Essential fatty acids, or omega-3’s and omega 6’s as they are also known, are necessary for a number of different functions in the body. They are labeled “essential” because the body cannot synthesize them from other substances, and therefore must be obtained from the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in large quantities in fish oil, flax seed oil, chia seeds, and walnuts (and others less so) are well-known for their health-promoting properties. On the other hand, omega-6’s, found in corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower oil, etc. are seen to hinder health (when eaten large quantities), despite being necessary. The key is to have a proper balance between the two; and research supports the best intake to be anywhere from a 3:1 to a 5:1 ratio of omega-6’s to omega 3’s. Unfortunately, the average American consumes a 25:1 ratio of 6’s to 3’s. [As an aside, the omega-6 fat known as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) found in black currant seed, evening primrose, and borage seed oil can be quite beneficial to one’s health.]
Some of the health-giving attributes of omega-3’s include the following: regulation of inflammation, alleviation of pain, prevention of excessive blood clotting, maintenance of the integrity of cell membranes, reduction in elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, optimal fetal development, reduced cardiovascular risk factors, anti-cancer properties, better cognitive function, reduced incidence of depression, among many others.
The way that omega-3’s produce their health-giving effects is through the conversion of a substance called eicosapentaenioc acid (EPA) into eicosanoids. Specific eicosanoids, known as prostaglandins and leukotrienes are ultimately responsible for the beneficial effects.
As mentioned above, omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from both vegetarian and non-vegetarian sources. Despite the obvious differences, there’s more you need to know to determine which one will be effective for you. So even though both sources are technically omega-3 oils, there is still a difference.
Again, the health-promoting biochemicals that are produced from omega 3’s originate directly from EPA. Omega-3 fats from fish oil actually contain EPA in them naturally. On the other hand, vegetarian sources of omega-3 fats do not actually contain EPA. Instead the body must convert the components contained in those (vegetarian) sources into EPA. Here is an example of how it works. Flax oil contains something called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which then needs to be converted to stearidonic acid. Stearidonic acid then gets converted to eicosatetraenioc acid, which then finally gets converted into EPA. Then of course, the EPA gets converted into the beneficial eicosanoids. Remember, these eicosanoids (certain prostaglandins and leukotrienes) are the biochemicals that exert the anti-inflammatory, etc. responses that we hope to achieve from ingesting the omega-3’s in the first place.
The problem that can result with having to make all these conversions (ALA to EPA to prostaglandins) is that those processes can be impeded by various things. Essentially the main issue arises in the initial conversion of ALA. This step will be impeded or blocked in the presence of alcohol, trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils), and/or deficiencies in vitamin B6, magnesium, and/or zinc. Considering that magnesium and zinc tend to be the most deficient minerals in people, it’s quite probable that many people are not reaping the full benefits of omega 3’s from vegetarian sources. Recall fish oil on the other hand already contains EPA, and therefore does not require the conversions that vegetarian sources do. As a result, one is much more likely to benefit from taking fish oil. It is certainly possible to attain all the benefits from flax seed oil (and other vegetarian sources) as you would fish oil, assuming the “impeding factors” are a non-issue.
When determining which oil is best for my patients, I use in-office procedures that include specific types of muscle testing, palpatory pain threshold levels, and range of motion tests.
Dr. Robert D’Aquila – NYC Chiropractor – Applied Kinesiology