Open bottle of fish oil supplements with EPA and DHA

EPA vs. DHA: key differences explained

Medically reviewed on January 23, 2023 by Morgan Spicer, Medical Communications Manager. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Table of contents

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that make up the membranes of each and every cell in your body.1 Two of the most important omega-3s are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) [1].

While DHA and EPA are often found together in food and omega-3 fatty acid supplements, they serve slightly different functions. So, what’s the difference when it comes to EPA vs. DHA?

In this article, we’ll break down the distinct benefits of EPA and DHA. We’ll also help you determine which omega-3 fatty acid is best suited for your health goals.

What's the difference between EPA and DHA?

Omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA form the basic building blocks of your physical health. They also carry out more specified functions, like regulating cell receptors and providing the basis for some hormones [1].

Each omega-3 fatty acid has its specific role in the body. Here’s a brief sum-up of how EPA and DHA differ:

  • EPA – EPA is a 20-carbon fatty acid [2]. Its primary function is to produce eicosanoids, which are chemicals that combat inflammation. EPA can be converted into DHA within the liver [3].
  • DHA – DHA is a 22-carbon fatty acid [4]. DHA plays a notable role in brain and eye health. It also supports babies' growth and development during pregnancy and early childhood.

Our bodies don’t produce enough EPA, DHA, and other omega-3 fatty acids on their own, so we must ingest these essential fatty acids through foods high in omega-3 or supplements. EPA and DHA are typically found in cold-water fish and fish oil.

EPA health benefits

Consuming enough EPA in your diet or through supplementation can set you up for many positive health outcomes. That’s because EPA has been shown to:

  • Maintain the brain’s gray matter and cognition – Your brain’s gray matter allows you to control your movement, memory, and emotions [5]. According to a 2015 research review, higher EPA blood plasma levels were associated with less gray matter atrophy in people over 65 years old [6]. High EPA levels were also correlated with slower cognitive decline, lower risk of dementia, and fewer symptoms of depression [6].
  • Offer more significant mood benefits – If you’re struggling with low mood, lifting your EPA levels may be able to help. According to a 2019 meta-analysis of 26 double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trials, omega-3 supplements that contained mostly EPA was shown to offset symptoms of depression [7]. In contrast, DHA-dominant supplements didn’t have the same effect.
  • Aid in reducing the risks of melanoma skin cancers – Melanoma is the deadliest type of skin cancer people can develop [8]. Nearly 200,000 Americans are diagnosed with it each year [8]. EPA may offer some protective effects against melanoma. In one study, higher EPA intake was shown to correlate with an 80% lower risk of malignant melanoma [3].
  • Fortify your defense against pathogens – EPA has been shown to be better than DHA at enhancing the balance of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory proteins in the body [9]. This dynamic balance impacts your body’s ability to successfully fight off pathogens [10].

DHA health benefits

Like EPA, DHA has several distinctive roles in the body. Experts have found its most important functions to be:

  • Supporting blood pressure regulation – Omega-3 fatty acids in general are known for their heart-healthy effects. However, a 2019 study showed that DHA helped participants lower their systolic and diastolic blood pressure more substantially than EPA [11].
  • Supporting brain health – The brain is made up of around 60% fat, making it the fattiest organ in the body [12]. Its high fatty acid content is key for regulating the function and structure of neurons, the informational messengers of the brain. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain—it makes up 97% of the brain’s omega-3 fatty acid content [13]. According to a systematic review of omega-3’s effects on brain health published in the science journal Nutrients, DHA has been shown to promote brain health for people of all ages [14]. In young adults, for example, DHA supplementation was shown to significantly improve both episodic and working memory [14]. Meanwhile, elderly individuals exhibited stronger executive function and heightened neuronal responses after undergoing DHA supplementation [14].
  • Supporting healthy brain and eye development in babies – DHA is critical for developing fetuses, babies, and young children. As a result, pregnant people are often recommended to supplement with DHA before, during, and after they are pregnant [15]. Babies born to mothers with high DHA levels tend to exhibit better cognitive function, problem-solving skills, hand-eye coordination, short-term memory, and language abilities during their first few years of life [16]. DHA is also responsible for babies’ retina development and eyesight. Babies who get enough DHA have been shown to have superior visual acuity [17].
  • Reducing birth risks – Adequate DHA levels are also associated with healthy birth weights and reduced risk of premature birth [18], giving pregnant people that much more reason to add DHA to their prenatal supplement list.

Both EPA and DHA are crucial omega-3 fatty acids to maintain in every individual’s diet. However, DHA is especially important if you’re an expecting mother or are a parent to infants and young children.

Is it better to have more EPA or DHA?

Depending on your current health, some of the benefits listed above may seem more relevant to you than others. In turn, you may want to focus on getting more DHA or EPA supplements in your diet.

Even so, it's important to remember that both omega-3s have a lot to offer. For instance, they can both help you:

  • Counteract disease-causing inflammation – Chronic inflammation can contribute to a long list of conditions, including asthma, arthritis, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and even some cancers [19]. EPA combats inflammation by producing eicosanoids, while DHA is a precursor for several hormones that deactivate the body’s inflammatory response [20].
  • Support your cardiovascular health – Together, DHA and EPA have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes [21]. They do so by lowering triglyceride levels and regulating cholesterol. Due to these benefits, it’s no wonder that the American Heart Association has been recommending omega-3 dietary supplements to people with cardiovascular disease for several decades [22].
  • Support your brain and mood – As we outlined above, DHA is crucial for your brain’s cognitive function, memory, and motor speed. Meanwhile, EPA is better known for supporting a balanced mood. By consuming DHA and EPA together, you may have a greater opportunity to reap the mental and emotional rewards of both.
  • Lower your risk of certain cancers – DHA and EPA may lower your risk of breast cancer [23]. A 2017 study also showed that these omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for cancer patients undergoing treatment [24]. Some complications of cancer treatment may even be improved with omega-3 supplementation, though additional research on this subject is still needed.
  • Reduce risks of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – AMD is an eye disease that causes vision to become blurry as you age. It’s the most common cause of central vision loss in older adults [23]. While there’s no cure for AMD, omega-3s have been shown to prevent or slow its progression [25].

Focusing on optimizing either EPA or DHA intake can be beneficial in their own right. But when paired together, getting sufficient amounts of both may set you up for even better health outcomes.

Do you need both EPA and DHA?

Yes, the body requires both EPA and DHA to function. The good news? Getting sufficient amounts of both—and other omega-3s—can be as easy as finding a high-quality fish oil supplement.

Fish oil supplements typically contain a combination of EPA and DHA, though specific ratios between them vary. You can select your supplement to suit your current health goals (and switch it up if these objectives change down the line).

You can also get more of these omega-3s in your diet by consuming the following cold-water fish [26]:

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel
  • Anchovies
  • Cod
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Lake trout
  • Light, canned tuna

Note: While fish is a healthy addition to your diet, be mindful of its potential mercury content. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends limiting your fish intake to two servings per week to prevent mercury buildup in your body [27]. Luckily, fish oil supplements don’t contain any mercury, so you can take them daily, worry-free.

Support your health with high-quality omega-3 supplements from Everlywell

EPA and DHA work together to help your body function at its best. Both omega-3 fatty acids are important nutrients to consume every day. If you don’t enjoy eating cold-water fish or want a more convenient source of omega-3s, you can get the DHA and EPA you need from Everlywell.

Our Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements can support your brain, heart, and skin health. Each bottle contains a month-long supply of capsules providing your daily omega-3s. Everlywell dietary supplements are evidence-backed, third-party tested, and GMP certified, so you can be confident in the quality of what you consume.

At Everlywell, we believe building better health should be convenient. Stay stocked up with a monthly dietary supplement subscription that delivers nutrition to you with 10% off—our gift to you for prioritizing your well-being.

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