oil supplements that only had DHA & EPA to a supplement that included all 3 fatty acids, omega-3 levels increase in subjects’ tissues by 63% in just 14 days compared to 41% in those getting only EPA & DHA [1].

 

This is due to the fact that DPA increases the amount of DPA, as well as, EPA & DHA in the molecules [triglycerides] that transport fats throughout the body to the targeted tissues like muscle, brain, eye, nerves, red blood cells and more [2].

 

DPA omega 3 is like those famed Japanese transit constables who increase the number of people [EPA & DHA] who can get packed into the Tokyo subway [triglycerides]. DPA really helps to stuff more omega-3s in.

 

Dish of Fresh Steamer Clams with a lemon and a little bowl of salt on pebble table

DPA omega 3 benefits

DPA…

  • Enhances DHA’s ability to…
    • Promote cognitive development from conception through the critical first 2 years of life (DHA is the structural omega-3 fat of the brain) [3]
    • Slow cognitive decline as we age
    • Reduce the risk for mental health & mood disorders
    • Support optimal eye health
  • DPA enhances EPA’s ability to repair damaged blood vessels [4].
    • When more DPA is present in the diet, and therefore body/tissues, 1/10th the amount of EPA is needed for blood vessel repair [good for the brain, heart, & vessels throughout the body]
  • DPA inhibits thrombosis, in other words prevents clots by reducing blood cells  called platelets from sticking together [5]
  • DPA improves wound healing by helping new cells to grow and move towards the site of injury so the new cells can repair any damage
  • DPA turns on fat burning genes and turns off genes that promote excessive inflammation [6].
  • DPA leads to the production of its own anti-inflammatory molecules known as “resolvins” and “protectins.”
  • Supports EPA and DHA’s ability to reduce the risk for preterm births [7].

 

Whole foods versus supplements

Understanding DPA’s role in the metabolism of all the different forms of omega-3 fats reinforces the idea of nutrient synergy; individual nutrients working together in concert have a greater benefit than each of those nutrients working in isolation.

 

Of course it’s impossible for a nutrient to act alone but when nutrients are consumed together, as they are when whole foods are eaten, we usually see greater health benefits.

 

Given DPA’s role in omega 3 metabolism, it’s ability to boost levels of EPA and DHA and its overall benefits to promote health, it really begs the question why it isn’t a standard ingredient in omega 3 supplements? Why is it distilled out during the refining process?  It really should an absolute required ingredient (8, 9).

Omega 3 studies

This would partly explain why we see inconsistencies in omega-3 studies that only use supplements with EPA, DHA or a combination of both. There isn’t any DPA omega 3 fish oil supplement. Those supplements that do contain DPA come from seal oil.

 

Compared to studies that examined the health benefits of foods rich in the omega-3 fats EPA, DHA and DPA such as fish & seafood, including traditional Indigenous diets that historically included seal and whale meat and blubber, supplement studies don’t do as well.

 

Supplements are just that, supplements – they are an addition to, not a replacement for – whole foods. Don’t get me wrong, omega-3 supplements and omega-3 fortified foods that include EPA and DHA are an important tool to fill the omega-3 gap that exists in Canada.

 

As well, there is a robust body of research that show a benefit from getting more of these fats from supplements and fortified foods but whenever possible, whole foods first.

 

Baked salmon fillet on a plate with asparagus - by Doug Cook RD

 

DPA omega 3 and brain health

The long chain omega 3 fats EPA, and DHA (not ALA from flax, chia, walnuts, soy and hemp etc) have long been studied for their role in brain health. This includes their role in preserving cognitive function throughout life and mental health (10, 11, 12, 13). Omega 3 have also been studied for depression and anxiety (14, 15).

 

Mental health issues such as depression during and after pregnancy is a significant concern for new mothers. It’s believed that the growing fetus depletes maternal stores of all omega 3 fats which are required for fetal brain development.

 

After birth, maternal stores are empty leaving moms vulnerable to depression. Higher blood levels of DPA during pregnancy is associated with lower risk for postpartum depression (16).

 

In terms of long term mental health and cognition, DPA has been suggested as a key player. Not only because of DPA’s role in brain health but because of DPA’s ability to boost the actions of its omega 3 sibling DHA.

 

As mentioned above, DPA boosts DHA’s ability to:

  • Promote cognitive development from conception through the critical first 2 years of life (DHA is the structural omega-3 fat of the brain) [3]
  • Slow cognitive decline as we age
  • Reduce the risk for mental health & mood disorders
  • Support optimal eye health

 

When it comes to brain and mental health, go for the golden trio of EPA, DPA and DHA!

Top view of the brain

Getting more EPA, DPA and DHA omega 3 fats is critical

Health authorities such as the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids and other similar organizations recommend getting an average minimum 250 – 500 mg of EPA & DHA per day;  only 10% of Canadians get more than 250 mg per day.

 

What foods contain DPA omega 3? Whole foods rich in omega-3 fats such as fish and seafood will not only provide EPA & DHA but much needed DPA as well. Whole foods are also a great source of other nutrients such as protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B12, selenium, potassium, iron, vitamin D and more.

 

How much DPA omega 3 is beneficial?

Omega-3 recommendations are only for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), EPA & DHA but right now there aren’t any for DPA.

 

More research is needed before we can recommend a specific amount but the good news is that DPA is also found in foods rich in EPA & DHA as the table below highlights.

 

Eating more of these foods is best but don’t toss out your supplements or stop buying foods like omega-3 fortified eggs since these help to bridge the gap between what you need and what you’re getting [or not getting].

 

Just remember there’s so much more to the omega-3 story.

 

DPA omega 3 foods

Food

EPA mg DHA mg DPA mg

Salmon, Atlantic

1 fillet (100 g or 3.5 oz)

862

1100

393

Salmon, sockeye

1 can (200 g or 7 oz)

1060 1400

268

Mackerel

1 fillet (112 g or 4 oz)

763 1200

180

Salmon, pink

1 can (200 g or 7oz)

645 1400

172

Trout

1 fillet (159 g or 5.5 oz)

266 668

169

Seal, bearded (Oogruk)

100 g or 3.5 oz

150

Seal oil, supplement

(varies by manufacturer)

(6 capsules)

(1 tsp oil)

180 (caps)

270 (oil)

240 (caps)

360 (oil)

 

114 (caps)

170 (oil)

 

Clams, smoked

1 can (85 g or 3 oz)

124 117

88

Lamb

100 g or 3.5 oz

40 20

83

Beef

100 g or 3.5 oz

45 13

71

Sardines

1 can (85 g or 3 oz)

603 733

47

Mussels, smoked

1 can (65 g or 2.2 oz)

210 385

33

Pork

100 g or 3.5 oz

14 16

28

Chicken

100 g or 3.5 oz

14 15

18

Oysters, smoked

1 can (65 g or 2.2 oz)

550 314

0

 

Bottom line

• DPA can be uniquely retro-converted back to EPA, as well as converted to DHA, as the body requires.
• DPA supplementation increases tissue levels of both DHA and EPA.
• Even though dietary intake of DPA is approximately half that of EPA in salmon and other fish, DPA is preferentially concentrated over EPA in the blood.
• DPA levels in red blood cells greatly exceed EPA levels – about twice that of EPA.
• One reason for higher DPA levels in the body compared to EPA and DHA is that DPA is less actively oxidized (burned as energy).

 

Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, mental health.  Follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Comments 11

  1. evans jaghroo
    August 1, 2018

    excellent info as per blog and then some

  2. Phil Alder
    January 14, 2019

    Fantastic that you have actually listed the amount of DPA in the different foods. This has been very difficult to find. Thank you

    1. Doug Cook
      January 14, 2019

      So true, which kinda ‘sucks’ since it’s just as important

  3. Owner, Be The Change
    July 13, 2019

    Really awesome and informative content! Thank you for making the effort! ~Namaste

    1. Doug Cook
      July 14, 2019

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.

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