There are three main omega-3s – EPA, DHA and ALA. EPA and DHA are the primary omega-3s you need to support heart health and can be found in seaweed supplements or our bodies convert ALA to EPA & DHA. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is a true “essential” omega-3 because our bodies can’t make it on its own. We need to get ALA from our diet by consuming ALA-rich foods like flax and chia seeds. ALA is a precursor to EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate in our bodies is extremely low – often less than 1 percent of ALA is converted to EPA and DHA. The long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA are known for supporting heart, brain and eye health at all stages of life. In fact, our heart, brain and eyes contain the highest omega-3 content compared to other parts of the human body. The human body does not produce significant amounts of EPA or DHA on its own, so you must get these important nutrients from the foods you eat and the supplements you consume. If you’re looking to get the heart health benefits of omega-3s, go straight to the source of EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are naturally found in marine sources such as marine algae.
Plant Sources of Omega-3s
Flax, a relatively new term to most health-conscious individuals, has a much longer history than one would expect. Archaeologists date the consumption of flax back to 9,000 BC. In 650 BC, Hippocrates wrote of flax's value in the treatment of abdominal pains. And in the 8th century, the medieval King Charlemagne was so convinced of flax's importance to good health that he passed laws requiring his subjects to consume it regularly. This blue-flowered crop has proven to be quite versatile. Flax is used to make linen and fine quality papers, as lamp oil and as an ingredient in a variety of food products and supplements. The use of flax in the diet is showing more and more promise in many health conditions like cancer, arthritis, diabetes and menopause. Even more promising is the role of flax in helping the fight against heart disease.
Potential Benefits of Flax in Fighting Heart-Disease
Around 42% of flaxseed's calories come from total fat. This total fat is comprised of a mix of different fatty acids: 73% polyunsaturated fat, 18% monounsaturated fat and only 9% saturated fat. What makes this so beneficial to heart health is that the majority of the polyunsaturated fat contained in flax is in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is an essential fatty acid (meaning the human body cannot create this fat from others and must get it from foods) and a precursor to the heart-disease fighting long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Flaxseed is the richest source of ALA in the North American diet and has many potential heart-disease fighting benefits:
Reduces blood triglyceride values.
Neutral effect on the good cholesterol, HDL.
Reduces blood pressure.
Reduces platelet aggregation (clot formation) within arterial lining.
Reduces inflammatory response.
May protect against stroke.
In addition to being the best plant source for the essential fatty acids, flaxseed is also an excellent source of soluble (viscous) and insoluble fibers, lignans (a phytoestrogen found to help protect against certain cancers), high quality protein and potassium. Because of the soluble fiber component in flaxseed, various researchers have also revealed that flax can modestly reduce both total and LDL (bad) cholesterol values.
Other excellent sources of omega 3 is walnuts, chia seeds and leafy greens.