ALA vs DHA Omega-3 Fatty Acids

ALA vs DHA omega 3s variety of sources spread over a gray background

What are Omega-3 fatty acids?

Welcome to the world of Omegas! It is beautiful here. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. These amazing nutrients have powerful health boosting power while deficiencies are linked to heart disease, inflammation, cancer, and depression to name a few.

The main essential nutrients we will discuss here will be:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid
  • Docosahexaenoic acid

First, the Basics

Are y’all ready for some biochem? Haha! Don’t worry, it won’t get too intense. So, there are 2 types of fatty acids depending on how many carbon atoms are bonded with hydrogen atoms.  They are known as saturated and unsaturated fats. You can take the unsaturated variety and then divide it into mono and polyunsaturated fats. 

These polyunsaturated ones are known as PUFAs. Who doesn’t love a great mnemonic right? PUFAs are missing more than one pair of hydrogen atoms. When they lose these, this results in a bend at the double bonds. This basically just means that they can occupy more space on a cellular level and that’s why this type of fat can be liquid at room temperature. Now the PUFAs can be divided into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. If this just wet your biochemistry appetite…please see this very scientific and comprehensive article.

Potentially the most dangerous substance in our modern diet.

omega-3 fatty acids are not found here in processed food aisle at grocery store

I should take the opportunity to mention here that the most ubiquitous toxin in our western diet today has got to be the omega-6 linoleic acid or LA (some say it is worse than sugar if you can believe that). It wreaks havoc on our cellular health and contributes to almost every chronic disease. It will also elicit mean inflammatory responses which can really show up in the linings of your vessels and lead to cardiovascular disease. 

While it is recommended to get some omega-6 fats, we are getting such a distorted amount today. It is estimated by observational studies that we are consuming up to 90% more of this omega-6/LA than necessary which is mind blowing but also important to understand. 

You can even be consuming a lot more LA than you need if you have a healthy diet. It is very high in oils and even in nuts. One more piece of the puzzle is understanding how adding excess omega-3 without reducing the omega-6 intake will also not work. Since they are both PUFAs your body won’t pick and choose which ones to use. If you consume a lot of omega-3 they could cause damage similar to that of LA. They actually both break down into advanced lipoxidation end products which are very difficult for the body to deal with.

The bottom line is, It’s important to limit your processed food intake as almost all of them have an unhealthy quantity of LA. Also, avoid restaurant food if at all possible for the same reason. It’s a bummer…I know! But, limiting your intake of this dangerous ingredient will help reduce the stress on your body and make you a healthier and happier person all around. 

Important Roles for Cellular health

Omega-3 fats play a crucial role in how our cells function. The membranes around our cells and mitochondria are made up of lipids (and some other stuff…lol). The food that we eat is what provides the materials that are then assembled into our cells. This makes the food we eat very important. Again, dietary intake of this detrimental omega 6 oil is extremely easy to get if you eat at virtually any restaurant or eat any packaged food. My recommendation is to try to get your LA below 7g/day. You can use nutrition trackers to see how much you’re consuming. Cronometer is a free one!

ALA – Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Alpha-linolenic acid is one of the essential fatty acids meaning you must get this through your diet and that your body is not capable of manufacturing it internally. Other omegas like EPA and DHA can be synthesized in your body if you have enough key enzymes (and not too much LA…I know, I know). ALA is the most common omega-3. You can find this in plant based foods so no need to eat meat to get a dose of this healthy nutrient. 

We all need DHA in order to be healthy. Now, if you eat very little processed food and consume very little LA, you shouldn’t need to supplement with omega-3 fats because the conversion of ALA to DHA  is very effective under these circumstances in the human body. 

Here’s the bad news, the rate of conversion to EPA and DHA is very poor when we consume too much omega-6 LA (which most of us do, as previously stated). I think it is still a good idea to consume foods with ALA and even supplement with it. If you choose to supplement with this, I primarily recommend this to calm and repair leaky gut. It is also great for people with a variety of autoimmune conditions. In both scenarios, I suggest taking it on an empty stomach 2 hours prior to or after eating. I’ve used this clinically to simply coat the intestinal lining and I am not looking for a great amount of absorption.   

EPA – Omega-3 Fatty Acids

In addition to DHA, EPA is responsible for lowering inflammation which is a major contributing factor in most chronic diseases. I find myself addressing inflammation on an almost daily basis with the people I come into contact with. Recent studies have shown that dietary fish oils that are rich in eicosapentaenoic acid lower the content of arachidonic acid which is highly inflammatory.  Inflammation has so many causes (stress being one) but this omega-3 is WONDERFUL at keeping inflammation down. It is also very important for long term heart and cardiovascular health.

EPA has been linked to lowered risks for heart disease. One study found that a form of EPA lowered cardiovascular risks by 25%, which is comparable to studies on statins. This study used a daily dose of 3-4 grams which is MUCH higher than what most people get and what most practitioners recommend.

DHA – Omega-3 Fatty Acids

DHA is so much more than a fuel for your body. This type of omega-3 is so critical for our cells to be able to repair. It stimulates factors that regulate cell oxidation and detoxification. It can increase proteins that increase the amount of antioxidant enzymes (pretty awesome huh?). This is specifically wonderful for the brain but obviously important for good health in general. 

The health benefits of DHA are astronomical. During a systematic review of this nutrient, I have found that it is beneficial for:

  • Heart health
  • Cardiovascular health (like coronary heart disease)
  • Decreasing the risk of heart disease and the risk of heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Brain function
  • Brain development (in utero and early childhood)
  • Cognitive development (in children)
  • Pregnant women
  • Nervous system health
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Eye health and skin health
  • Red blood cells
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (and other inflammatory conditions)
  • Immune health
  • Decreasing the overall risk of death
  • And many more…

Now you can see how critical these nutrients are for optimal human health. These types of omega-3 fats along with vitamin D have such a broad reach of positive effects that it’s difficult to not want to increase your dha intake today. Isn’t that great news?!

How can I tell if I’m deficient?

You can be deficient with your DHA levels if you exhibit some of the following symptoms. You could also have an imbalance between your omega-6 and omega-3 ratio (the omega-3 should be much higher ideally).

  • “Chicken skin” – dry, flaky skin on back of arms
  • Fatigue
  • Allergies
  • Poor attention
  • Dry eyes
  • Lowered immunity – easily susceptible to infections that are going around
  • Learning difficulties
  • Dandruff
  • Brain fog 
  • Numbness/tingling

I find that monitoring your body is usually a good way to know if you are on the right track with your health goals. Sometimes that isn’t the case or sometimes you just want a concrete answer (we all know people like this…lol). If you want to get down to the nitty gritty, you can just have your DHA concentrations checked with lab work. It may be a good idea to do this to monitor your overall health and also if you are on one of the vegan diets and haven’t supplemented in a while. 

Make sure to consult with a qualified healthcare provider on the optimal ranges for you and your goals. Sometimes what we find online isn’t ideal or optimal but rather just a level that keeps us from being diagnosed with a disorder. 

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Food Sources of Healthy Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Plant Sources:

Remember to use these plant foods to increase your ALA intake.

chia and flax seeds in farmhouse style containers for ala vs aha omega-3 fatty acids
  • Hemp seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax seeds 
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Plant oils (be careful here because some of them are dangerous for your health)
  • Olive oil (also use caution)

I like to mix some of these ala-rich foods and seeds into smoothies or smoothie bowls…DELISH!

Be very careful when choosing oils. The type of omega you may be getting could be the detrimental omega-6 linoleic acid even when using plant-based sources. Dr. Mercola has written about this and has a chart showing the content of LA in each oil. To summarize…the oils that have the lowest linoleic acid percentages are tallow, ghee, coconut oil, and butter.  These are great for cooking! Also, use caution with olive and avocado oil as they are rarely pure.

Make sure to avoid seed oils, vegetable oils, and canola oil. The worst oils are safflower, grape seed, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, soybean, rice bran, peanut, and canola oil if at ALL possible.

Animal Sources

omega-3 fatty acids sources that come from meats
  • Fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies are excellent choices.
  • Any cold-water fish like mackerel and herring
  • Oily fish
  • Animal fats- preferably grass-fed animal products

Animals with multiple stomachs can convert high LA fat because of the bacteria in their digestive process (TMI right?). Here are some examples of good animal foods that fit this interesting but health benefiting criteria.

  • Cows
  • Buffalo
  • Sheep
  • Lamb
  • Goats
  • Elk
  • Deer

So, basically try to avoid chicken and pork. Hope that makes it much simpler!

Making the transition

If you find yourself in the situation of needing to make some big dietary changes in regards to this content, please know that it will take some patience. It actually takes 5-6 years to fully cleanse LA out of your cells. You will physically notice benefits much earlier than this though! During this process, you may want to increase your carnosine intake by eating animal protein or by supplementation https://amzn.to/3seQMGZ. This will help to reduce oxidative damage caused by LA as it moves out of the body.

Dietary supplements

Fish oil supplements arranged in the shape of a fish foromega-3 fatty acids sources of DHA

Algae-based supplements

These are beneficial for those that choose a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. Just make sure to get them from a non-GMO source. I also like these because this is what fish eat and they can help you to avoid toxins that you may find in fish sources.

I’ve also got my eye out for botanical stearidonic acid as a potentially sustainable omega-3 source that has a high conversion rate to EPA. It skips one of the limiting enzyme steps that makes the conversion process inefficient in patients with poor diets. 

Plant Based Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These are just YUMMY! A great option for picky kids or adults for that matter! I’ve only tried this flavor but let me know if any of you try another flavor because they all look incredibly good. I’ve used other plant based liquids in the past and most people had trouble consuming them so this solved that problem for me.

Fish oil supplements as an Omega-3 supplement

I like to use this one from life extension. It has a pretty high dose of both EPA and DHA which is great. It will give you the most important omega-3s even if you don’t like to eat fish.  I actually have given this to my little guy for years and he chew them up like candy. Haha! 

Krill oil as a DHA supplement

This is highly recommended because of the natural astaxanthin content. All omegas can get rancid in the system once ingested so this is a pretty neat feature to keep that from happening. You can see that the dose is much lower but it is a superior product especially when you are eliminating dietary LA.  

Final Thoughts

Give some of these a try and see what you like the best! I recommend following the instructions on the bottle unless you are looking for a specific therapeutic benefit from these nutrients. If you’re in that situation, please consult with a qualified health practitioner for further instruction.

Well, this is a HUGE topic and one that if well understood will serve you and your family for years and years to come. Cheers to a much healthier body and understanding of arguably the most important nutrient and toxin in our diets today!


The entire contents of this website are based upon the opinions of Dr. Bri, unless otherwise noted. Individual articles are based upon the opinions of the respective author, who retains copyright as marked.

The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of its authors. We encourage you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional. 

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