What You Need to Know about Algal Oil
People who are vegetarian, vegan, or have seafood allergies are especially likely to be deficient in the crucial omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. The third omega 3 fatty acid, ALA, can be consumed by eating nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flax seeds, and others. However, consuming ALA is not enough. DHA and EPA are crucial for proper brain and body function and are necessary for long term good health. These omega-3s are important for maintaining a healthy brain and cardiovascular system, reducing inflammation, cutting the risk of a heart attack, lowering the blood pressure, and many other important physiological functions.
Thankfully, algal oil is a great new option for consuming high amounts of DHA and some EPA for vegetarians, vegans, and people with seafood allergies. Algal oil is extracted from algae that is raised in a contained environment so there is no risk of contamination from pollutants in sea water. Algal oil provides a concentrated dose of DHA, higher than that of fish oil. It also provides a small amount of EPA, which is also a crucial nutrient.
Remember the following when it comes to choosing omega-3s from algal oil:
- People who get enough omega-3s (specifically DHA and EPA) tend to have better long-term health and get fewer diseases over time, all else being equal.
- Unfortunately, our bodies can’t produce omega-3s. As a result, we must get them from plant and animal products that contain them. Algal oil is an excellent option for people who cannot consume fish or krill oil.
- Fat helps with absorption of all fat-soluble nutrients, including omega-3s. That means eating healthy fats when taking omega-3s is a good idea for maximum benefit and proper absorption.
- Aim for max 2 grams of omega-3s per day from supplements.
- Algal oil has high levels of DHA and low levels of EPA.
- Finally, be sure to refrigerate your algal oil to extend its life and prevent it from going rancid.
Note that if you are not allergic to seafood, a high quality fish oil is still your best bet for consuming omega-3s. It is higher in EPA than algal oil and much better researched.
A Closer Look at Algal Oil and Omega-3s
Omega-3 is a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that is needed for the body to maintain lipids, one of the four major types of macromolecules found in humans. Maintaining lipids is important for optimal health and preventing disease. In particular, omega-3s seem to improve cardiovascular function by decreasing inflammation and reducing incidents of peripheral artery disease and major coronary events like heart attacks. Studies also show that consuming omega-3s and other fatty acids can reduce the risk of cancer, arthritis, hypertension, diabetes, and neurological problems, as well as improve brain and eye function. Omega 3s are also vital for proper fetal development, and supplementation by pregnant women correlates with decreased unwanted immune responses in infants, such as allergies. Omega 3s accomplish these things in part by affecting gene expression.[1, 2, 3, 4]
Omega 3s come in three types: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Marine organisms like fatty fish, krill, and algae contain DHA and EPA, whereas ALA is found in plants and nuts like soybeans, flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil. People can’t use ALA directly and have to turn it into DHA or EPA, which the human body does very inefficiently; only about 10% of plant-based ALA molecules are metabolized into the other types of omega-3s.
Functions and Health Benefits of Omega 3s
The primary job of omega-3 fatty acids is to regulate levels of various forms of lipids in the brain, heart, and other important parts of the body. Omega-3s can increase the HDL (“good cholesterol”), decrease triglycerides, and keep blood pressure at normal levels.
EPA is used throughout the body, whereas DHA is mostly found in the eyes and the brain. The human brain is made up of about 60% fat, half of which is DHA. DHA is also found in the retinas, and studies suggest that Omega 3s are important for healthy retina functioning. Because EPA and DHA have similar molecular structures, EPA can be converted into DHA through a biological pathway called Sprecher’s shunt if the brain, eyes, or other parts of the body need more DHA.
Omega 3s help regulate many processes throughout the body and have been shown to help prevent a variety of diseases and conditions, in large part by reducing inflammation. Studies also show that omega-3s reduce triglycerides, lower total cholesterol, slow the development of blood clots, and reduce high blood pressure, all of which are risk factors for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.[6, 7, 8, 9, 10] Having good levels of omega 3 may help prevent diabetes by lowering triglycerides and raising HDL cholesterol, may help relieve joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, and may help increase calcium levels and prevent osteoporosis. Studies also suggest that eating foods rich in omega-3s may help prevent or slow the progression of colon, breast, and prostate cancer. In addition, omega 3s play a role in hormones secretion, muscle activity regulation, cell division, and blood clotting.
Although there is still some debate about what specific role omega-3 plays in combating heart disease, many studies have shown that specifically EPA can help to decrease the levels of triglycerides in the blood and lower the risk of atherosclerosis, among other positive cardiovascular benefits.[12, 13, 14]
The brain also benefits from DHA in a many ways. In particular, DHA can help fight depression and maintain, or even improve, cognitive functioning.[6, 15, 16] The synapses between neurons contain DHA, indicating that having a sufficient amount of this type of omega-3 is crucial for neurotransmission.[5, 6, 17] As a result, research indicates that abnormally low levels could be a contributor to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.[3, 5, 18, 19]
Another important function of omega-3s is to control how genes are expressed. This has a big impact on long-term health and aging. Omega-3s help the body produce energy by undergoing β-oxidation, which splits carbon atoms and releases CO2. This in turn helps produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an organic chemical involved with many cellular processes.
Omega-3s are digested in the small intestine, where they pass into the bloodstream and are processed via Sprecher’s shunt. ALA can only be converted into the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA at a rate of about 10 percent. In addition, EPA molecules can be converted into DHA molecules.[17, 20]
Omega 3 Deficiency and Insufficiency
Most Americans currently don’t get enough omega-3s in their diet, mainly because consumption of fatty fish – which is high in omega 3s – has declined significantly over the past century. Many of the fish we do eat are farmed, and farmed fish contain a lot less DHA and EPA than wild fish because of what they are fed. In addition, many farmed fish contain high levels of mercury. Eating fish contaminated with mercury is a particular concern for women who may become pregnant.
At the same time, Americans and other people who consume a typical American diet may be getting too much of another fatty acid called omega-6, which is found in vegetable oils like corn and canola oil. Health practitioners are still not sure about the exact impact of this on health but it’s theorized that the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in the diet and body may be important for good health. The typical American diet has 14 to 25 times as many omega-6 fatty acids as omega-3s, which is potentially too high. Omega-6 fatty acids are needed by the body, but too much of them can interfere with the function and absorption of Omega-3s. Having too many omega 6s is theorized to cause inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and other health issues.[1, 15] A related problem is that many vegetable oils contain trans fats, which raise low-density lipoproteins (LDL, or “bad”, cholesterol) and triglycerides.[15, 18]
Vegans, vegetarians, and those with seafood allergies particularly need to watch their omega-3 levels because they don’t eat fish, the primary food source of EPA and DHA in most people’s diets.
Symptoms of a clinical omega 3 deficiency can include fatigue, memory difficulties, dry skin, heart conditions, circulation problems, abrupt changes in mood, and even depression. Insufficiency of DHA and EPA may be asymptomatic but still have far-reaching negative effects on the body and brain, especially in the longer term.
Getting Omega-3s: Food and Supplement Options
Most people won’t have access to enough wild-caught, uncontaminated, fatty fish to get optimal DHA and EPA levels from food. Many choose to take supplements containing fish oil, krill oil, and algal oil. Fish oil should be in triglyceride form for best absorption, sourced from small wild fish, and be processed by a high-quality producer. Krill oil is already in the highly-absorbable phospholipid form and contains astaxanthin, which is excellent for health in its own right.[1, 22, 23]. Krill oil is less concentrated however and contains less omega-3 fatty acids.
Algal oil is a great option for those with seafood allergies or determined to avoid animal-sources while still getting the omega-3s that are necessary for long term health. It is difficult to get enough Omega 3s if you’re a vegan, since EPA and DHA are primarily available in fish and krill. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a precursor to EPA and DHA that is found in the oils of flaxseed, soybean, canola, and other plants. However, ALA must be converted by the body into EPA and DHA, and the conversion rate is less than 15 percent. As a result, consuming ALA is not a practical way to increase levels of EPA and DHA. Another possible source of Omega 3s for vegans is neuromins DHA, which is extracted from cultivated microalgae and can also be purchased in a supplement.
Getting Omega 3 Fatty Acids from Algal Oil Supplements
Algal oil contains significant amounts of DHA and small amounts of EPA. As a result, it’s a great option for vegetarians, vegans, and people allergic to seafood. It’s been noted that these people find it especially hard to get enough of these essential fatty acids in their diets. Algal oil supplementation is considered generally safe and well-tolerated.
Although research on the specific health benefits of algal oil is limited, some studies show that the DHA in algal oil has anti-inflammatory properties and other benefits like fish and krill oil omega-3s. The DHA in algal oil has been found to be just as absorbable as that in fish, and algal oil is also free of the contaminants found in fish, especially those that are farmed. Algae used to source algal oil is grown in laboratory conditions, never actually touching sea water. If a high-quality growing and manufacturing facility is used, algal oil produced in this way has less exposure to potential contaminants. EPA and DHA in algal oil are in triglyceride form and thus well-absorbed by the body.
Algal oil is considered safe and well-tolerated.[29, 30, 31] In addition, algal oil is a more concentrated source of omega-3s — especially DHA — than fish oil.
Research on the specific health benefits of algal oil is limited. However, some animal studies show benefits from the DHA in algal oil. For example, one study of mice that were given algal oil supplements found that the DHA in the oil might have helped them perform memory tasks. Another study showed that the DHA in algal oil has significant anti-inflammatory effects both in vitro and in vivo.
In terms of absorbability, the DHA in algal-oil capsules was found to be just as bioavailable as the DHA in cooked salmon, as determined by DHA levels in the blood of 32 human test subjects. Moreover, a review of three other studies also found that the omega 3s in algal oil have good bioavailability, although the authors of the review said more research is needed to determine correct doses for people wanting to incorporate algal oil into their diets.
Another benefit of algal oil is that algae is considered to be environmentally friendly and sustainable. Wild fisheries are declining worldwide, and although omega-3s can be obtained from farmed fish, most of the fish oil produced from aquaculture is used for fish feed, not omega-3 supplements. Moreover, farmed fish generally have higher levels of toxic chemicals in their tissues that wild fish, whereas algae don’t have contaminants because they are so low on the food chain and because they are never actually in contact with sea water. As a result, algal oil may help serve the growing world population’s need for DHA.
Comparing Algal Oil to Fish Oil and Krill Oil
Fish oils are naturally mostly in the triglyceride form, whereas the fish oil in supplements are most often in the less-absorbable ethyl ester form. One can purchase fish oil in triglyceride form, although it is more expensive because it has to go through additional processing. The added cost is value worth it, however, because fish oil in the triglyceride form is much more absorbable — and goes rancid much more slowly — than the ethyl ester form. Omega 3s in algal oil are also in the better-absorbed triglyceride form.
It’s important to choose a fish oil made from smaller fish to avoid heavy metal contaminants. Contamination is less likely to be a factor for algal oil since the algae used as the source of algal oil is grown in lab conditions with no contact with potential contaminants.
All currently marketed fish oil supplements contain more EPA than DHA, although the exact amounts vary by product. In contrast, algal oil is high in DHA and low in EPA. Research has demonstrated that humans need both DHA and EPA but because most research on omega 3 benefits has been done using fish oil, it’s hard to say how much of those outcomes are due to the EPA/DHA proportions. More research is needed on this front using algal oil.
Krill oil cannot be concentrated like fish oil, and as a result provides less DHA and EPA per pill or serving. Algal oil usually has higher amounts of DHA but lower EPA. Krill oil also naturally contains astaxanthin, which is a powerful antioxidant. Research indicates that astaxanthin reduces inflammation, reduces oxidative stress, protects cells, and promotes heart and brain health.[39, 40, 41] There are also very promising studies that indicate that it may also help prevent cancer and generally improve improves immune function.[42, 43, 44] Astaxanthin has also been demonstrated to help with eye health, specifically macular degeneration.[45, 46] In krill oil, astaxanthin helps to keep omega-3s from breaking down and going rancid, and has been shown to generally reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. Algal oil does not contain astaxanthin.
Considerations for Algal Oil Supplements and Contraindications
According to the National Heart Association, one should try to eat fatty fish at least twice a week, which provides approximately 400-500 mg per week of EPA and DHA.[3, 19] Americans consume only 10 to 20 mg of EPA and DHA daily, or about 70-140 mg weekly, the Mayo Clinic estimates. Existing human research trials indicate that the health benefits of DHA and EPA generally increase proportionally with amount consumed, with the upper limit at 2,000 mg per day.
Thus, it is safe to consume up to 2,0000 mg of DHA + EPA daily from a high-quality, well-absorbed fish, krill, or algal oil. If consuming a fish oil supplement, eating fat along with it will aid in absorption. According to the Food and Drug Administration, no one should consume more than 3000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids in one day from food and supplements combined, and no more than 2000 mg of that amount should come from supplements.
Taking too much omega-3 can cause a variety of side effects, including burping, a bloated stomach, diarrhea, and gas. The same problems can be caused by specific ingredients in a given supplement, so a smaller dose or different supplement may be the solution if this occurs to you. Talk to your doctor if the side effects don’t go away or if more serious side effects like bleeding or changes in blood pressure or blood sugar occur.
Medications that affect blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol, or increase the risk of bleeding, can interact with omega-3 supplements in undesirable ways. The same is true for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Individuals taking these medications should always consult with a doctor before beginning omega-3 supplementation to discuss proper dosage.
How to Choose What’s Right For You
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA and EPA, are vital for long-term well being. If you cannot take fish oil or krill oil, algal oil is a great option to get the benefits of omega 3s into your body.
Remember that algal oil is low in EPA so you should still consume ALA so your body can convert what it can into EPA (about 10%). Algal oil is an excellent source of well-absorbed DHA, however.
Given that supplement product sales in the US are under-regulated as a whole, it is very important to choose a high quality manufacturer. Try to choose products that are sourced in Europe or the US as these places have better regulation for the raw materials that are used, as well as better access to clean water. The product label should identify exact amounts of DHA and EPA in the supplement per serving. Note that some supplements may add tocopherols (different forms of vitamin E) as preservatives for the algal oil — this is normal as long as high-quality vitamin E sources are used. Look for natural sources of vitamin E rather than synthetic if they are present. Also make sure that the algal oil you choose does not contain extra fillers.