Fish oil or flax oil - which is the best omega fatty acid source?

Straight Answer Express

“I wish I could find somebody who can give me some straight answers.”

That plea comes from an HSI member named Oliver who wants some help evaluating sources of omega fatty acids. And he came to the right place.

Fish or flax?

Oliver: “Fish oil with omega 3 is supposed to be so good for uswhy fish oil? I had lung cancer and half my left lung removed in 2000 when my surgeon, basically gave me no other choice. BUT, before the surgery and to this day I take Barlean’s highest lignan organic flaxseed oil every day. I take 2 tablespoons with 1/4 cup of lowfat cottage cheese, recommended by many doctors to prevent cancer. I also get my organic whole flaxseed from them for salads and energy drinks.

“On the label it has the following: Per tablespoon, Omega 3 6200 mg, Omega 6 1810 mg, Omega 9 2040 mg, flaxseed particulate, 2660 mg. With all this good stuff is it as good as fish oil, or what is the difference?”

Oliver is right – this is good stuff. As he noted, flaxseed contains lignans, a good source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is converted by the body into omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show that omega-3s help improve cell function in the lining of the heart and blood vessels, lower triglyceride levels, and inhibit platelet clumping.

So why fish oil?

As frequent e-Alert readers know, HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., has often recommended fish oil supplements to address a variety of health issues. When I asked Dr. Spreen to field Oliver’s question, he started by pointing that he’s not against flax, although he feels that fresh flax meal (ground from seeds) is superior to flaxseed oil.

Dr. Spreen: “The advantage of fish oil is that, compared to flaxseed oil, it not only has a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, but it also has a better breakdown of the omega-3 components. There are other omega-3 fatty acids, but the two known for the best effects on the human biochemistry are EPA and DHA. These are contained in higher amounts in the fish oil. Ideally, you want the lowest amount of omega-6 (it’s too prominent in the standard ‘civilized’ diet), and the highest amount of EPA and DHA within the omega-3 portion.

“If your polyunsaturated fatty acids are coming from a plant source I’d go with the flax, but I’d try to get flax meal (you can sprinkle it on salads, put it in soups, etc.), even with the current flap about possibly not being good to take if you have cancer (final chapter isn’t written on that one yet).

“However, fish oil, to me, is the way to go, especially with the fears about mercury in eating fish. The best fish oils can be obtained without mercury. You’d have to eat a lot of fish to get what’s now available in capsules.”

Flip flap

Dr. Spreen’s “current flap” comment about flaxseed and cancer refers to a paradox: Omega-3 fatty acid intake may reduce prostate cancer risk, but when men with prostate cancer have a high intake of ALA (the precursor of omega-3s), they may be at greater risk of advanced prostate cancer.

Flaxseed oil contains much higher concentrations of ALA than flaxseed.

For more information about this paradox – including a revealing study in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition – see the e-Alert “Secret in the Seed” (8/23/04), which you can find at this link: http://www.hsionline.com/ealerts/ea200408/ea20040823.html

And one more note about supplementing with fish oil: Omega-3s are fatty acids that can oxidize and form free radicals. To offset this risk, Dr. Spreen recommends a daily vitamin E supplement (as alpha-tocopherol along with other tocopherols).