Once upon a time, flaxseed oil was synonymous with “Omega-3.” The American public was just beginning to learn about the glory of Omega-3 fats, as freshly published research on the Inuit of the Arctic north showed these folks had almost immeasurable levels of heart disease, despite eating impressively high-fat diets1. Turns out that the fat they were feasting on—fish, seal meat, whale blubber—was filled with a special kind of fat called “Omega-3.”
Flaxseed oil is a rich source of an Omega-3 fat called ALA (which stands for alpha-linoleic acid, a term you can promptly forget—everyone just refers to it as ALA). Studies spanning continents, cultures, ages, and genders continued to come out showing that people who consumed the most Omega-3 in their diet had the least amount of heart disease2,3. Controlled trials fanned the excitement by showing Omega-3s could slash triglycerides and reduce inflammation4.
But ALA isn’t the only Omega-3 fatty acid: it has two siblings, both of which are generally found in fish. In recent decades, the amount of published research on these other two Omega-3 fats—EPA and DHA (eicosapentonoic acid and docahexanoic acid, respectively) has outstripped the amount of research on ALA (the fatty acid found in flaxseeds).
Many of the studies confirming the benefits of Omega-3 actually focused on EPA and DHA, both of which were—until very recently—found only in animal foods, primarily fish. This exciting research spurred a whole new industry, and fish oil supplements are now among the most popular supplements consumed. In fact, in America, about one out of every 12 adults pops a fish oil pill at least occasionally.
(Note that Barleans—which makes the most popular flaxseed oil in the world—also has a world-class line of high-quality fish oil products, ranging from the Seriously Delicious line of delicious emulsions to my personal favorite, Ultra Potency EPA-DHA.)
But the awesomeness of fish oil is no reason to forget about flaxseed oil.
Flaxseed oil—and the ALA it contains—comes with its own unique set of benefits, not the least of which is its effect on bone health. The Framingham Osteoporosis Study—a subset of the ultra-famous Framingham Heart Study—found that folks with the highest intake of ALA had lower rates of hip fracture, a trend not seen with EPA or DHA5. It seems that ALA has a special ability to reduce bone resorption—the process of bone-dismantling cells breaking down bone tissue.
The brain, too, benefits from ALA in some special ways. ALA can protect neurons, support vasodilation (the widening of blood vessels), and encourage neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain’s neural networks to grow and reorganize6). In fact, animal experiments show that ALA is even better than EPA or DHA at protecting brain cells. What’s more, ALA increases levels of important molecules that allow the brain to carry out functions like learning and memory.
Remember, studies show that Omega-3 consumption is associated with a wealth of benefits—in the heart, in the brain, on mood, on eye health, on inflammation, on development during pregnancy, on the bones, on autoimmunity, and more7. In some of these studies, plant-based ALA (from flax, chia, and hemp) were the main dietary source of Omega-3. Omega-3s in general—including ALA—act as powerful anti-inflammatories. And as everyone knows by now, we need more anti-inflammatory foods in our diet, and less pro-inflammatory ones (corn oil, I’m talking to you!). And flaxseed oil certainly qualifies as an anti-inflammatory food. And—unlike fish oil—flaxseed oil is wonderful on salads, as is fiber-rich ground flaxseed, another long-time Barlean’s best-seller. Both the ground flaxseed and the oil can be added to smoothies, with the oil being a virtually tasteless addition.
Note: adding flaxseed oil to shakes or smoothies made of fruits and vegetables will make the shakes healthier for two reasons. One, it will make the fat-soluble nutrients—like vitamins A, D, E and K—more bioavailable, since they’re not well absorbed without fat. And two, since fat slows down their entrance into the blood stream, it will keep your blood sugar from jumping too high from the sugar in the fruits and vegetables.