Vegan LNA conversion to EPA/DHA

Hey Sassy! I'm an undergraduate college student studying nutrition, and also a semi-vegan (vegan about 90% of the time, strict vegetarian), so I am thoroughly impressed with your website.

Lately I've been concerned with my Omega 3 intake. Yes, we can get omega 3s from flax, walnuts, and certain vegetable oils, but this, as I'm sure you know, is only the essential Alpha-Linolenic Acid (LNA) form. While our bodies can convert LNA to the more-important DHA and EPA, we don't do it very efficiently.

I'm worried about how safe it is to rely solely on flax and walnuts (ALAs) as I do - I take flax oil and eat milled flax/walnuts daily. Would it be better to consume a lot more ALA than necessary so our bodies have an excess to work with in the conversion?

Are we vegans really missing the DHA/EPA boat with fish oil? I'd just start taking fish oil capsules rather than risk my brain and emotional health, but I really don't want to, and I certainly couldn't bring myself to eat fish!

Lauren Prigge
Clayton, NC


Sassy Sez: Hi Lauren, This is such a HUGE issue that can be very confusing.

Let me clarify a few points about long-chain fatty acids that are found in animal products. Many advocates for animal foods claim that since these nutrients are found in meats that vegetarians are deficient. The reasoning is that if one is deficient in long-chain fatty acids (EPA, DHA, and AA), one can develop neurological problems, and also disorders such as depression, Alzheimer's and ADHD. Of course, there are other causes of these challenges.

Fish are particularly high in these nutrients. This is because the original source of these long-chain fatty acids are actually microalgae found in bodies of water such as oceans. Small fish eat the algae which is then eaten by the larger fish and up the food chain it goes. But turning to fish or fish oil capsules may not be ideal since mercury and other toxins are now found in our Earth's waters, and consequently in fish oils as well.

When humans eat foods rich in Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid found in foods such as flax and hemp seeds, walnuts, and soy, our bodies then can convert these to EPA and DHA.

Some of us can perform this internal conversion fairly easily, while others have some challenges.

So how do you know which camp you fall into?

Well, if someone is deficient in DHA/EPA, this might mean they are not ingesting enough of the raw materials to make this conversion, or it might mean their body is simply not converting well, or it might mean they're eating too many Omega 6's which make it more difficult for your body to make this Omega 3 conversion.

It is frustrating that current research supports both points of view, some saying that our bodies can efficiently make this important switch over and others saying no way José.

Opti3It would seem to me that consuming excess ALA in the hopes that it would then cause more conversion than normal may or may not work - either your body converts efficiently or it doesn't.

The good news? There are some vegan EPA/DHA supplements which are plant-based and contain these readily-available long-chain fatty acids. I feel they are a bit expensive, but many people think it is worth the cost, myself included.

Opti 3 has a good option for you. It's what Jeff and I use. They usually have a sweet 3-for-2 deal which saves you a lot of money. (The one drawback from ordering from this company is they usually take over 2 weeks to arrive here in the U.S. But if you can wait, the savings are pretty great!)

If you are concerned about your own conversion from ALA to EPA/DHA, I recommend you supplement your diet. And please continue to research this vast and complex topic as you see fit.

Hope this helps. xo

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opti3 vegan?????
by: sebastian

I try to be vegan!
Opti3 contain vitamin D3;
D3 vitamin is from animals and D2 from vegetables!


Opti 3 IS without a doubt vegan :)
by: Sassy

Have no fears, my darling Sebastian. This is certainly a vegan product. Would I recommend a non-vegan product to my Vegan Coach peeps? Perish the thought! :)

Here is what the Opti 3 website says about their DHA/EPA:

"In 2012 we added a daily dose of our exclusive Vitashine Vitamin D3, as we are so concerned about the widespread deficiency in our population. Vitashine is the only Vegan Society and Vegetarian Society registered Vitamin D3, and is from 100% plant source."

Hope this helps you rest a little easier. :)

Hemp Oil
by: Terri

I was wondering what your thoughts are on taking Hemp oil to balance you body's EFA?

Chlorella/Spirlina (spelling)
by: Lynn

Sass: Since the fishies get this EPA/DHA from the algae won't chlorella and spirlina work for this as well? How about the seaweed? Just curious, as I take chlorella tablets and spirlina, I switch out.

by: Sassy

Hi Terri and Lynn! As mentioned above, and as I understand it, some foods that are high in LNA could very well provide what you need as long as your body is able to make that conversion to EPA/DHA. Hope this helps. :)

The lie of the fish oil peddlars
by: Daniel Skipp

In short the sellers and promoters of fish oil, antivegan in attitude, lie and bullshit and regurgitate mindlessly. The conversion rate is only really low in sick people and those already eating EPA and DHA.

The research comparing fish-eaters, meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans has been done. Referred to here
Vegans had higher levels of DHA than even fish-eaters!

There is nothing to worry about if you eat a diet with good Omega 3's [flax, hemp, purslane etc are the high sources but many sources are fine] and moderate good [fresh, not rancid/cooked] Omega 6. Sunflower oil is to be avoided.

Best food is fruit, greens and juice of seed sprouts. The latter feeds, detoxes and heals and has loads of the Omega 3 you need. Nuff said.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says...
by: Sassy

Hi Daniel!

I appreciate your comment. Thank you for sharing your research. I agree that we do not have to turn to fish oil to be healthy.

And I really would like to embrace and believe that all Vegans can get the DHA/EPA we need without supplementing. But I am not entirely convinced yet.

The article you recommended we read gives a bit of a summary about this study done by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which states...

"The limitations of this study are that we were only able to estimate a precursor-product ratio as a statistical estimate of potential conversion, actual conversion was not measured in a metabolic study, and this ratio does not inform the mechanisms of conversion or the metabolic fate of ALA. However, metabolic studies are, of necessity, small and are unable to investigate relations between intake and circulating concentrations in the general population. We would have liked to include dietary intakes of DPA in our analyses, but were unable to do so because our database, like others, does not include DPA, although we included meat in our fully adjusted models."

It further states...

"...further research to investigate the potential conversion of ALA to long-chain n-3 PUFAs for maintenance of adequate status in non-fish and fish-oil consumers is required."

And finally...

"The implications of this study are that, if conversion of plant-based sources of n-3 PUFAs were found to occur in intervention studies, and were sufficient to maintain health, it could have significant consequences for public health recommendations and for preservation of the wild fish supply." 16

Now, I am not a doctor, nor a nutritionist, nor a dietician, so I might be wrong here. But it seems to me that the data is not yet complete.

Until that time, I personally will continue to supplement with vegan DHA/EPA. Because while some people may be able to make the conversion, it is best to supplement with vegan DHA/EPA for optimum health.

I will also continue to keep my ears and eyes open on this very important topic. And I encourage everyone to do their homework. xo!

Algae Oil is Vegan DHA source
by: Anonymous

Algae oil is vegan. It's the same algae the fish eat. They make them in caps as well.

Blood work for individual analysis
by: Polly

Hi Sassy Guru ;), Can a doctor check EPA/DHA levels along with Vitamin D by blood work? I'd like to know for my own individual health whether my body is converting efficiently. Any other levels you suggest checking? Is fasting necessary prior to testing for an accurate reading? Keep up the in-depth research for us. You're a great vegan advocate.

Algae and EPA/DHA
by: Sassy

For those wondering about whether or not algae can provide us with DHA...

I'm a fan of Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA) I've been using since 1994.

While very rich in micro-nutrients, amino acids for protein building, and most essential fatty acids, AFA should not be relied on as a direct source of EPA/DHA long-chain fatty acids.

Hope this helps. xo!

Yes there are tests for DHA/EPA
by: Sassy

Hi Polly!

Yes, my sweet, there certainly are tests you can have done to check your DHA/EPA levels. Ask your doctor. And s/he can also let you know whether or not you will need to fast first.

I would also recommend you check your vitamin B12 and D levels -- these should be checked by everyone, vegan or not.

Hope this helps!

Vegan LNA conversion to EPA/DHA
by: Anna - UK

Lauren Prigge - there is no such thing as semi vegan. You are vegetarian and if you are pondering about eating fish liver oil you are carnivore really.

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