What Exactly Are EPA And DHA, Really?

We hear a lot about the importance of “healthy fats” like omega-3s—you know, the good stuff typically associated with fish and flaxseed. But two of the most popular omega 3s—DHA and EPA—are rarely broken down into layman’s terms, despite offering an impressive range of health benefits.

It’s time we get to know these powerhouses a bit better.

How Does DHA & EPA Benefit Us?

We already know DHA (a.k.a. docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (a.k.a. eicosapentaenoic acid) are types of omega-3s, but what’s an omega-3? In case you forgot or need a refresher, an omega-3 is a group of polyunsaturated (a.k.a. good) fatty acids that are key for healthy body functions. You can find them in fatty fish, shellfish, algae, flaxseed, nuts, and oils, as well as in supplements.

“[DHA and EPA] are the types of omega-3s that your body most efficiently uses,” explains Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition. “Both DHA and EPA are important for so many aspects of good health—from overall wellness to heart health, brain health, and even eye health.”

But do you really need them both? The short answer: yes. Despite the fact that they are both lumped into one big omega-3 category, they are not the same.

Related: Shop DHA & EPA supplements to boost your omega-3 intake. 

“DHA is the omega-3 found in greatest amounts in the brain and eyes—and is also found structurally in heart tissue,” says Gorin. “EPA is not stored in the brain and eyes in significant amounts but is very important for heart health and other aspects of health.”

According to the journal Nutrients, long-chain omega-3s like DHA and EPA are critical for health, supporting healthy heart, blood vessel, kidney, and blood pressure functions. They also lower the amount of blood fats (lipids) and help combat joint issues. More than just the physical, though, they may also benefit our neuropsychological health—especially DHA. According to Front Aging Neuroscience, DHA may help support cognitive functioning later in life. And, according to Pharmacological Research, DHA deficiency has been linked to feelings of depression.

How Much EPA & DHA Do You Need?

It depends. The Mayo Clinic says that Western diets tend to include 10 times more omega-6 fatty acids (which come from vegetable oils like corn and sunflower) than omega-3s. However, for those who largely eat a Mediterranean diet—one of the healthiest diets, and one that features fish as a staple—EPAs and DHAs may be more abundant.

Take note: Not all DHA and EPA may be as impactful, depending on its delivery system. For example, the Mayo Clinic points out that it hasn’t yet been proven whether plant-based or krill omega-3s are as beneficial to one’s health as, say, fish oil. Vegetarians may need to get their DHA and EPA elsewhere (like nuts or flaxseed), but if you can include fish in your diet, use it as your go-to source.

Related: All The Things You Didn’t Know Omega-3s Could Do For Your Health

And although the amount of DHA and EPA you need is largely individual, Gorsin suggests starting with some general recommendations.

I recommend eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of cooked fatty fish like salmon and herring weekly to get in the proper amounts of EPA and DHA,” she says. “Or you could take a daily supplement providing at least 250 milligrams of EPA and DHA.” (There is currently no daily recommended amount, according to the National Health Institutes, but most supplements offer up 250-350 milligrams.)

Related: Shop vegan DHA and EPA products for fish oil alternatives.

However, you don’t need to stop at 250 milligrams, says Gorsin: “Some individuals could benefit from more than this amount—for instance, 500 milligrams per day has been found to be beneficial for lowering the risk of coronary heart disease in healthy adults, and pregnant or breastfeeding women would want to take in an extra 200 milligrams daily, up to 700 to 1,000 milligrams.” (Both EPA and DHA have been linked to supporting pregnancies carried to term, according to Review of Obstetrics and Gynecology.)

“You can speak with a registered dietitian nutritionist regarding how much you should take in, how to get the proper amount of omega-3s through the diet, and how to make the diet changes to do so,” says Gorin.