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Many clients take omega-3 supplements in the form of fish oil. But could it be better to cut out the ‘middlefish’ and go straight to the source?

If you or your clients are confused about omega-3 supplements, you’re not alone. With all the options out there, not to mention the conflicting advice, it’s no wonder that people walk out of the vitamin store empty-handed – or buy supplements but leave them to collect dust in the medicine cabinet.

But there are some potential benefits to various supplements. Here’s why algae oil supplements might be a good option for some people.

What is algae, anyway?

One of the most abundant forms of life in the world, algae are marine-based photosynthesising organisms – living things that inhabit water and make energy from sunlight.

In other words, they’re plants in water. But because they lack many of the features of land-based plants (leaves and roots), algae are categorised differently.

There are simple algae – one-celled organisms – and then there’s seaweed, which is just a bunch of algae that decided to go into business together.

Why are algae so good for you?

In essence, algae have three components that make them nourishing to eat:

  • Phytochemicals:
    we know that these plant pigments, including chlorophyll, can be beneficial to human health, although we don’t know all of the phytochemicals or exactly how they work.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids:
    these include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Most of your clients probably associate omega-3s with fish oil supplements, but in fact they originate in algae.
  • Marine minerals: algae absorb minerals like iodine, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Consuming iodine from dietary sources such as seaweed is essential for thyroid health.

What your clients should know about algae oil supplements

Sure, there may be green stuff growing in your goldfish tank, but I don’t recommend you lick it (leave it for the plecostomus, those funny fish that suction their way along the panes of the aquarium).

Algae oil supplements are produced under strictly controlled laboratory conditions – meaning they’ve got a respectable concentration of the nutrients listed above.

Specifically, algae oil supplements may be your clients’ best bet at increasing their intake of omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3s can improve:

  • cardiovascular function
  • nervous system function
  • immunity
  • memory and concentration
  • mood
  • neurotransmission
  • insulin sensitivity and nutrient partitioning
  • body composition.

Human beings evolved on diets consisting of marine life, wild game and/or inland plants. This type of diet provided sufficient omega-3 fats, which resulted in an omega-6/omega-3 ratio that’s estimated to have been between 2:1 and 8:1 for our ancestors.

In the developed world, the typical diet has evolved to provide an omega-6/omega-3 ratio that’s closer to 10:1 (or more). This is likely due to the shift in dietary staples, which generally do not include foods like flax, hemp, walnuts, perilla, green leafy vegetables, chia, fish and algae.

Sure, you could tell your clients to each more fish – which tend to be included in some of the healthiest traditional diets – but with algae, you cut out the middleman (or, more accurately, the middlefish).

Fish contain high levels of EPA and DHA because they eat algae that contain it. You’ll be a hero if you tell your clients to get these important nutrients directly from the original source. And you can avoid some of the heavy metals that accumulate in fish that are higher in the food chain.

How does algae oil compare to fish oil?

In terms of efficacy, the two supplements appear to be similar.

Supplementing anywhere between 200mg and 2000mg of algae oil per day appears to elevate blood levels of DHA and EPA. This dose may also have a favourable influence on blood lipids, control inflammation, and moderate blood pressure.

One thing that often confuses people is the difference in recommended doses between algae and fish oil. A typical algae oil dose is 200mg, whereas fish oil’s is around 1200mg. A discrepancy like that can be a barrier to choosing, buying, and taking a supplement.

Here’s how to explain it to your clients: the omega-3s, and particularly the DHA, in algae seems to respond quite favourably in the human body, making the algae beneficial to health even at much lower doses.

This does give algae oil a bit of an advantage over other options, especially since there’s evidence that, as omega-3s go, DHA is the main player in delivering health benefits to the brain, blood, and organs. That said, more research needs to be done to confirm optimal dosing levels for algae oil supplements.

Why not just eat flax?

Another omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is very concentrated in flax and chia. Why not just stick with these whole foods?

You could, but while the human body is capable of turning ALA into EPA, the conversion rate varies and tends to be low. It’s not a big surprise, then, that if you depend on flax and chia, you’d likely see an increase in your ALA level (which might have some benefits), but EPA and DHA could still be low.

Various factors diminish our ability to convert ALA into EPA, including:

  • a diet high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sugar
  • elevated blood sugar
  • genetics
  • high stress
  • deficiency of zinc, magnesium, calcium, biotin, vitamin C, vitamin B3, or vitamin B6
  • excessive vitamin A or copper
  • unbalanced fatty acid ratios (too much omega-6)
  • medications
  • high alcohol intake
  • gender (women seem to convert ALA to EPA better than men)
  • advancing age (older people don’t convert ALA to EPA as well).

So, while flax can be a moderate help in improving fatty acid balance, it probably won’t do much good for clients whose overall diets are poor.

Why not just stick with fish oil?

Fish oil supplements may seem more familiar to your clients, but once you clue them in, they may be inspired to replace it with algae oil.

Beyond the lighter dosing you get with algae, the following reasons may affect their decision:

1. Overfishing

If everyone decided to eat more fish and/or take fish oil, we wouldn’t have enough fish.

One study found that if current overfishing and pollution patterns continue, we can expect to see a complete collapse of world fish populations by 2048.

Ninety per cent of the small fish caught in the world’s oceans each year are processed to make fishmeal and fish oil. While these species, including anchovies, sardines, mackerel and menhaden, do tend to be more resilient to fishing pressure since they reproduce faster, that’s not enough to slow the overall decline in marine populations.

According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the world’s fish are already either depleted or fully exploited. You have to wonder if some of this might be due to the recent 3,000 per cent increase in fish oil sales.

And fish farms aren’t the answer: around one kilogram of wild fish is required to produce half a kilogram of farmed fish, because many larger farmed fish consume diets containing smaller wild fish.

The problem touches other aspects of the human diet, as well. Along with factory-farmed fish, pigs and poultry consume 28 million tons of fish each year (roughly fifty times the amount of seafood eaten by Australians).

2. Contaminants

Fish concentrate not only EPA and DHA from algae, but environmental contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the pesticides DDT and Dieldrin.

Over the past 20 years the ocean’s mercury levels have risen about 30 per cent. This means people around the world could be increasingly exposed to mercury from eating seafood and taking fish oil.

Important note for your female clients: about 6 per cent of US women exceed the amount of mercury that the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe during pregnancy. In the US, while most fish oil supplement companies verify that they have met the strictest US standards for eliminating contaminants, there are still unpurified fish oil supplements available that contain unsafe levels.

Although algae contain some contaminants, potential for highly concentrated levels is limited.

3. Karma-light supplementation

Some people choose not to eat animals and thus prefer to get their omega-3s from plant foods.

are all algae supplements created equal?
With all the different algae supplements on the market, you may be wondering which kind is best. Here are some tips:

Pay attention to sourcing
Where the omega-3 in the algae supplement comes from will vary, depending on the manufacturer. Powders, including spirulina and chlorella, are simply dried algae. Algae oils are made by extracting moisture from one or more microalgae.

Consider contaminants
Algae can accumulate heavy metals, including mercury, and some algae are grown in environments that contain other toxins as well. Most algae oils go through a process that removes contaminants (and they tend to be created and sold by people who care about this issue).

Make sure there’s been a quality check
Whether you go with an oil or a powder, check the manufacturer’s website to confirm that they’re reputable and have a process for removing contaminants (or sidestepping them entirely). Some companies check for this, and some don’t. If the supplements you buy are contaminated, the health risks will outweigh potential benefits.


Summary and recommendations

Most clients will benefit from omega-3 supplementation because their omega-6 intake is so high. The fish oil supplement recommendations that exist today are based on a high omega-6 intake. In general, humans would need fewer omega-3 supplements if our diets were more balanced.

Most algae oil supplement manufacturers recommend between 300 and 500mg/day. While that may be enough for those with a balanced fat intake from food, some clients might get bigger health benefits by consuming up to 1000mg/day of combined EPA/DHA per day from algae, split between two doses. Specific conditions may warrant more or less, so be cautious (too much EPA/DHA can lead to problems, as well).

Finally, clients who do decide to go down the algae oil route should keep the supplements away from light and high temperatures and store them in a dark, cool place.

Ryan Andrews is a coach at Precision Nutrition (PN), the world’s largest private nutrition coaching and certification company. He’s also co-creator of PN’s Certification program for fitness professionals.

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