Maximizing DHA Intake Supports Weight Loss
Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
DHA is now recognized as a superior nutrient for cardiovascular health1, cognitive function2, memory3, mood4, learning, vision quality5 (including protection against macular degeneration6), bone health7, fertility8, cancer prevention9, and inflammation reduction10. Somewhat less understood is its vital role in supporting your metabolism by directly benefiting the health of your white adipose tissue and regulation of blood sugar. DHA has been shown to assist factors that help you lose weight or maintain a proper weight, while helping offset the stress factors associated with being overweight or gaining weight. In this regard, maximizing your DHA intake can be a powerful tool to assist you in your battle of the bulge.
DHA is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid (22 carbons long with six unsaturated bonds). It is all these unsaturated bonds, starting at the #3 position in the carbon backbone, that give DHA its unprecedented communication ability to regulate your health. It is the prize of all fatty acids and likes to find its way to your cell membranes, wherein its presence is vital to the healthy function of cells. It makes your cell membranes more flexible and electrical, enabling your cells to better control the influx of nutrients and calories, and dampens potential inflammatory reactions that would otherwise stress your cells. It even accumulates in arterial plaque, protecting you from plaque rupturing12, and causing a stroke. This is the structural aspect of DHA. As far as fats are concerned, we are what we eat. Higher DHA intake is associated with healthier cells everywhere in your body. As you consistently consume DHA over time it is gradually built into your cell membranes.
DHA is also a potent gene regulator. Just as the act of exercise turns on genes that are mostly associated with health, so it is that the presence of DHA turns on genes that are mostly associated with health – including healthy metabolism of calories. The ability of nutrition to influence gene regulation in your body is the new frontier of human health. A great example of DHA in action is the understanding of how it regulates your genes in the direction of healthy metabolism.
The health of your white adipose tissue, which is now proven to be a main endocrine organ, is central to all problems regarding your body weight. DHA helps improve the fitness of your fat in a wide variety of important ways.
Studies show that DHA suppresses the accumulation of triglycerides13 within stored fat, meaning it helps prevent your fat cells from expanding in size and reaching the level of malfunction that is typically associated with metabolic disease. One animal study showed that DHA, but not EPA, changed multiple gene signals specifically in abdominal fat so as to prevent abdominal fat cells from expanding in size. Since the size of abdominal fat cells is directly related to disease risk this is an important finding.
Studies show that DHA is associated with smaller abdominal fat mass15 and lower levels of leptin16 (the primary hormone made in white adipose tissue that regulates your energy level). Lowering leptin production within your abdominal fat helps lower the key problem that causes people to overeat – the problem of leptin resistance caused by too much leptin floating around in your blood.
This reduction in fat cell size by DHA promotes better fitness of white adipose tissue by having more cells that are sensitive to insulin17 and because of their smaller size release fewer fatty acids on an ongoing basis, meaning lower triglyceride18 levels in your blood. High triglycerides clog leptin entry into your brain and promote leptin resistance at your blood brain barrier.
Additionally, DHA has been shown to enhance the enzymes19 within white adipose tissue that break down stored fat, helping your body release its fat stores when you are in the process of losing weight. DHA also improves the energy efficiency of the mitochondria20 within fat cells, helping your cells more readily dispose of calories by converting them to energy and heat.
As you gain weight your fat becomes stressed out and starts mounting an immune response. Within your white adipose tissue are cells of your immune system, primarily monocytes and macrophages. Fat cells that are too rapidly expanding in size send out a wake up call to your monocytes. Your monocytes sound the immune response alarm bells by producing a communication signal known as monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 (MCP-1). MCP-1 is like a 911 call for macrophages, calling into action not only the macrophages already in your white adipose tissue but also sending out a call all around your body for more macrophages to come to your fat. These macrophages have the undesirable side effect of producing high levels of inflammation that are quite detrimental to your health.
DHA has been found to reduce the MCP-1 signal while turning off the inflammatory alarm bells23 at the gene level, i.e., turning down the volume on the primary inflammatory gene signal known as NF-kappaB.
While lowering inappropriately high leptin levels, DHA helps boost the production of a different hormone from your fat known as adiponectin24. Adiponectin is the single most important hormone in your body to assist blood sugar regulation, meaning that it regulates the function of insulin within your liver. Low adiponectin promotes insulin resistance and consequent problems with blood sugar regulation.
A study with overweight insulin-resistant women25 compared the effects of weight loss without DHA to the effects of weight loss with DHA. As expected, the process of weight loss produced improved insulin sensitivity, lowered triglycerides, and lowered inflammation. The DHA group, but not the non DHA group, showed increased levels of DHA had been incorporated into the structure of the white adipose tissue and this was consistent with higher levels of adiponectin. A study with cardiovascular patients26 showed that the levels of adiponectin were directly related to how much DHA was in the cell membranes of adipocytes, and lower levels of adiponectin were directly related to the severity of arterial disease. An earlier study with heart patients showed the degree of insulin resistance27 was directly related to their DHA levels.
DHA helps to lower triglyceride levels28 during weight loss, which by definition helps improve leptin resistance at the blood brain barrier (since triglycerides clog the blood brain barrier and help induce leptin resistance). A study with metabolically unfit adults showed that 2 grams of DHA significantly lowered triglycerides and LDL cholesterol over a three month period.
A study with obese young adults showed that when weight loss occurred DHA additionally improved insulin function30. The addition of a fish oil supplement in young overweight men31 found that after four weeks of dieting there was an additional two pounds of weight loss, compared to the weight loss diet not containing fish oil. Rapid weight loss can be metabolically stressful. A study showed that obese women consuming DHA32 avoided the metabolic stress of rapid weight loss.
DHA taken by overweight adults was found to help improve the fitness of their heart33 while they exercised. This helps those who truly need to exercise get a healthier response to exercise, a tool that clearly helps someone move in the right direction.
Collectively, the animal and human studies show that DHA promotes a favorable influence on the primary issues involved with poor fitness of your fat. It lowers inflammation within fat, lowers leptin, boosts adiponectin, promotes smaller size fat cells that are more metabolically fit, and reduces genes that stimulate the production of new fat cells.
All of these benefits are most pronounced when you are actually in the process of weight loss. In combination with the Five Rules of the Leptin Diet and exercise, DHA can make it easier for your body to get in a weight loss mode and it can make your body healthier as you lose weight. This means your white adipose tissue will be healthier so you will be less likely to gain weight back after you lose it.
All of this information is quite interesting because during evolution the intake of saturated fat was often in combination with DHA, implying that DHA acts as a gene regulating buffer to allow the use of saturated fat as a source of dietary fuel. Today, saturated fat is often consumed with refined sugar and no DHA, a disastrous combination that stresses white adipose tissue and readily leads to weight gain and increased risk for disease.
Doses ranging from 1 gram of DHA per day up to 3 or more grams of DHA per day are likely to help. This is different than grams of total fish oil, this is the amount of DHA specifically. A dose of 2 grams per day34 has been shown to boost blood levels of DHA quite significantly. A dose of 3 grams per day35 has been shown to lower inflammation in overweight men. Higher doses would be most helpful to offset more significant metabolic problems and help prevent gaining weight back in a person with a history of weight struggles and yo-yo dieting. A lower dose range is more likely to help protect someone from gaining weight in the first place. If you are struggling with body weight and can’t seem to get on track or stay on track, then one of the first things you should do is maximize your intake of DHA. Unfortunately fatty fish like salmon and tuna should not be consumed on a regular basis due to their mercury and PCB content. The best supplement source of DHA is high quality molecularly distilled DHA that is free of mercury, PCBs, and other toxins.
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