Omega-3 from Plant Sources: Is it Enough?

Huge and still growing body of literature and research suggested that omega-3 fatty acid is beneficial to various medical illnesses. Omega-3, a polyunsaturated fat, can be found in two main sources, from marine sources and the plant food sources.

Plant food sources advocated by many can provide the ALA while the marine sources such as fish and calamari can provide the body the DHA and EPA. And with the swarm of popular dietary supplements, many have been confused.

Now, plant advocates are asking, will omega-3 from plant sources be enough? Let’s examine, compare and contrast these different sources.

Fatty Acids 101

Fatty acids are chain of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms with carboxyl group on its one end. The body benefits from long chain omega-3 EPA and DHA but it is possible to synthesize EPA and DHA from the ALA. See the chart below:

eicosanoids

Research though indicated that ALA conversion to EPA and DHA is limited. Less than 5% only of ALA can be converted to EPA. For DHA, only .5% of ALA can be converted to it.

These fatty acids have numerous body functions such as blood clotting control, cell membrane building in the human brain, etc.

Studies that highlighted the omega-3 potential in helping certain diseases include:

Omega-3 for Alzheimer’s.

In a study led by Marianne Schulzberg from Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, it has been found that omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent and reverse the Alzheimer’s progression by stimulating the newly identified resolution pathways.

Omega-3 for blindness.

A study from the Harvard Medical School focusing on the age related macular degeneration or AMD suggested that omega 3 can help cut damage to the blood vessels which damages retina.

Omega-3 for better brain health.

In a study of James Potalla from the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls and Health Diagnostic Laboratory, Inc., in Richmond, Va., it suggests that omga-3 consumption is linked to increased brain volume that may mean better brain health and lesser chances of brain shrinking leading to neurodegenerative diseases at old age.

Omega-3 for type II diabetes.

In a study published of Jyrki K. Virtanen, PhD, adjunct professor of nutritional epidemiology at the University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio, and colleagues, it is said that a lower long term risk for type two diabetes can be due to higher level of omega-3 fatty acid in the blood.

Omega-3 for sleep.

IN an Oxford University study led by Paul Montgomery, Ph.D., children who took omega-3 supplements for 16 weeks have one hour longer sleep each night with fewer waking episodes.

Omega-3 for the heart.

In a Danish study, it is said that young women who eats little to no fish and have low intake of omega-3 have an increased risk of CVD while those who have more omega-3 in diets may have reduced their risk of developing CVD.

Omega-3 and depression.

Researchers from the National Institute of Health, the University of Delaware and the Eastern Virginia Medical School have study which supported the hypothesis that the omega-3 fatty acids have a protective effect against depressive symptoms particularly among women.

Omega-3 in Plants

Omega-3 from plants is in the name of the ALA or the alpha linolenic acid, the linoleic acid on the other hand is of different spectrum, the omega-6. Omega-3 ALA can only be found in a handful of plants. Flaxseeds are one known source of the nutrient.

Flaxseeds have outer shell that ca resist digestion, ground flaxseeds on the other hand are better recommended. Flaxseed may have the chance to go rancid so keeping it in the refrigerator is the best chance to make it stay. Flaxseed is mostly incorporated in diet through sprinkling in smoothies and can be a good replacer for eggs in baking.

Chia, algae and hemp are other good sources of omega-3. Hemp and Chia can provide the body the ALA. Walnuts and soy foods can also provide the little amount of ALA with the green vegetables although these cannot meet the ALA that the body needs.

Vegan diet which has very low fat content may have the problem of falling short from the ALA needs of the body. To meet ALA needs, the following is recommended:

ALA

Health benefits associated with the ALA includes the help it can lend to cardiovascular diseases. Protection in neuro-health, can counter inflammation and autoimmune disease. Before the ALA though gets to be used by the body, it gets to be converted first to EPA. The conversion may involve the delta6-desatruase enzyme to form stearidonic acid or SDA.

Omega-3 in Marine Life

The marine sources of omega-3 are the main supply of marine oils that are widely publicized and studied all over the world. Omega-3 from marine sources such as calamari oil and fish oil contains two most important PUFAS, the DHA or the (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).

EPA and DHA contain 6 and 5 double bonds on their long structural chain thus they are highly unsaturated fats. Both performs an important role it the body.

Hundreds of studies suggested that DHA and EPA may help provide benefits over diseases such as cancer, asthma, and depression, cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune diseases, arthritis and ADHD. Most of these diseases have common factor of inflammation. But since many people today are not eating much of fish nor other marine sourced diet, experts suggest supplements to take in the gap in the diet.

Is DHA and EPA more essential?

In many general beliefs, it is said that EPA and DHA needs can be met by the plant sources, however the above number tells otherwise. A theory why there seems to be a problem in ALA conversion mechanism is the human ancestors have a primary carnivorous diet which makes the body not so efficient in the ALA to EPA and DHA conversion.

ALA supplements taken from plant sources such as flax oil are unable to raise plasma DHA levels among the vegans or the plant consumers. Experts say that unless vegans have algae-derived DHA source, then they can fill that gaping hole in their diet. The DHA cannot be synthesized by the body, thus the need to derive it from other dietary sources such as calamari, fish and krill.

DHA and EPA are PUFAS that were subjects of many funded studies. Past studies suggested the relationship of the two in helping conditions such as Cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, depression, etc. One related thing that may prove that DHA can certainly affect bodily functions include the fact that 60% of the dry matter in the brain is lipid and DHA is the most abundant fatty acids in the human brain. This led to relational studies between the benefits of omega-3 in easing several brain and neuro-related conditions.

EPA on the other hand is the omega-3 fatty acid that is known as anti-inflammatory and has the ability to interfere with the metabolism of the omega-6 AA. Both have widely studied benefits in the medical field.

However, due to dietary changes that the history has induced the mankind into, the DHA status of most people turned into subclinical deficiency. This deficiency led to the rise of various diseases.

So is plant sourced omega-3 enough?

Although plant sourced omega-3 may yield numerous benefits, it is still more advisable to supplement it with the marine resource omega-3 supplements, calamari for an instant. There is a well documented benefit of the marine sourced omega-3.

The numerous literature of the omega-3 studies have mainly used fish oil and other marine life resource making it far superior than plant sourced omega-3 supplements. These puts fish oil, calamari and krill supplements in better light due to its backups.

Flax and Chia may need more study still. And basing in the way the body converts the ALA to EPA and DHA, there is still a long way to go before it gets a yes from experts over calamari or fish oil for example.

 featured image: Jonathan Kos-Read

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