Fish Oil or Flax?

The average American gets only half the daily amount of omega-3 fatty acids recommended by the World Health Organization. These promoters of heart health and brain function are sometimes called essential fatty acids because they must be obtained from dietary sources or nutritional supplements. We asked Clare Bauermeister, ND, of Pharmaca in West Seattle and Kristine Mestaz of our Los Gatos store to help break down the pros and cons of fish and flax sources of omega-3s.

Our bodies work with three major types of essential fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA. The body must convert ALA into EPA or DHA since those are the more usable forms. Flaxseed oil is nature’s richest source of vegetable-based omega-3 fatty acids in the form of ALA. Fish oil contains both DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids.

“The body can convert the ALA in flax to DHA and EPA, but it doesn’t do it very efficiently. If you’re going to be taking flax or fish oil supplements for therapeutic reasons, you generally have to take more flax to get the same benefits that fish oil provides,” says Clare.

Clare also adds that the clinical evidence supporting plant-based fatty acids isn’t as high. “But given what we know about the benefits of DHA and EPA, I would say you’re bound to get some of the same health benefits from ALA,” she says.

Both Clare and Kristine will most often recommend fish oil over flaxseed oil for inflammatory problems like arthritis or heart issues. However, flax has some extra benefits that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

“Flaxseed oil is 100 times richer in lignans than other whole grains,” says Kristine, who adds that there have been a lot of promising studies on lignan’s effectiveness at lowering breast and colon cancers. “Lignans are a phytoestrogen that bind to estrogen receptors,” she says, which keeps our own estrogens in check and decreases the chances of gynecological cancers.

Kristine often recommends flaxseed oil for constipation, since it’s so high in fiber, as well as post-exercise recovery and even weight loss. “I’d also recommend it for skin problems like eczema and dandruff,” she says. “If someone came in who really wanted perfect skin, I’d recommend both fish and flaxseed oil.”

Flaxseed oil also raises fewer sustainability issues, and is an ideal option for dedicated vegans and vegetarians. Another benefit? “You can pour a flax oil supplement over your food, or make a salad dressing out of it,” says Kristine. “You can even put it into your smoothies! With fish oil? No way.”

Pharmaca offers a wide range of both fish and flaxseed oil products, as well as combination formulas, that have been chosen for their purity and potency. Ask one of our practitioners which option is best for meeting your personal health goals.