Common questions that I am asked regarding supplements often have to do with the essential fatty acids (EFAs), specifically the Omega 3 fatty acids. These questions typically boil down to "Should I be taking an Omega 3 supplement?" and "Which is better, Flax oil or Fish oil?" For answers to these questions lets a take a closer look at these important nutrients.
First of all it is important to understand what is meant by the term "essential fatty acid." Any nutrient given the name "essential" means that that nutrient must be part of the diet. It means that the only way our body receives it is by ingesting it in some form. This is distinct from "non-essential nutrients" which are nutrients that our body can create from other nutrient forms. For example, if the body need more of the amino acid tyrosine, it can make more by converting the amino acid phenylalanine into tyrosine. Therefore tyrosine is a "non-essential" amino acid. The same can be said of fats. Our body can create certain fats, but can't create others. The Omega 3 fatty acids are essential. Our body has no way of making them so we must get them from our diet.
Let me say a quick word about fatty acids. We use the term EFA or Omega 3 fatty acid all the time but what exactly are fatty acids? Simply put, fatty acids are building blocks of fats and oils. The types of fatty acids found in oils depends on the source of the oil (olives, fish, sunflower seeds, flax seeds etc). All oils are made up of many types of fatty acids, but some fatty acids are more prevalent than others in the oil. High levels of the Omega 3 type of fatty acids are found in fish oil and flax oil and are therefore, the best sources of these essential nutrients.
So because we have to get the Omega 3 fatty acids from our diet, what is the best form? To answer this question, let's look briefly at what the Omega 3 fatty acids do in our body.
Omega 3 fatty acids are used by the body primarily to reduce inflammation, improve blood flow, and promote healing. They do this because they are converted into compounds called Prostaglandins. The type of prostaglandins formed from the Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and extremely beneficial to healing the body. However, not all Omega 3 fatty acids are created equal. The type of Omega 3 from Flax oil, called Alpha Linoleic Acid, is not converted easily into the beneficial prostaglandins, but the types of Omega 3's found in fish oils are. Therefore the body uses the fish oils much better than it does the flax oils when it comes to creating beneficial prostaglandins.
Fish oil supplements vary in their source. Most fish oils come from the bodies of sardines, mackerel, salmon, cod, and tuna. There is also oil that comes from the liver of cod. Cod liver oil is unique in that it contains plenty of Omega 3 fatty acids along with high levels of vitamin A. Vitamin A is very difficult to get in our diet so to make sure my patients are receiving adequate amounts of vitamin A, I recommend they take a daily dose of cod liver oil. In doing so I know they are getting both the Omega 3s and enough vitamin A.
Omega 3 fatty acids come in many shapes and sizes. In practice I have seen their importance in healing the body, but only if they come from sources that we can use easily. With so many choices on the market, I want my patients to be taking the best and most easily used forms of these important nutrients. Since the Omega 3's found in fish oils are more utilizable, in my opinion they are the best source and should be used over flax oil to promote health.