Alpha-linolenic acid, also known as ALA, is a healthy plant fat that the human body can use a building block to make decosahexaenoic acid, also known as DHA, and eicosapentaenoic acid, also known as EPA. In turn DHA and EPA become vital hormones that control inflammation.
ALA is considered a non-essential fatty acid, because the human body does not have to get it from food. The body uses it to make essential fatty acids that it would otherwise have to get from animal foods or algae.
Many plant foods are OK sources of ALA. This non-essential fatty acid is found in chia seed, hemp seed (and actually in marijuana seed), perillas soybeans, walnuts, canola, kiwi fruit seed, and flaxseed, as well as the oils extracted from these seeds.
There is also ALA in purslane, a Mediterranean green vegetable, sea buckthorn berries (although the unprocessed berries have a severe laxative effect), and lingonberries, the Swedish fruit also known as cowberries.
Of all the plant sources of ALA, the greatest amount is found in chia seed, followed by kiwi fruit seed, and perilla. The most readily available commercial source of ALA, however, is flaxseed oil.
Flaxseed Oil Is Better Than Flaxseeds
Many people reason that since flaxseed oil is a great source of ALA, flaxseeds themselves might be even better. The problem with this is that flaxseeds are too tough to be broken down by the digestive tract, and the whole seed is just lost in bowel movement. Grinding flaxseeds releases the oil, but also exposes it to the air, which can quickly cause the flaxseed oil released by grinding the seed to go bad. The best way to use flaxseed is to take flaxseed oil. Capsules you keep in the refrigerator are best.
Who Benefits the Most from ALA?
Everybody can make DHA and EPA from ALA, but the process is much more efficient in the presence of estrogen. Pregnant women's bodies convert an especially high percentage of ALA into DHA, which in turn supports the growth of the fetal brain and nervous system. Men, on the other hand, need to take about three times as much ALA, or eat three times as much cold-pressed, uncooked plant oil, to make the same amount of DHA. Men have to consume more calories to get the same amount of cial omega-3 essential fatty acids.
If You Take ALA, Do You Need Fish Oil?
ALA is a good source of DHA and EPA for vegetarians, but there are limits to how much DHA and EPA the body can make. If you do not consume animal products, microalgae provide DHA to augment the DHA the body makes from plant oils. If you do consume animal products, a small amount of fish or krill oil will help to keep EPA and DHA in good balance.