Omega-3s are a family of essential fatty acids that the body cannot synthesize on its own. The three types of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Alpha linolenic acid(ALA).
- Eicosapentaenoic acid(EPA).
- Docosahexaenoic acid(DHA).
EPA and DHA have been shown to provide foundational support for body cells while boosting their function. They also improve the fluidity of cell membranes enabling cells to be more responsive to their environment. This has a generally positive effect on the body as it functions best when it can effectively respond to its environment. Omega-3s are essential for cell health and can prevent heart disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis, and degenerative neurological conditions. Studies have also shown that omega-3s can lower blood triglycerides and inflammatory markers.
Fish oil is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids that is rich in DHA and EPA. These are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that are significantly beneficial for cell health. They can help maintain a healthy inflammatory response and boost mental, prenatal, and neonatal health.
Chia seed oil is a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids that is rich in ALA, a shorter chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, and the major type of omega-3 in plants. It does not have any DHA or EPA. The body is able to convert ALA into long-chained polyunsaturated fatty acids, DHA and EPA. However, the conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA is significantly low at about 5% for EPA and 0.5% for DHA. Some of the factors which influence this conversion rate include:
- Omega-6 fatty acids – excessive levels of omega-6 inhibit the enzymes which convert ALA to EPA.
- Vitamins and minerals deficiency – low levels of vitamins that promote the conversion such as vitamin B6 and zinc can slow down the process.
- Genes – individual genetic make-up can reduce the activity of D6D, a desaturase enzyme, which in turn slows down the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA.
- Age – babies have a limited ability to synthesize EPA and DHA.
- Underlying conditions – people with diabetes or hypertension also have a limited ability to synthesize EPA and DHA from ALA.
ALA in chia seed oil has to be converted to EPA or DHA for it to exert the same biological effect. Since this conversion has been shown to be insignificant, ALA may be more readily oxidized than incorporated into tissues. The impact of taking ALA rich chia seed oil is less evident than the effect of EPA and DHA rich oils such as fish oil. ALA in chia seed oil is however, a great source of omega-3 fatty acids for vegetarians.
Several studies have provided a significant amounts of evidence showing the general health benefits of EPA and DHA in fish oil. On the other hand, much less evidence exits showing the positive effect of ALA. While chia seed oil has several health benefits and is full of nutrients such as magnesium, it is not an efficient source of EPA and DHA. The most reliable source of EPA and DHA beneficial for medical conditions such as high triglycerides, arthritis, allergies, depression or autoimmune conditions is fish oil.