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Flax Oil Not as Effective as Fish Oil at Increasing Key Omega-3 Levels

A new study published in the September 2008 issue of the journal Nutrition found that alphalinoleic acid (ALA) from flax oil increases blood omega-3 levels, but eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from fish oil is more effective.

ALA, EPA and DHA are all considered omega-3 fatty acids. Their health benefits have been widely studied, particularly with respect to heart and brain health. EPA and DHA are considered more beneficial but are also harder to get since they come primarily from fish, which most people don't get enough of in their diets.

ALAs are from plant sources and therefore easier to get. However, your body needs to convert these omega-3s into EPA and DHA before they can be used. During this conversion process, some of the potency is lost. This recent study illustrates just how much.

In the study, researchers from the University of North Dakota and the University of Manitoba split 62 firefighters into 3 groups. The first received ALA rich flax oil (1.2g, 2.4g or 3.6g), the second received EPA and DHA rich fish oil (.6g or 1.2g) and the third group received sunflower oil as a control. Firefighters were used in the study because they are exposed to high risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

The researchers took blood samples every other week for 12 weeks to measure the participant's omega-3 levels. At the conclusion of the study period they found that the flax and fish oil groups both saw an increase in EPA omega-3s, although the increase was greater in the fish oil group. Only the fish oil group saw an increase in DHA.

According to the results, participants receiving 1.2g of flax oil saw a 14% increase in EPA. Those who took 2.4g saw a 32% increase and those who took 3.6g saw a 55% increase. None of the groups experienced an increase in DHA.

Those who were given a fish oil supplement saw a more significant increase of EPA as well as an increase in DHA. Participants who took .6g saw and 85% increase in EPA and 19% increase in DHA while those who received 1.2g had a 112% increase in EPA and a 40% increase in DHA.

These findings are important because they show that while ALA omega-3s are much easier to get from food (since they are abundant in plant oils, nuts and some vegetables), they aren't as effective in boosting omega-3 levels as EPA and DHA that come from fish.

To skip the conversion process and get more of the most important omega-3s (EPA and DHA) you may want to consider a high quality fish oil supplement. Look for one that's certified for purity and potency so you can be sure it doesn't contain dangerous contaminants and will deliver at least 650mg of combined EPA and DHA.
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