Our understanding of the significant health benefits associated with fish oil supplementation has come a long way since scientists’ original discovery, back in the 1950s, that cod liver oil was a rich source of health-giving fatty acids. Researchers have since moved onto the next phase of discovery – investigating which particular elements within omega-3 fish oil are biologically most active (and, as a result, more beneficial for the human body), leading to a greater understanding of the role of omega-3s in health and disease.

Experts believe that the average high-fat ‘Western’ diet is a major factor in the development of certain health problems. Indeed, the early evidence only really looked at fat as a whole, rather than the different types of fat in the diet. Once fat has been broken down into the different fatty acids it appears that it is not the concentration of fat in the diet that is linked with disease, but the type of fat. It is becoming increasingly clear that ‘bad’ fats – saturated and trans fats – tend to have a detrimental effect upon our health, whilst ‘good’ fats – such as polyunsaturated fatty acids – actually lower the risk of developing certain types of disease. It makes sense therefore to substitute ‘bad’ fats for ‘good’ fats if we want to maintain good health.

Originally considered a by-product of the fishing industry, fish oils are now widely accepted as extremely beneficial for health with two main omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) responsible for its actions. However, whilst EPA and DHA are both essential for optimal brain function DHA is important in the structure of nerve membranes, with adequate supplies needed during early development. In contrast, whilst EPA plays little or no structural role in the brain, it is essential for the regulation of brain function via the production of the family of anti-inflammatory eicosanoids: prostaglandins, leukotrienes and thromboxanes, whilst also being the precursor to the in vivo formation of DHA. The eicosanoid derivatives of EPA are involved in cognitive function, brain function, mood and regulation of the circulatory system. Based upon this pioneering research, a unique product has been developed – namely, Vegepa from Cambridge biotech company Igennus – which was formulated according to the findings of an eminent British medical doctor and academic researcher Professor Basant Puri of Hammersmith Hospital in London.

Professor Puri began experimenting with the use of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) as a treatment for patients in his care suffering from depression, and experienced such positive clinical findings, that he now prescribes Vegepa on a regular basis – a unique, entirely DHA-free pharmaceutical-grade and molecularly distilled EPA supplement. Puri, an expert in neuro-imaging, argues that because the brain comprises approximately 70% fat, the type of fat we consume plays a major role in the pathophysiology of brain disorders such as depression, ADHD, schizophrenia as well as dementia and other conditions.

Clinical studies on depressed patients suggest that supplementation with ethyl-EPA benefits a range of symptoms of depression. In a study by Professor Malcolm Peet and Professor David Horrobin, patients receiving 1 gram of ethyl-EPA daily experienced significant benefits over the placebo, with improvements seen in all 17 items of the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale; most significant benefits on the scale related to depression, anxiety, sleep, lethargy, libido, and feelings of suicide. [1] EPA’s mood-stabilising properties also make it an effective and well-tolerated intervention in bipolar depression, with benefits on both the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression and the Clinical Global Impression Scale. [2] Indeed several leading clinicians and researchers have successfully treated patients with depression, and even treatment-resistant depression, with remarkable results.

Although the exact mechanism of action of EPA is unknown, explanations for the anti-depressant actions of EPA centre on it modifying the phospholipid layer, which restores the efficacy of electrical messaging and normalises neurotransmitter levels. A side effect of EPA which is likely to be beneficial to depression sufferers is its ability to lower blood triglyceride levels, reduce clotting and lower blood pressure, in light of the increasing evidence suggesting a degree of co-morbidity between depression and cardiovascular disease. [3]

Together, cardiovascular disease and depressive disorders place a substantial economic burden upon the western world. Heart disease and related complications are the UK’s biggest killer, while treatment for these conditions place a substantial economic burden on the already overstretched NHS. Attributable to a range of factors, cardiovascular disease is linked with smoking, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, stress, obesity and diabetes. A more proactive approach to the maintenance of good health might offer an effective solution to this growing crisis.

The benefits of oily fish for cardiovascular health were first revealed when scientists discovered that the Inuit population of Greenland suffered far less from coronary heart disease than their European counterparts despite their high-fat, high-cholesterol diet. Realising that their diet was high in polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, researchers looked further to see if this relationship was mere coincidence, and found that these omega-3s did indeed have a protective effect on cardiovascular health. [4]

EPA has been shown to help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, thereby improving blood flow and guarding against stroke. Its positive effects on blood triglycerides (fatty deposits) make the blood more fluid, and help to prevent the formation of blood clots. EPA has also been shown to lower concentrations of LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol in the blood – the build-up of which can create a plaque which narrows the arteries, leading to heart attacks.

With research now pointing towards fatty acid deficiencies as being an underlying factor in depression, and associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease, highly concentrated fatty acid supplements such as Vegepa are increasingly being used as a viable alternative to conventional medicine. Being a naturally-occurring compound, ethyl-EPA may prove more tolerable to patients than conventional medicines, without the negative side effects of pharmaceutical interventions.


[1] Peet, M., & Horrobin, D.., A dose-ranging study of the effects of ethyl-eicosapentaenoate in patients with ongoing depression despite adequate treatment with standard drugs. Archives of General Psychiatry, (2002) Vol. 59, pp. 913 – 919.

[2] Frangou, S., Lewis, M. & McCrone, P. Efficacy of ethyl-eicosapentaenoic acid in bipolar depression: randomised double-blind placebo-controlled study. (2006). British Journal of Psychiatry, 188, pp. 46-50.

[3] Horrobin, D.F., Bennett, C.N., Depression and bi-polar disorder: relationships to impaired fatty acid and phospholipid metabolism and to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, immunological abnormalities, cancer, ageing, and osteoporosis: possible candidate genes. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids. (1999) 60: pp.217-234.

[4] Dewailly E., Blanchet C., Lemieux S., Sauve L., Gingras S., Ayotte P., Holub B.J. n-3 Fatty acids and cardiovascular disease risk factors among the Inuit of Nunavik. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2001 Oct;74(4):464-73

Author's Bio: 

At Igennus we formulate innovative pharmaceutical-grade natural health supplements, specialising in the production of unique and highly concentrated omega fatty acid nutritional supplements. We are proud to have pioneered a new phase of omega fish oil supplements, consisting of highly concentrated pure EPA formulations, which started with our first patented product Vegepa. Vegepa has been recommended in peer-reviewed scientific journals and used in clinical research, as well as having received worldwide media attention for its clinical efficacy.

Central to our ethos is our commitment to providing natural means of improving health based on scientific research, and promoting the idea of choice of treatment option for various clinical conditions.