Inflammation Busters: Fish Oil vs. Flax Seeds
By Sarah Axtell, ND • January 14, 2012
Naturopathic doctors have historically recognized inflammation as the root cause of most chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. Today, doctors in the allopathic or conventional paradigm now also recognize inflammation as an underlying cause of cardiovascular disease.
The therapeutic benefits of fish oil and flax seeds are numerous. Fish oil and flax seeds are an excellent source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. They are termed essential because the human body cannot synthesize them so they must be obtained from the diet. They are involved in many physiologic processes, and a deficiency of them is implicated as a causal factor in many chronic conditions, including hormonal imbalances, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and eczema.
Physiologic Role of Essential Fatty Acids
Both fish oil and flax seeds contain omega-3 fatty acids, producing anti-inflammatory and antithrombotic effects (thinning the blood). They also have a beneficial impact on one’s lipid profile, for they increase HDL cholesterol and decrease triglycerides. This translates to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Not All Omegas are Created Equally
Both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are essential to the human body (must be consumed in the diet). While sources of omega-3 fatty acids are few in the human diet, sources of omega-6 fatty acids are much more prevalent in today’s Standard American Diet (SAD). Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include the ever-so-healthy fish oil and flax seeds. Sources of omega 6-fatty acids include seeds, nuts, corn, wheat, soy, refined oils, and processed foods.
While one of the significant actions of omega-3 fatty acids is to decrease inflammation, the actions of omega-6 fatty acids are mixed. Omega-6 fatty acids can be both pro-inflammatory and also anti-inflammatory. Again, both are essential, meaning we NEED these fats in our diet. But…there must be a balance.
Currently, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is about 18 to 1. It has been calculated that thousands of years ago (when we were primarily hunters and gathers, before agriculture), the ratio between omega-6 to omega-3 oils was a more balanced 5 to 1. The imbalance of oils may play a role in the rise of asthma, certain cancers, autoimmune diseases, and neurological diseases. All of these diseases are due to pro-inflammatory states and likely too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3’s.
Differences Between Flax and Fish
As stated above, there are differences between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. There are also differences between flax seeds and fish oil, both of which are omega-3 fatty acids.
Flax seeds are a good vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids, but it is important to note that they are a sub-optimal source as compared to fish oil. Flax seeds are a good source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). To achieve anti-inflammatory effects, however, ALA must be converted to EPA and DHA. Not all individuals are efficient converters. Therefore, fish oil, which is inherently rich in EPA and DHA, is all-in-all a better source of omega-3 fatty acids.
With that said, I recommend that both fish oil and flax seeds be consumed. While flax seeds require that additional step of conversion to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits, they are an EXCELLENT source of fiber. Flax has the power to lower cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar, and promote healthy bowel movements! And as a major bonus for peri-menopausal women, flax seeds have been found to significantly reduce the frequency of hot flashes due to their high phytoestrogen content.
I recommend ground flax seeds over liquid flax oil because of the added benefits the seed provides (as stated above)- good source of fiber, ability to stabilize blood sugar and its phytoestrogenic effects. Flax oil, on the other hand, does not have these added benefits AND is very fragile and goes rancid easily, creating free radicals in your body.
Recommended Dosage and Storage of Fish Oil and Flax Seeds
The majority of research studies show that to achieve an anti-inflammatory effect, one should consume a minimum of 1.2 grams per day of TOTAL omega-3’s (DHA and EPA combined). You can eat cold-water fish, such as salmon, a couple nights a week or take a daily supplemental liquid fish oil for optimal wellness. Store your fish oil in the fridge and consider buying professional-grade fish oil to be sure it is free of contaminants, such as mercury.
A dose of 2-4 tbsps of GROUND flax-seeds per day is recommended. By eating ground flax seeds, you can utilize the anti-inflammatory effects. Otherwise, if they are whole seeds they will pass right through your digestive tract. You can add ground seeds to smoothies, oatmeal, soups, salads or stir-fries. They add a nice nutty flavor and texture to your food.
I recommend buying whole seeds and grinding them yourself in a coffee grinder. You can grind a week’s worth and store them in an air-tight container in the freezer. This prevents the fragile fats from going rancid.
Flax seeds and fish oil are truly “Super Foods.” They can be used in both the treatment of chronic diseases and also for prevention and everyday wellness.
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.