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Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
In the last decade or so, we have seen a huge rise in awareness about omega-3 essential fatty acids and their many aids to health. You’ve likely also heard about two key players: fish oil and krill oil. Several years ago, one study suggested that omega-3s from fish oil may reduce the overall risk of premature or early death by up to 85% (1), in those who were healthy as well as those suffering from chronic disease.
Most such studies focused their research on supplemental fish oil, but in recent years krill oil has emerged as a potential alternative. The question is: can we expect the same plethora of benefits from krill oil that we’ve come to expect from that of fish?
The answer may surprise you!
Cold-Water Creatures, and Colder-Water Creatures
Both fish and krill oils are derived from cold-water marine animals. Fish oil is typically made from sardines and anchovies; both small, fatty, cold-water fish. Krill oil is made from tiny shrimp-like crustaceans called krill, best known to us as whale food. Krill lives in the globe’s most frigid waters. Considered to be the most populous animal species on the planet, schools of these tiny creatures can be seen from space!
When krill oil first hit the shelves, its promoters praised krill as being as effective as fish, with added benefits. One of the biggest added benefits was the naturally-occurring antioxidant astaxanthin, lending krill its red color and making it a more stable oil.
Interestingly, little research had been done to ascertain its EPA and DHA content. It seems the amazing benefits of fish oil were automatically extended to krill without the backup of research done specifically on krill.
Only recently have studies begun to quantify EPA and DHA content in krill oil, and the results have been surprising.
While both contain some DHA and EPA, the concentration in fish is much greater than that of krill. In fact, it would take about thirty 300mg soft-gels of krill oil to get the amount of DHA you typically get from two soft-gel capsules of highly concentrated, molecularly distilled fish oil. Most of the research suggests an optimal dose of EPA and DHA in amounts of 2000-2500mg a day, combined. Concentrations in krill oil are much lower.
Does this mean that krill oil is not as effective?
Not necessarily. But it does suggest that in contrast to fish oil, it appears that the benefits of krill oil may not be contingent on high concentrations of EPA and DHA.
What we are learning is that krill likely has a different mechanism, or action, then fish oil.
Additionally, the omega-3s in krill show a fundamental structural difference from that of fish: they take the form of a phospholipid – a much shorter chain fatty acid that can stay liquid in freezing temperatures.
Krill’s Unique Target Site: Joints and Cartilage
Krill oil has been shown to have a unique ability to target the joints of the body, protecting the cartilage of the joints. In one study, krill oil – but not fish oil – decreased inflammatory cells to the joints and the cartilage that lines the surface of the joints. (1)
In another study of krill oil given to arthritic patients, c-reactive protein (a measure of inflammation) was reduced by 50%, and joint pain and stiffness were decreased by up to 39% (3).
The Need for Further Research
The unique properties and mechanisms of krill oil suggest there are more benefits than we know of, but more research is needed. For now, we can say that krill oil clearly outperforms fish oil when it comes to supporting the joints and soft tissues of the body.
Fish Oil Remains on Top when it comes to Cardiovascular Health
The same study that showed krill oil causes a decrease of inflammatory cells to the joints also found that fish oil (but not krill oil) reduced inflammatory cytokines in the blood (2). These inflammatory cytokines are directly related to the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Known Benefits of Fish Oil
Research in favor of fish oil supplementation continues to mount.
The benefits of ingesting omega-3s from fish in support of cardiovascular health, mood stability, coping with stress, blood sugar and weight issues as well as longevity, to name a few, are well documented:
- Going far beyond supporting the cardiovascular system and mental health, omega-3s may reduce the overall risk of premature or early death by up to 85% – in those who were healthy or suffering from chronic disease (4,5).
- Stress elevates the production of adrenal hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine which can accelerate aging. Omega-3 fatty acids can inhibit excessive stimulation of adrenal stress hormone production (6).
- Omega-3s are essential components of brain cell membranes and may support serotonin nerve cell transmission (7). People with severe depression may have low levels of omega-3s in the brain (8).
- People with the highest levels of omega-3s may have as much as a 46% lower risk of Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome is cluster of risk factors including abdominal obesity, elevated blood sugar, hypertension, elevated triglycerides and low density lipoproteins (LDLs) (9).
These reports are based on average consumption of 2500mg of EPA/DHA per day of fish oil.* Over time, krill oil may prove to have many of these same benefits, but we now know that krill oil does not concentrate EPA and DHA in the same way. But with its own set of unique benefits emerging, it’s an exciting field to keep our eyes on as more research comes to light!
Top 5 Vegetarian Sources of Omega-3s
These sources of omega-3s contain ALA, a known precursor to DHA and EPA. Research about the conversion rate of ALA to DHA and EPA remains controversial;
it seems that ALA has a conversion rate of only about 20%, depending on one’s state of health and other factors. However, it’s worth mentioning that vegetarians seem to have overall good cardiovascular health, perhaps for other reasons.
- Flax seeds and flax seed oil
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
As we keep our eyes on this field of evolving research, we’ll hopefully understand more about the differences in omega-3 fatty acids and omega-3-rich foods, their mechanisms and their unique therapeutic roles.
- Life Extension Mag – 2011 Nov; 31-37 Life Extension Mag – 2011 Oct, 28-38
- BMC Musculoskeletal Disorder, 2010;11:136
- J. Am Coll Nutr. 2007 Feb;26(1):39-48
- BMJ. 2008;337:a2931.
- Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2008 Jun;64(6):627-34
- Diabetes metab. 2003 Jun;29(3):289-95
- Neuropharmacology. 2011 June 29.
- Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Jul 1;62(1):17-24
- J Nutr. 2010 Oct;140(10):1846-54