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Omega 3 and Flax

November 8, 2009 Reviewed by Marta 7 Comments
Omega-3 and omega-6 are types of essential fatty acids – meaning we cannot make them on our own and have to obtain them from our diet. Increasingly, ingredients high in fatty acids are cropping up in advanced skincare products. Recently, scientists have discovered more about the optimal balance we need of each type of omega. It seems that most North Americans and Europeans consume far too much omega-6s (from things like soy oil) and not enough of the omega-3s (from fish and things like flax seed). This dietary imbalance may explain the rise of such diseases as asthma, coronary heart disease, many forms of cancer, autoimmunity and neurodegenerative diseases, all of which are believed to stem from inflammation in the body.

I have been consciously making sure I keep up my omega-3 intake. Because fish are practically an extinct species these days, I have gone the seed route with a flax seed oil capsule once a day and a sprinkling of flax seeds on my breakfast granola. And if my beauty products (such as the body butters by Bubalina and Nutra-Lift) boast flax extract, all the better. So far, so good. Not so, says The Economist. I am consuming the wrong type of omega 3. What? I had no idea that not all omega 3s are created equally.

According to The Economist: "Products that contain short-chain omega-3s, such as alpha-linolenic acid from plant oils like flax-seed oil, have not been linked with the strong health benefits shown by fish oils." I realize that most people regard The Economist to be the ultimate snoozepaper, but in our household it is positively revered. So reading this sentence almost sent me running into the arms of Dr Perricone and a plateful of salmon.

Instead, I wound up on the website of Dr Andew Weill and was a little comforted to see that he was sticking to the mantra of simply making sure we consumer more omega 3s than 6s. Plus, flax seed has six times more omega-3 than fish oil. Then, wading through a long entry on Wikipedia I found some information that suggested that The Economist was on to something:

"Currently there are many products on the market which claim to contain health promoting 'omega 3', but contain only α-linolenic acid (ALA), not EPA or DHA. These products contain mainly higher plant oils and must be converted by the body to create DHA and therefore considered less efficient. DHA and EPA are made by microalgae that live in seawater. These are then consumed by fish and accumulate to high levels in their internal organs. If a person has ethical concerns about killing fish, or is concerned about mercury and oceanborne contaminants in fish, DHA can be produced directly from microalgae as a vegetarian source."

So here's the thing. Flax is made up of 55% alpha linoic acid (ALA, omega-3). So if were to take 15ml of flax oil, I'd be getting 8ml of AHA. But the conversion rate to DHA and EPA is extremely inefficient at 2-5% and 5-10% respectively. With the Mayo Clinic and many other websites taking the line the medical benefits of ALA might not be all that strong, my sprinkling of flax seeds on granola was beginning to look a bit pathetic. And as for my skin cream with flax extract being first absorbed and then converted to DHA and EPA? A little far-fetched perhaps.

Before we give flax a bad rap, it should be said that there is much more to it than omega-3. Flax has loads of B vitamins and the seeds contain over a hundred times more of a phytonutrient, known as lignin, than anything near it, such as wheat bran, buckwheat, rye, millet, oats, and soybeans. Lignins have received a lot of attention lately because of possible anti-cancer properties, especially in relation to breast and colon cancer. Lignins seem to flush excess estrogen out of the body, thereby reducing the incidence of estrogen-linked cancers, such as breast cancer. Besides anti-tumor properties, lignins also seem to have antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties.

Add to this some German research that flax and borage supplements reduce wrinkles. My conclusion about all this is that I should continue with my flax (oral and topical), but start taking marine sourced omega-3 supplements.
  • May 18, 2010

    by Janeille

    Thanks so much for posting this! We've been taking Carlson's fish oils (delicious lemon flavor) and this brand also is mercury free. Fish oil does not contain the Omega 3 ALA that plant based oils have, so a combination of both are important! Also, as Marta suggests, smaller fish bio-accumulate less toxins than the big fish. Unfortunately, I can't do the sardines unless the world is crashing down, so I stick with the mercury free fish oil.

  • May 18, 2010

    by marta

    So, when I started to see a nutritionist to monitor my diet (avid Truth In Slimming readers will know all about it from our<a href="" rel="nofollow"> Diet Diaries section</a>), one of the first things she said was I should ditch the omega supplements. I protested that I hardly ate fish any more because of the mercury and they were endangered species so I needed my omega somehow. Of course, she said the same thing applied to taking them in capsule form. Instead she told me to eat about 3oz of small fish (less endangered, relatively mercury-free) twice a week. I now eat sardines twice a week (or equivalent of one 6oz can), or canned herring. And I have a fresh piece of fish about every 10 days. The supplements remain untouched. I also sprinkle flax seeds on my breakfast fruit/yogurt.

  • May 18, 2010

    by Julie Kay

    I began my Omega 3 intake with fish sourced capsules. But about 3 years ago I developed dry eye and found that flax seed was advised to help lubricate the orbital cavity. I've been taking it ever since. This is something I'm going to have to consider- not whether to drop the flax, but whether to add the fish sourced caps. Good stuff... ~jk

  • May 18, 2010

    by Liam Martin

    I am just concerned about the main source of Omega 3 which is the liver of fish. as you can see, fishes can accumulate mercury and pcb. ,''

  • November 14, 2009

    by Shannon

    I have been taking fish oil capsules for about three years, prescribed by my naturopath for other reasons and coincidentally saw an improvement in my skin. However she was very careful to warn me about mercury content and other contaminants in many fish oil capsules that are over the counter. She recommends Nordic Naturals which have lots of third party testing, etc.

  • November 11, 2009

    by Kira

    Marta, I agree with your conclusion...better not rely solely on a plant source. And if you ever get bored with flax - try chia seeds, I love them;-)

  • November 9, 2009

    by Mark

    I began taking flax capsules twice daily about 3 years ago and I do believe it has helped my skin (also I don't eat seafood so I need to get my omega 3).

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