Abbreviations: Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), Docashexaenoic acid (DHA)
We eat far less Omega-3 fat than we used to and far less than we need. Today, 95-99% of the population consumes an average of a mere 1/6th of the Omega-3 eaten by people in the mid-1800's, which even then was not enough for optimum health.
Our cell membranes necessarily contain ALA, which can be obtained by consuming the oils in flaxseed, nuts and seeds. However , here is the much-debated . . .
“Can we obtain EPA/DHA by converting ALA to the needed EPA/DHA, or is our only option to obtain them directly from fish or marine oil supplements" - The answer to this literally “billion-dollar” question greatly affects the share of profits in Omega-3 supplement sales
|THE EVIDENCE concerning Percentage Amount of ALA CONVERTED to EPA, DPA and DHA|
|ALA Conversion Study Title / Publication / Details||EPA||DPA*||DHA|
|Infant monkeys fed pre-natal and post-natal diets containing only ALA from soy oil had DHA in the blood, brain, retina, and other organs.||•|
|Supplementing lactating women with flaxseed oil does not increase DHA in their milk, AJCN Jan 2003 - 7 Women took 20 g flaxseed oil (10.7 g ALA) daily for 4 wks, breast-milk, plasma, and erythrocyte fatty acid levels were tested. Spectrum® supplied the flax oil!||• Incr||• Incr||No|
|A group of women were given 15mg of flaxseed oil (ALA) daily for 12 weeks. NOT ONE HAD AN INCREASE of EPA or DHA within their blood plasma or the red blood cells.||No||No|
|4 pre-menopausal, non-lactating women, 3 men, ages 24 -54 received 15 g flaxseed oil (11 g ALA) daily for 12 wks. Same results for both plasma and erythrocytes.||No||No||No|
|Pawlosky et al,“Physiological compartmental analysis of alpha-linolenic acid metabolism in adult humans.”Journal of Lipid Research 2001. 4 male / 4 female ages 22-37. Data obtained from an isotope tracer.||.2%||.13%||.05%|
|From exhaled CO2, it was determined that these women burned ~ 22% of ALA for energy. Burdge et al 2002 -“Conversion Study of ALA to EPA, DPA* and DHA in young women”.||• 21%||• 6%||• 9%|
|2002 study with 6 young men - Results on exhaled CO2, determined that these men burned ~ 33% of ALA for energy. Burdge GC, Jones AE, Wootton SA. Eicosapentaenoic and docosapentaenoic acids are the principal products of alpha-linolenic acid metabolism in young men. British Journal of Nutrition 2002 Oct;88(4):355-63||• 8%||• 8%||No|
|Produced a total 17% Omega-3 Emken EA et al 1994: “Dietary LA influences desaturation and acylation of deuterium-labelled LA and ALAin young adult males.”Biochimica et Biophysica Acta.||• 7%||•||• .|
|Conversion influenced by absolute amounts of ALA and LA, not their ratioAlpha-linolenic conversion in adults: 14 men 15 women Goyens et al: Netherlands;||• 7%||• .07%||• .07%|
|Review shows infants convert; Innis SM, Sprecher H, Hachey D, Edmond J, Anderson RE. Neonatal polyunsaturated fatty acid metabolism. Lipids. 1999 Feb;34(2):139-49.||•|
|Premature infants convert ; Carnielli VP, Wattimena DJ, Luijendijk IH, Boerlage A, Degenhart HJ, Sauer PJ. The very low birth weight premature infant is capable of synthesizing arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids from linoleic and linolenic acids. Pediatr Res. 1996 Jul;40(1):169-74 C Billeaud Billeaud C, Bougle D, Sarda P, Combe N, Mazette S, Babin F, Entressangles B, Descomps B, Nouvelot A, Mendy F. Effects of preterm infant formula supplementation with alpha-linolenic acid with a linoleate/alpha-linolenate ratio of 6: a multicentric study. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1997 Aug;51(8):520-6.||•|
|All ages can convert; Brenna JT. Efficiency of conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to long chain n-3 fatty acids in man. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2002 Mar;5(2):127-32.:||•|
* Omega-3 DPA (Docosapentaenoic Acid) is an intermediate fatty acid between EPA and DHA found mainly in fish oil, seal oil and red meat.
To explain why some studies produced no DHA - leading expert on fats Dr. Udo Erasmus, points out that many factors affect conversion rate, and that when the brain has sufficient DHA, feedback inhibition stops further conversion until the DHA is used up. This feedback mechanism protects the body from getting too much DHA from ALA which could be possible by taking too much DHA-containing fish oil.
If ALA was not converted to EPA/DHA, those who do not eat fish or fish oil would be dead or near dead, since DHA only remains in the body for about a week.
Conclusion to the ALA Conversion Question
The study results are mixed, but most studies concur that ALA converts as far as EPA - and is thus able to inhibit negative prostaglandin/leukotriene production.
Although we can convert ALA to DHA, the body has a tough time of it - Many studies show a conversion rate of ~1% in infants and less in adults. Few studies demonstrate an increase of DHA in blood or breatmilk after several weeks of ALA supplementation.
Dr. Udo Erasmus considers that the ability to convert ALA to DHA is influenced to a greater degree by diet than by genetics. However, since many people have a less-than-perfect diet, this author concludes:
To ensure DHA presence, it would be prudent to:
- Supplement the diet with fish and a quality marine oil (E.g. Neptune Krill Oil) - in addition to some ALA in the diet (E.g. ground flaxseed, flax oil supplement, walnuts), especially if a person has health issues concerning the DHA-needy nerves, brain, eyes, adrenals and/or sex organs.
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