There’s a lot of confusion about omega fatty acids, so I thought I’d go over some common questions about fish oil, flax oil, and the different types of omegas.
What are Omega fatty acids?
Omega fatty acids are essential fats that cannot be manufactured in the human body and must be obtained through foods or supplements. They are crucial for heart health, brain function, and reducing inflammation in the body. There are a variety of omega fatty acids, the most well known being omega 3 and omega 6. Omega fatty acids are common in the American diet, since they are largely supplied by vegetable oils. Omega 3s on the other hand are more difficult to come by, since they are present in fewer sources, most commonly fatty fish, fish oil supplements, or flax and chia seeds. The recommendation for the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids are 1:2,but in the standard American diet, that ratio is more like 1:20. That makes omega 3 supplements much more important for most people than a omega 3, 6, 9 supplement.
EPA, DHA, and ALA
EPA, DHA, and ALA are all forms of omega 3 fatty acids.
EPA and DHA are the forms of omega 3 found in fish oils. EPA is best known for its help in reducing inflammation, lowering triglycerides, and aiding in heart health. DHA is a structural fat that makes up much of the brain, eyes, and nervous system and is crucial for brain function. ALA, or alpha linoleic acid, is the vegetarian form of omega 3, found in flax and chia seeds and oil. ALA needs to be converted into EPA and DHA in the body (when it’s fish oil, the fish has already converted it in their bodies), although the ratio of conversion is not very efficient and can vary widely. Because of this, the serving size of flax oil compared to a fish oil concentrate is much greater, 1 tbs. per pound of body weight compared to 2 or 3 pills of a high potency fish oil concentrate (like Solagar’s Omega 950).
For most people I would recommend fish oil over flax, because of the conversion ratio and how important DHA is to brain health. That being said, I take flax instead of fish oil since I’m a vegetarian. Flax is also a much more natural form of omega 3, and can be unprocessed and organic. Flax oil also contains lignans, types of phytoestrogens which have been correlated to a reduced breast cancer risk (possibly colon cancer as well). Lignans may also help with reducing menopausal symptoms.
I also wanted to further highlight DHA, and say that it is absolutely crucial for fetal brain and eye development. I’d venture to say that every pregnant woman should be taking DHA. There are also vegetarian DHA supplements that are sourced from algae if that’s a concern.
Things to look for in a supplement
Fish oil supplements vary greatly. It’s important to look for a quality brand which is ensured to be free of contaminants. Make sure the fish oil you’re taking says either it’s molecularly distilled or has been tested to ensure that it is free of mercury, lead, and other contaminants.
Another thing to check are the amounts of EPA and DHA contained per pill. Concentrations of EPA/DHA vary widely, where one product may need several pills to equal one pill of a fish oil of a higher concentration. The highest amount of EPA/DHA per pill that we have in the store is Solgar’s Omega 950, which rivals the concentration (in fact it’s higher!) than the prescription fish oil Lovaza.
When it comes to fish oil supplements, it’s all about the amounts of EPA and DHA, so I see no reason why anyone would ever take one that would be at a lower concentration where they would need to take more pills per day.