Algal Oil vs Fish Oil – Which is Better For You (and the planet)?

– words by Dr. Edison de Mello

Fish oil is today one of the most highly marketed and used supplements for health and well-being. An impressive body of research has shown that fish oil provides the body with both of eicosepentenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) Omega-3s, which are essential for optimal brain function, cardiovascular health and healthy aging.

But along with the explosion of the world population and global warming that have resulted in an unprecedented threat to our survival, the demand for more fish and fish oil have created a crisis in our oceans and fish life that is at a turning point. The medical community while continuing to educate people on the benefits of Omega 3’s, must find another viable and environmentally sustainable source of omega-3s. Algae may be our answer.

Both, Akasha Naturals and ActivatedYou by Akasha Naturals have embarked on a mission to find the best and most sustainable source of Omega 3. Our goal is to soon discontinue our fish-derived Omega-3. Instead, we are researching the possibility of using sustainable algae derived Omega-3’s in the form of Algal Oil. We are passionate about caring for the health and well-being of our patients while never forgetting that without a healthy planet, there is no healthy us.

Algal Oil versus Fish Oil | Activated You

What are Algae?

Algae, one of the most abundant organisms in the ocean, are marine-based photosynthesizing organisms. That is, they live in water and make energy from sunlight. They are simple one-celled organisms that contain three components that make them nourishing to eat:

  1. Chlorophyll and other plant pigments
  2. Omega-3 fatty acids as EPA and DHA
  3. Marine minerals such as iodine

What is Chlorophyll?

Chlorophyll is the green pigment present in plants that facilitates the absorption of light from the sun. It converts light energy into usable form, which is then utilized for various processes, including photosynthesis which plants use as their food source.
Chlorophyll’s molecular structure is similar to that of hemoglobin, a critical component of our blood. It has the function of helping to restore and replenish red blood cells while its many enzymes help cleanse the blood and optimize its oxygen carrying capacity. Considered a ‘super food”, chlorophyll contains a range of powerful nutrients, such as vitamin C, E, K and beta carotene. It is also rich in antioxidants and minerals, such as magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium and essential fatty acids.

What Is DHA/EPA Algal Oil?

Algae are the base of the food chain for fish. Fish consume these algae and then concentrate high amounts of EPA and DHA in their tissues. Recommending that people take one gram per day of omega-3 obtained from fish is environmentally unsustainable. In addition, it constitutes a barrier for vegetarians who may need it. These reasons lead researchers to start looking into the microscopic algae to discover how it actually makes DHA. The focus became on producing DHA directly from algae instead of getting it from the fish that ate the EPA and DHA in algae. This resulted in the creation of a farm-raised algal DHA oil that is a sustainable, vegetarian, kosher and organic. Algal oil is a rich source of DHA which accounts for 97 percent of the form of Omega-3 needed by the brain.

Algal Oil versus Fish Oil | Activated You

Where do Fish Get their Omega 3?

Omega-3s are mostly made up of EPA and DHA. These fatty acids come from organisms that have adapted to the cold, such as cold-water fish. Although EPA and DHA are often credited with being one of the most beneficial components of fish oil, as mentioned before, they are actually a product of algae. Fish obtain EPA and DHA by eating algae that have the flax-type omega-3s typical of plants.

The Benefits of Algal Oil

Studies have now shown that the Omega-3 from algae oil yields good-quality oils that are as effective as the fatty acids found in cold-water fish. A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association evaluated the effects of algal oil capsules and the oil from salmon. The results found that algal oil DHA capsules and cooked salmon appear to be bio-equivalent.

Another 2014 scientific review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that algal oil serves as an effective alternative source of DHA. In addition, studies have also shown that ingestion of algal oil led to significant increases in red blood cell count and plasma DHA.

1. Cardiovascular Health

Algal oil helps decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke by helping to regulate heartbeat, decrease blood pressure, decrease blood clot formation and reduce overall inflammation. Algal oil also helps reduce triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.  A 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition identified 11 randomized controlled trials with 485 healthy participants and evaluated the relation between algal oil DHA supplementation and cardiovascular disease risk factors.

The results indicate that DHA supplementation from algal oil may reduce serum triglycerides, increase HDL (good) cholesterol and decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol in persons without coronary heart disease.

2. Healthy Pregnancy

Several studies have evidenced that omega DHA is essential for brain development during pregnancy. Omega-3 requirements increase during pregnancy in order to aid brain growth, especially as it accelerates during the second half of pregnancy. A 2004 study conducted by Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare found that higher maternal DHA consumption during pregnancy resulted in higher novelty preference on visual recognition memory and higher scores of verbal intelligence.

Animal studies have also demonstrated that deprivation of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy is associated with visual and behavioral deficits that cannot be reversed with postnatal supplementation. These findings have led to guidelines recommending that pregnant women consume at least 200 milligrams of DHA per day.

Algal Oil versus Fish Oil | Activated You

3. Eye Health

Omega-3 fatty acids accumulate in the brain and eye tissues during late fetal and early neonatal life. A scientific review conducted in 2005 by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, concluded that clinical research had only scratched the surface with respect to understanding the possible benefits of using omega-3 fatty acids as a primary or secondary prevention in eye health.

High levels of DHA are present in the retina due to its biophysical effects on the cell membrane. DHA is also believed to help modulate the activity of membrane-bound enzymes that are responsible for the maintenance of cellular function. Macular degeneration, an age-associated condition that leads to blurry vision and eventually visual loss also correlates with poor digestion, smoking, high blood pressure, exposure to UV radiation and a diet low in DHA. Omega-3 that contain DHA has been shown to help relieve the intra-ocular pressure that results in Macular Degeneration.

4. Iodine and other Marine Minerals

Algae can absorb and contain marine minerals such as iodine, magnesium, potassium and calcium. Consuming iodine from dietary sources such as seaweed is essential for the maintenance of good health, particularly for thyroid health.

In explaining why DHA is essential, algae researcher Dr. Scott Doughman said: “Because DHA is the active component for lowering triglycerides, for bioavailability to the brain and organs, and all omega-3s can be made from DHA. Algae oil is more concentrated in omega-3s and in DHA and is thus better formulated for human metabolism.”

5. Research has also shown that Algal oil may also improve:

Nervous system function
• Immunity
• Memory & concentration
• Mood
• Neurotransmission
• Insulin sensitivity & nutrient partitioning
• Body composition

How do Algal Oil supplements compare to Fish Oil Supplements?

Algae supplements appear to be similar to fish supplements. Research data show that that supplementing between 1 and 2 grams of algae oil per day significantly elevates blood levels of DHA and EPA. This dose may also help to lower blood triglycerides, raise HDL, control inflammation, and lower blood pressure and heart rate.

The recommended dosage of algal oil supplements is usually lower because the body absorbs it at a higher rate than fish oil. (While the estimated extent of DHA retroconversion to EPA has been reported at 1% to 25%, the average is around 12%.)

Algal Oil versus Fish Oil | Activated You

The Wake-Up call: Why Algae Oil vs Fish Oil

Overfishing

Recent research shows that if current overfishing and pollution patterns continue, we can expect to see a complete collapse of world fish populations by 2048.  Farmed fish is not a viable solution because it takes about 2 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed fish.

We May Run out by 2050?

Current research and data collection analysis by the UN show that 2/3 of the world’s fish are either depleted or fully exploited. At least in part, some of this attributed to sales increase in fish oil of as much as 3000%. Imagine for a second If everyone decided to eat more fish and/or take fish oil, the result would be devastating. We would simply destroy our ocean resources. (No ocean no life!)

To add a little more to an already dire situation for our oceans, it is estimated that 90% of small fish caught each year, such as anchovies, sardines, mackerel and menhaden, are processed to make fishmeal and fish oil.  Why? Because these species reproduce quicker than others, making them more resilient to fishing pressure. To go a little just a little further, UN data also show that factory-farmed fish, pigs, and poultry are consuming 28 million tons of fish each year as feed, roughly six times the amount of seafood eaten by Americans.

Contaminants

Over the last 20 years the ocean’s mercury levels have risen about 30%. This means people around the world could be increasingly exposed to mercury from eating fish and other seafood. Although algae contain some contaminants, the potential for concentrating high levels is limited. Fish, however, concentrate not only EPA and DHA from algae, but environmental contaminants like the pesticides DDT and Dieldrin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Although data from the CDC, EPA, plus other sources have shown that about 80% of fish oil supplement companies have reported that they have met the strictest U.S. standards for eliminating contaminants, marine biologists and other scientists remain skeptical. They point out that studies have shown that a significant number of un-unpurified fish oil contain unsafe levels of environmental contaminants.

Not Safe for Babies

Recent data has also shown that about 6% of U.S. women, or about 3.8 million people, exceed the amount of mercury that the EPA says is safe for fetuses.

Dose Recommendation

Most of us benefit from omega-3 supplementation because the rate of overall inflammation and omega-6 intake (pro-inflammatory oil) is so high in our system. The fish oil supplement recommendations that exist today are based on a high omega-6 intake. Better balancing our diets with healthy whole foods would lessen the need to balance our omega 6/omega 3 ratio, which would lead to a decrease demand for omega-3.

Most algae supplement manufacturers recommend between 200 and 300 mg/day. I believe that while this amount may be enough for those with a balanced fat intake from food, it is likely not enough for most of us.

Although it would be ideal for far us to eat a well-balanced diet daily, exercise regularly and avoid daily stress, the fact is that most of us do not have the opportunity to do so. As such, optimal benefits may result from consuming between 1 and 2 grams (1000 and 2000 mg) of combined EPA/DHA per day from algae, divided in two daily doses.

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Sources:
1. J. A. Stamey, D. M. Shepherd, M. J. de Veth and B. A. Corl, “Use of Algae or Algal Oil Rich in n-3 Fatty Acids as a Feed Supplement for Dairy Cattle,” Journal of Dairy Science, Vol. 95, No. 9, 2012, pp. 5269-5275.  http://dx.doi.org/10.3168/jds.2012-5412
2.   Sunderland EM, et al. Mercury sources, distribution, and bioavailability in the North Pacific Ocean: Insights from data and models. Global Biogeochem Cycles 2009;23.
3. Kelley DS, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation decreases remnant-like particle-cholesterol and increases the (n-3) index in hypertriglyceridemia men. J Nutr 2008; 138:30-35.
4. United Nations World Ocean Assessment: Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment Including Socioeconomic Aspects
5. Burdge GC & Calder PC. Conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to longer-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in human adults. Reprod Nutr Dev 2005;45:581-597.
6. Kelley DS, et al. DHA supplementation decreases serum C-reactive protein and other markers of inflammation in hypertriglyceridemia men. J Nutr 2009;139:495-501.
7. Doughman SD, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids for nutrition and medicine: considering microalgae oil as a vegetarian source of EPA and DHA. Curr Diabetes Rev 2007;3:198-203.
8 Ryan AS, et al. Clinical overview of algal-docosahexaenoic acid: effects on triglyceride levels and other cardiovascular risk factors. Am J Ther 2009;16:183-192.
9. Our Ocean: US Department of State

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