It’s better to start with this question: what is omega-3 ALA? Then, we promise that in today’s blog, we’ll answer the headline question we posed: what is omega-3 ALA good for?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re very familiar with omega-3s. But are you aware that that there are different numbers associated with omega fatty acids—not only is there omega-3, but you’ve also got your omega-6, omega-7 and omega-9. The numbers represent how many carbons away the first carbon-carbon double bond is from the methyl end of the fatty acid chain. For example, omega-9 is nine carbon-carbon double bonds away.

BLOG: What are the Symptoms of Lack of Omega-3?

However, you don’t need to worry about those numbers today, because alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is actually one of the three main components of omega-3s.  (As an aside, alpha-lipoic acid is also abbreviated as ALA, but the two ALAs are not the same and should not be confused.)

There are actually 11 types of omega-3s, with the other two most important  constituents—eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)— being the most popular of the omega-3s and the most researched. But ALA should not be discounted in either of those areas.

 

What is ALA and How is it Different from EPA and DHA? 

Omega-3s are included in the category of polyunsaturated fats and are known by their acronym, PUFAs. These essential fats are revered as the “good” or “healthy” fats along with their cousins, the monounsaturated fats. One might say that the “pariah” of the fat family is trans fats, which should be avoided and experts recommend limiting saturated fats—both of these types of fats are thought of as “unhealthy” fats.

ALA is especially interesting for vegans and vegetarians or people with a fish allergy or those who really don’t like the taste of fish, with fatty fish (e.g., salmon) being the richest source of omega-3 EPA and DHA.

On the other hand, ALA is mainly found in plant sources, meaning that those who don’t want to get their omega-3 benefits from animal sources have an option—one that is rather easily found in food sources that are consistent with the values and taste buds of vegans, vegetarians, and those who, for whatever reason, are not fish fans.

 

Where Can You Find ALA?

According to this article, ALA is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in Western diets. So much so, that you may not have to make any extra effort to consume ALA. This PUFA is readily found in plant oils including canola, soybean and flax oil, used in foods such as salad dressings, baked goods, and margarines. Other foods that pack a punch of ALA include nuts (especially walnuts), soy (tofu, for example), flax, chia, and pumpkin seeds (some people sprinkle them on top of salads), and green leafy vegetables (like kale and spinach).

ALA is also found in some non-plant-based foods, including oysters; and while beef is typically very low in omega-3s, beef or milk from grass-fed cows contain omega-3 at somewhat higher levels, mainly from ALA.

Even though it’s relatively easy for most people to consume enough ALA in their diet, you can also find them in fortified foods. As the trend for fortified foods grows in popularity, you can find omega-3 ALA or DHA or EPA (or a combination) added to fortified foods like breakfast cereals, breads, milk, juices and more. You’ll need to read the labels to discover, which form of omega-3 and how much of it has been added.

BLOG: Omega-3 and Atrial Fibrillation

Reading the labels of dietary supplements is also important as there are many different kinds of omega-3 supplements available on the market, including those specifically with the only omega-3 source being plant-based ALA. These plant-based options are suitable for those vegans and vegetarians who feel the need to add them to ensure they are getting enough omega-3s.

That sounds like a good idea in theory, but keep reading as we’re about to bust—or at least pin-prick—a myth about ALA.

 

What are the Health Benefits of ALA?

Although here at OmegaQuant, when we talk about omega-3 fatty acids, mostly we’re talking about the benefits of EPA and DHA. But make no mistake: ALA is also important for your body.

Like EPA and DHA, ALA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid, meaning that your body doesn’t make it on its own. That’s the scientific description of “essential,” but from a lay perspective, it’s also essential, as in your body needs it for some basic functions.

For example, ALA is necessary for normal human development and growth. ALA also helps maintain normal heart rhythm and blood flow.

BLOG: Can You Take Fish Oil on an Empty Stomach?

Although this article says there is much less research on the health benefits of ALA compared to EPA and DHA, ALA may offer modest protection against cardiovascular disease, and even type 2 diabetes. Be aware, however, the article adds that more observational studies and clinical trials are needed.

This blog references the benefits of a plant-based diet on the risk reduction of chronic disease. The author, a registered dietitian nutritionist, then goes on to share studies that she advises support the importance of ALA in the diet in the areas of heart health, brain health and overall mortality, noting some study limitations.

For those not actively seeking out omega-3 EPA and DHA, there is this false safety net of thought that because your body converts ALA into EPA and DHA, that you are also reaping the full benefits of EPA and DHA. Ah, there’s the rub.

While it is true that your body turns ALA into EPA and DHA, what is more myth than fact is that you’re getting enough EPA and DHA from that transformation process. You’re probably not and here’s the reason: the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA is inefficient at best.

In an ideal world, you would eat foods (and add supplements, if needed) to ensure that you’re getting ideal amounts of all three of the main components of omega-3 fatty acids—EPA, DHA and ALA. However, we are realists and unfortunately that is not the case. Many people around the world, and most here in the U.S., are not reaching omega-3 EPA and DHA sufficiency, let alone optimal levels of these important nutrients.

And here’s how we know that.

VIDEO: How Diet and Supplementation Impacts Omega-3 Status

 

What is the Omega-3 Index and What Does it Measure?

Many consumers may not know about the extensive body of scientific research which includes findings that low omega-3 levels are associated with increased risk for a number of health issues such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, eye disease and others.

What more and more consumers are learning, often through their healthcare practitioners (and certainly through this blog), is that there is a way to test your omega-3 status to determine whether your omega-3 EPA and DHA blood levels are optimal, sufficient, insufficient or deficient.

Known as the Omega-3 Index and developed by OmegaQuant Founder William S. Harris, Ph.D., FASN, the Omega-3 Index is a measurement used worldwide by many in the scientific research community to determine omega-3 EPA and DHA status.

BLOG: Omega-3 and Omega-6 Foods

The Omega-3 Index is also available for consumers as an at-home test to measure the amount of EPA and DHA in the blood, specifically the red blood cell membranes. The results are identified as a percentage of EPA and DHA compared to the total fatty acids in a cell membrane. ALA is not measured.

If your results fall between 8% to 12%, you’re in the lowest risk zone.  Unfortunately, if you are like most people, your Omega-3 Index is more likely to test around 6% which means you’re insufficient, and if your results place you lower than 4%, you’re deficient.

The good news is by adding more omega-3 EPA and DHA to your diet (by eating more fatty fish or taking fish oil supplements), you can likely improve your Omega-3 Index and move into a higher status/lower risk factor category.

However, adding more ALA into your diet will do nothing to increase your omega-3 status because the Omega-3 Index only measures omega-3 EPA and DHA, the most important omega-3s.  Read more about the Omega-3 Index here.

Bottom Line:  It’s relatively easy to get ALA in your diet, from everyday food choices to fortified food and from omega-3 ALA dietary supplements. Unfortunately, because the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA is poor, in order to raise your Omega-3 Index to ensure you’re getting enough EPA and DHA in your diet, you’d have to eat a lot more of the polyunsaturated foods that carry ALA to make that conversion beneficial.

And as you’ve heard us say before, just because something is good for you, it does not always mean more is better. For example, a handful or two of walnuts daily is healthy; a large bowl may tip the scales, if you catch our drift.

Having said that, we understand that there are those of us who can’t (fish allergies), don’t (fish tastes fishy) or won’t (practicing a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle) get enough omega-3 EPA or DHA into their bodies. For the “don’t” group, we suggest considering a high quality fish oil supplement with a flavoring (like peppermint) added to mask any fishy taste or burps. For those with a fish allergy or for those who choose a non-animal diet, the option of choosing an algal source of EPA and DHA (either through foods or supplements) is a great one.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This test is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, prevent or mitigate any disease. This site does not offer medical advice, and nothing contained herein is intended to establish a doctor/patient relationship. OmegaQuant, LLC is regulated under the Clinical Laboratory improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) and is qualified to perform high complexity clinical testing. The performance characteristics of this test were determined by OmegaQuant, LLC. It has not been cleared or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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