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Difference Between Omega-3 & Omega-3 Ethyl Ester

By M. Gideon Hoyle

Omega-3 fatty acids are naturally occurring substances that your body relies on to support human growth and development, as well as several key aspects of your everyday health. Omega-3-acid ethyl esters are substances derived from certain types of omega-3 fatty acids. Doctors use a prescription form of these esters to lower your blood levels of harmful, fat-like substances called triglycerides.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There are three basic types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid, also called EPA; docosahexaenoic acid, also called DHA; and alpha-linolenic acid, also called ALA. You can get EPA and DHA from ocean-based sources that include fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and sardines. ALA comes from a variety of plant-based sources, including soybeans, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and oils derived from these foods. While you need omega-3s for purposes that include normal brain function, your body can’t make them, and they must come from food sources or supplements.

Ethyl Esters

Omega-3-acid ethyl esters, marketed in the U.S. under the brand name Lovaza, are made by concentrating EPA and DHA, according to Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute. They belong to a class of drugs known as lipid-regulating agents, or anti-lipemics. While scientists don't know precisely how omega-3-acid ethyl esters achieve their effects, they seem to lower your levels of blood-borne triglycerides by decreasing your liver’s production of both triglycerides and other types of fat. They are available in the form of liquid-filled capsules, which you will typically take once or twice a day, depending on your doctor’s instructions.

Differences in Usage

While Lovaza is a prescription medication, you can get omega-3 fatty acids from a wide variety of nonprescription supplements, including fish oil, flaxseed oil and ground flaxseeds. Also, while Lovaza is used for a single, specific purpose, omega-3 fatty acids have a number of potential purposes, including lowering your overall risks for heart disease, lowering your blood pressure, diminishing the effects of diabetes and increasing your blood levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol. Additional proposed, but unverified, uses of omega-3 fatty acids include treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, bipolar disorder and depression.

Dosing Differences

Your dosages of omega-3-acid ethyl esters will be determined by your doctor. Once your doctor makes his determination, you will need to follow his instructions precisely and strictly avoid taking too little or too much of this medication. Fish oil can contain varying amounts of EPA and DHA. For this reason, dosages are typically determined by a product’s specific content of these omega-3s, rather than the sheer amount of fish oil you must consume. Plant-based products also contain varying amounts of omega-3s. Ask your doctor for specific dosing recommendations for both fish oil and plant sources.

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