The Conversion Question, Answered
If you’re confused about conversion of omega-3 ALA into the omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA, you’re not alone. I get at least one question about conversion each week. And I know that if one person is asking, there are probably ten more people who want to know but don’t ask.
We came out with flaxseed oil in 1986 and introduced it to the public in 1987. The week I started going out and giving talks about it, one of the fish oil companies started a new ad campaign. Until then, they used to say that 30% of the population can’t convert enough and therefore 30% of the population should take fish oils. Now they began to make the blanket statement that the body cannot convert.
We got into a heated little war. They said the body can’t convert. We said the body can convert. We all got sidetracked by it because we forgot that theirs is a supplement (1-3 grams/day) and ours is the food oil foundation (28-56 grams/day). Basically, if the food oil foundation is damaged, a supplement cannot fix the damaged food oil foundation. We need to fix the food oil foundation, even if none of it can be converted into supplement in our body.
But you DO get conversion. Several studies show that conversion takes place in the body. Different studies show widely differing rates of conversion because conversion is affected by quite a few nutrition and lifestyle factors that were not taken into consideration by those who designed the studies.
Even if the body could not convert ALA, the omega-3 essential fatty acid, into the omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA found in fish oil, you would still require ALA because it is your food oil foundation. Even if you had no conversion at all, you would still need ALA as part of the foundation that needs to be made with health in mind.
So, the story in the marketplace became: The body cannot convert flax oil into fish oil. That was the fish oil industry’s turf protection. It wasn’t honest, but it was understandable from the fish oil sellers’ profit point of view. Those who hold money as more important than health will lie to protect their bank account.
Many people in industry do that. It's unfortunate. A lot of damage results from that kind of lying. Lying is a dictatorship because it robs people of choice. You cannot make good choices for health on wrong ‘facts’.
Eventually, the conversion issue got sorted out. We said: The fish oil industry is talking about supplements and we're talking about the food oil foundation. Completely different functions. It turns out that if you get enough ALA, the essential omega-3 in the food oil foundation, it CAN be converted into EPA and DHA and everything the body makes from those: Eicosanoid hormones and molecules that have immune-enhancing, mood-lifting, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant functions.
Recent research shows that the way the conversion studies were done was quite stupid at best, and at worst, perhaps deliberately designed to be dishonest, misleading you without getting caught. Here's how it was done:
Study participants swallowed 5 grams of carbon-13-labeled (carbon-12 is the normal form) Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acid, and then labeled DHA in the body was measured.
This ignored the fact that the labeled DHA doesn’t sit around and play dead, waiting to be measured. No. DHA is dynamic and is changed into other molecules – and those amounts weren’t measured. Leaving them out lowers the measured results because it only measures labeled DHA, not DHA derivatives. For instance, since up to 10% of the labeled DHA retro-converts to EPA, it makes it appear that conversion is 10% lower than it is in fact.
There was also no measure of other molecules made from DHA, including maresins, protectins, resolvins, and endocannabinoids. Again, that makes it appear that conversion is lower than it is.
But the biggest mistake was this: In the human studies, people ate 5 grams of labeled (C-13) ALA and researchers completely ignored the fact that their bodies already contain another 15-60 grams of unlabeled (C-12) ALA that’s also available for conversion. Then the researchers measured only labeled (C-13) DHA. This results in massively under-reporting the conversion of ALA by at least three and as much as 12 times.
These are not stupid people. It’s too obvious to not arouse suspicion. Why did they design the studies to massively underestimate the rate of conversion? To protect fish oil industry funding? A-ha! Something to think about!
Here’s a new and interesting research finding: How much DHA does the brain require every day? Quite a bit, you might think. The brain is a big, very active organ with lots of DHA in it. So, researchers measured daily brain DHA turnover. The entire brain requires only 2.4 to 3.8 milligrams/day. That's a minuscule amount. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) is 1,000 grams. The daily turnover we’re talking about is not even 1 gram, but only 3.8/1,000th of one gram. To meet that DHA requirement, you would need less than a gram of ALA per day at a conversion rate of less than ½ of one percent.
There’s other factors to consider as well. Too little vitamin B3, B6 and C slows down conversion. So does too little zinc or magnesium, too much sugar and starch, and too much omega-6, trans-, saturated, and monounsaturated fat in the diet.
Let’s talk about animals, who also need EPA and DHA. Rabbits never eat fish. Elephants never eat fish. Zebras never eat fish. Gorillas never eat fish or take fish oils. Their brain, eyes, and sperm have enough DHA in them to function, see, and reproduce. If they couldn't convert ALA to EPA and DHA, they would be brain dysfunctional, blind, and sterile. But they have no problems, even though they only eat plants.
To take it to my final point: The 300 million members of the Brahmin caste in India are obligate vegetarians. They get enough ALA from eating vegetables, chickpeas, psyllium, and other plants to make the EPA and DHA they need. They never eat fish. They never take fish oil. Their only animal product is soured milk for probiotics with every meal. Milk is low in fats and super-low omega-3s. They’ve eaten that way for 5,000 to 20,000 years. Is that a big enough study? 300 million people for 10,000 years? In that time, they’ve been able to think, see and reproduce just as effectively as those of us who eat fish and take fish oils.
Some people say: Oh yeah, but they were selected for conversion. Prove it. You can make up a story to rationalize anything. But if you can't convert, you would eventually become dumb, blind, and sterile. After 5,000 years, surely that would show up.
While Walter Willet from Harvard School of Public Health (and one of the most knowledgeable experts on this topic) was in Denmark talking about fats, someone asked him what would happen if you couldn't convert ALA into EPA and DHA? His instant answer was: “You'd be dead.”
There you have it. You’d be dead.
Just for fun, here’s some other recent findings about conversion:
-The herb turmeric increases the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA. Where does turmeric come from? It is part of the ginger family, this yellow powder is the main ingredient in curry. Many experts consider turmeric, with powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties to be the best spice for health in the world.
-If you get less DHA or omega-3 in your diet, the body conserves it, so that its turnover slows down.
–Omega-3s improve the health of probiotics in our gut by keeping unfriendly bacteria from making us sick. Probiotics may also be involved in omega-3 conversion. More research is needed on this topic.
The key issue is that most people (up to 99%) do not get enough ALA from the foods they eat. Solution? Increase ALA intake by eating foods rich in them. That’s why flax, flaxseed oil and my Udo’s Oil Blend can be so valuable.
For optimum intake, we recommend that adults take between 5 and 20 grams depending on body weight of Udo’s Oil. When you optimize intake of the starting material, your body can make the EPA and DHA you need.
Research and clinical practice consistently show that living out of line with nature is not sustainable, including eating damaged fish oils in the name of ‘health’ supplementation. For best health and longest life, we must live more consciously aligned with nature, and care for her the way she cares for us.
Udo Erasmus has extensive education in biochemistry, biology and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Adler University. He is the author of Fats and Oils, Fats That Heal Fats That Kill, Choosing the Right Fats, Omega 3 Cuisine, The Book on Total Sexy Health, and the upcoming Your Body Needs an Oil Change: How to Use Good Oils to Look, Feel, Think, Do, & Heal Better. Udo is the creator of Udo’s Oil® 3·6·9 Blend, a multiple award-winning mix of plant-based, unrefined, certified organic food oils made with health in mind.