Essential Fatty Acids – Omega 3 & Conversion Efficiency Inhibitions

“Not all Omega 3 is the same: ALA needs to be converted to EPA and DHA in the body – not everybody makes this conversion efficiently”. This is the full title of our article today that is kindly provided by nutritional therapist Katie Clare.

Katie had previously introduced us to the emerging field of Nutrigenomics – “Where nutrition meets genetics”. This exciting field helps to explain one reason why certain people with genetic variations may struggle to get sufficient levels of a certain nutrient, irrespective of their intake of the nutrient.

Genetic variations are just one of many factors that can inhibit our nutritional uptake, for example an uptake problem with one or more of the essential vitamins and minerals – even when we are on an excellent diet and food supplement regime.

In this article Katie reminds us of the importance of ‘Essential Fatty Acids’ – probably best known via the term ‘Omega 3’. As Katie comments “It is essential that they (EFA’s) are taken in through our diet”. EFA’s are essential for health, in the correct proportions and levels, but must be obtained from diet as the body does not ‘make’ them. This means getting EFA’s from foods and possibly supplements.

We all need EFA’s at all stages of our life in the ‘correct balance’ to support good health. And this starts at preconception stages onward. With the following article Katie expands on this vital health topic by asking questions relating to where we may be getting our EFA’s from in our diet – and to what nutritional levels?

Everywhere we look we are being told that we need more Omega 3, but this blanket statement is not so helpful. Omega 3 is an umbrella term for a variety of essential fatty acids (‘EFA’s’) – so called because our bodies cannot make them. It is essential that they are taken in through our diet. The term omega 3 covers both the shorter-chain alpha lipoic acid (ALA), which can be found in the oils of hemp, flax and chia seeds, as well as the longer chain oils, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in algae, fish and sea creatures.

The Health Benefits of EPA and DHA

EPA and DHA are well known for their positive health effects on the brain, vision, nervous system, emotional well-being, joints, heart and cardiovascular system, liver, weight loss, period pains, in pregnancy and also on the inflammatory response.

ALA Needs to be Converted to EPA and DHA

ALA is a precursor to these longer-chain EFA’s. It needs to go through lengthy conversions in the body before it can be turned into EPA and DHA and then be used in the same way. It is now well-known that the body’s ability to make these conversions is not very effective in most people – so the actual amounts of long-chain fats produced from ALA is not very high.

For a long time people thought that the body easily converted between the two (ALA to EPA and DHA) and the idea of getting omega 3 from oils such as hemp and flax was heavily promoted. This is a big part of the reason that chia seeds originally became so popular, as along with linseeds they have a lot of ALA, more than hemp.

Vegetarians and Vegan may alternately consider algae supplements for their EPA and DHA, and more on this later. But many other fish eating people still believe that they may be getting their extra omega 3 from a hemp oil or linseed oil. It is important for all to know the difference.

Health & lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, caffeine, stress, a poor diet or infections are thought to decrease the body’s ability to make these conversions. In addition genetic factors can also play a role, leaving many people less able to make these incredibly important EFA’s. There are several primary factors that influence the conversion:

1) Genetic variations in the genes (FADS1 and FADS2) that encode the enzymes involved in this conversion, delta-5 desaturase (D5D) and delta-6 desaturase (D6D).

2) Alterations of D5D and D6D activity are associated with disease, for example with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation (interestingly as we are discussing anti-inflammatory nutrients) and tumours.

3) Having optimal amounts of all of the necessary co-factors for the conversion; zinc, magnesium, selenium, vitamin B complex and vitamin C.

4) ALA omega 3 oils are in competition with omega 6 oils for the same enzymes, and so a diet high in omega 6 can reduce the amount of ALA being converted.

5) High amounts of trans-fat, alcohol and caffeine can have a detrimental affect on the role of delta-6 desaturase.

The Benefits of a Fish Oil

Not everybody likes to eat fish and those who do eat oily fish are being advised to limit the amounts they consume, because it is in the fat tissue of marine animals that contaminants such as mercury and other industrial pollutants are deposited. NHS guidelines recommend that any women who may become pregnant in the future should limit their oily fish consumption to two portions a week, which is also the recommended minimum amount required to get enough omega 3. Also tinned tuna doesn’t contain very much omega 3 as it gets lost in the canning process. It doesn’t count as a source.

This makes a clean and pure EPA & DHA supplement, made from sardine and anchovy the most sustainable of the oily fish, an excellent choice. All the health benefits of fatty acid nutrition without the worry of accumulated toxins. By supplying the body with ready-formed omega 3, you negate the need for the wasteful process of conversion, and supply the body directly with what it needs.

Nutritionist’s Recommendation

Most nutritionists recommend healthy people consume somewhere between 200 -500 mg of DHA and EPA per day, although there is no set approved amount and some recommend up to 1000 mg per day (of each) to people with particular and severe health issues.

Going for Algae

Sometime people ask if they can eat the algae itself instead, for example Spirulina. Opinions seems to be mixed as to how much EPA and DHA is contained in Spirulina as well as other blue green algae. There is some, but levels may be negligible. Wakame, an edible seaweed, does contain some EPA, but at much lower levels than fish. It does not contain any DHA.

Increased Needs: Working with Health Concerns

Aside from diet; health issues such as fighting an infection or systemic inflammation in the body mean that more EPA is needed, resulting in turnover being higher than it would otherwise be. Most health conditions are now thought to contain an inflammatory element; whether it is an issue such as asthma or menstrual cramps. In other words many, many people could benefit from increasing their intake of EPA and DHA.

By Katie Clare

Katie Clare is a registered nutritional therapist – She runs courses on food fermentation, and is available for consultations, on nutrition and wellbeing in Islington, where she is a resident nutritional therapist at Neal’s Yard Therapy Rooms. She also has a virtual practice and is available via Skype. Katie is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and registered with the Complimentary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).

The website of Katie Clare

With many thanks to Katie for this enlightening article. When it comes to Essential Fatty Acid supplements you can see that there are many options available. For example with Fish Oils, which are very popular for Omega 3 intake, one can have whole body oils (without livers) or oils such as cod liver which will include levels of vitamin A. One needs to ascertain the levels of the all important EPA and DHA when selecting a supplement too.

Then there are the increasingly popular Krill Oil supplements which not only provide excellent levels of Omega 3 but also naturally occurring nutrients such as astaxanthin, choline and inositol; plus krill oils have a beneficial and natural ‘phosholipid’ action. We previously provided in depth articles on fish and krill oils, plus those suitable for vegetarians and vegans such as flaxseed oils. The links to these articles are below and the information provided goes in to more details in regards to Omega 3 and current permitted health claims.

If you want to be alerted by email when a new post is published simply add your email address in the ‘Get The Latest Post By Email’ in the right-hand column. If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.

Amanda Williams, Cytoplan Ltd, 01684 310099


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Last updated on 26th November 2014 by


2 thoughts on “Essential Fatty Acids – Omega 3 & Conversion Efficiency Inhibitions

    1. Hi Supta – Omega 3 fatty acids are not medicines but food substances that help stabilise membranes in the body and reduce inflammation. By virtue of this action they can be very helpful in reducing pain and inflammation in joints . The benefit will be dose related and other factors such as diet, bodyweight and exercise level can also impact on how much benefit is derived from taking omega 3 fatty acids. But if you want more help please do email me directly

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