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Published on June 17, 2021

Flaxseed Oil vs Fish Oil: Which Is Better?

Flaxseed Oil vs Fish Oil: Which Is Better?
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Both flaxseed oil and fish oil supplements are sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have so many known benefits, such as having a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, glaucoma, and stroke. This nutrient is essential for the body’s function, but our bodies are unable to produce them on their own. That’s why you should get enough Omega-3 fatty acids from outside sources as well.

In this article, I’ll discuss flaxseed oil vs fish oil and their various benefits and drawbacks to help you quickly make a more informed decision about which one of these is right for you.

Are These Supplements Safe?

According to the National Institutes of Health, side effects experienced by users of fish oil supplements, if any, are usually mild. These side effects may include unpleasant taste, bad breath, headache, and gastrointestinal symptoms. This could include symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, or heartburn.[1]

In terms of possible medication interactions, it’s noted that fish oil supplements may interfere with medicines that many Americans take to prevent blood clotting. If you’re on one of these medications or if you have a seafood allergy, it’s important to speak with your doctor before deciding to start taking Omega-3 supplements.

Regarding the safety of flaxseed oil supplements, according to Mayo Clinic, these supplements are also generally considered to be safe. However, they report that if taken in excess and without sufficient intakes of water, users may experience various gastrointestinal symptoms. These symptoms include bloating, gas, and diarrhea.[2]

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also advise that these supplements should not be taken during pregnancy. This is because some studies suggest that taking flaxseed oil later in pregnancy may increase the risk of premature birth.[3]

Mayo Clinic notes that, like fish oil supplements, flaxseed oil may also have negative interactions with some medications. Specifically, it’s important to consult your doctor before starting these medications if you’re on medications to reduce blood clotting, lower blood pressure, or manage your diabetes as these may interact negatively with a flaxseed oil supplement.[4]

How Much Should You Take?

The tricky thing about these supplements is that there is no standard recommended dosage for any of them. To be safe, it is recommended that you read the label on the supplement you choose to buy and make sure to only take the recommended dosage.

Regardless of whether you’re taking a fish oil or flaxseed oil supplement, you may benefit from speaking with your primary care doctor to determine what dosage is right for you. They may be able to work with you to come up with an appropriate dosage, which may help prevent unwanted side effects.

If you are interested in researching a particular brand of Omega-3 supplement, you can use the Dietary Supplement Label Database from the National Institutes of Health.[5]

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Flaxseed Oil vs. Fish Oil

Before we get into the various benefits of Fish Oil and Flaxseed Oil supplements, it’s important to have some basic knowledge about Omega-3 fatty acids.

There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA come mainly from fish while ALA comes mainly from plant sources such as flaxseed and walnuts.[6] This means that if you choose to take a fish oil supplement, you’ll be getting DHA and EPA, and if you choose a flaxseed oil supplement, you’ll be taking ALA.

Fish Oil Benefits

Fish Oil supplements typically contain oil that has been extracted from fatty fish, such as herring, tuna, or anchovies.[7] The Omega-3 found in fish oil is very important for our heart health. It can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and blood clots.[8] It can also help to reduce high blood pressure, which is common among adults in the United States.[9]

They can also help to reduce high cholesterol and plaque formation in your arteries.[10][11] They can also help reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death, which occurs when the heart is either pumping irregularly or ineffectively, making it unable to pump blood as intended to the rest of your vital organs.[12]

These supplements may have non-cardiac benefits as well. Studies show that they can reduce your risk of glaucoma, certain cancers, and certain mental health disorders.[13][14][15]

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Some studies have also shown that including Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil in your lifestyle may lead to improved weight loss when combined with a healthful diet.[16]

Flaxseed Oil Benefits

As we’ve noted, flaxseed oil contains the third type of Omega-3 fatty acid, Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). What the body does with ALA is incredibly interesting. It actually converts it into DHA and EPA, which are the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.

Something important to note, however, is that the body is not all that efficient at converting ALA to DHA and EPA. This means that the benefits of ALA may not necessarily be the same as those that you would get from just taking DHA and EPA. Studies seem to be overall mixed on whether taking flaxseed oil provides the same cardiac benefits as fish oil does. Specifically, it’s unclear whether or not flaxseed oil supplementation can lower cholesterol or reduce your risk of heart disease.[17]

According to the National Institutes of Health, studies have shown that taking flaxseed may help individuals with type 2 diabetes to manage their blood sugar levels. However, it’s important to note that these findings are for flaxseed, no flaxseed oil. NIH does note that it is unclear whether flaxseed oil would provide such a benefit.[18]

One big health benefit of flaxseed oil is its possible cancer-fighting ability. Studies have shown that taking flaxseed oil can stop the growth of cancer cells as well as cause apoptosis or death of cancer cells in certain types of cancer. One study found that the types of cancer which saw benefits from flaxseed oil intakes included breast cancer, cervical cancer, leukemia, and melanoma.[19]

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Flaxseed Oil Vs Fish Oil: Which Should You Take?

When deciding whether to take flaxseed oil vs fish oil supplements, there are some important things to consider. As I’ve discussed, fish oil supplements are a great source of DHA and EPA. In contrast, flaxseed oil supplements provide ALA, which the body ends up converting back to DHA and EPA, although inefficiently.

Additionally, the benefits of fish oil seem to be more deeply studied and more overall conclusive than the benefits of flaxseed oil. Fish oil supplements have been shown to provide so many benefits, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, glaucoma, certain cancers, and various mental health disorders.

In contrast, the research regarding the benefits of flaxseed oil supplementation is lacking. While these supplements may have anti-cancer properties, the findings on further benefits are overall mixed.

In terms of safety, these two supplements come out relatively even. They’re both regarded as generally safe. However, both have interactions with various medications that need to be taken into consideration before starting supplementation.

If you’re trying to settle on an Omega-3 supplement, I recommend trying a fish oil supplement over a flaxseed oil supplement. Fish oil has so many proven benefits while the research on flaxseed oil is significantly less convincing. Fish oil also has the benefit of providing EPA and DHA directly, so your body does not need to do any extra work to convert it.

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If you choose to take a fish oil supplement, know that you’ll be quickly reducing your risk of various chronic diseases with overall very minimal effort on your part. As always, make sure to check with your doctor before starting any supplementation to prevent negative side effects or drug interactions.

Featured photo credit: New Food Magazine via newfoodmagazine.com

Reference

[1] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Omega-3 Supplements: In-Depth
[2] Mayo Clinic: Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
[3] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil
[4] Mayo Clinic: Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
[5] National Institutes of Health: Dietary Supplement Label Database (DSLD)
[6] Harvard School of Public Health: Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution
[7] Healthline: What’s the Difference Between Cod Liver Oil and Fish Oil?
[8] Cleveland Clinic: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
[9] PubMed.gov: Moderate consumption of fatty fish reduces diastolic blood pressure in overweight and obese European young adults during energy restriction
[10] ResearchGate: Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and growth and development
[11] PubMed.gov: Effect of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation on endothelial function: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
[12] Mayo Clinic: Ventricular fibrillation
[13] TVST: Oral Omega-3 Supplementation Lowers Intraocular Pressure in Normotensive Adults
[14] PubMed.gov: Dietary fatty acids and colorectal cancer: a case-control study
[15] PubMed.gov: Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for indicated prevention of psychotic disorders: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial
[16] PubMed.gov: Randomized trial of weight-loss-diets for young adults varying in fish and fish oil content
[17] Mount Sinai: Flaxseed oil
[18] NIH: Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil
[19] NCBI: Treatment with flaxseed oil induces apoptosis in cultured malignant cells

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Samantha Klig, RD

Registered Dietitian

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Published on June 16, 2021

Cod Liver Oil vs Fish Oil: Which Is Better?

Cod Liver Oil vs Fish Oil: Which Is Better?
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Omega-3 fatty acids have so many benefits, such as a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 1 diabetes, certain types of cancer, glaucoma, and stroke. This nutrient is essential for the body’s function, but our bodies are unable to produce them on their own. Therefore, it’s important that we get enough Omega-3 fatty acids from outside sources.

If you’re looking for a way to get your Omega-3 fatty acids in, there are so many ways to do so. If introducing Omega-3s into your diet by eating two to three servings of fish per week doesn’t seem feasible, supplements such as cod liver oil and fish oil are here to help.

Many people use these supplements to boost their health and prevent chronic diseases. In fact, research from the National Institutes of Health showed that, in 2012, 7.8% of adults in the United States and 1.1% of children had taken a fish oil supplement in the previous 30 days.[1]

In this article, I’ll answer the commonly asked question: cod liver oil vs fish oil: which is better? We’ll look at the overall health benefits you can expect from taking Omega-3 supplements and break down the differences between cod liver oil and fish oil.

Facts About Omega-3 Supplements

There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA come mainly from fish while ALA comes mainly from plant sources such as flaxseed and walnuts.[2] Omega-3 supplements such as Cod Liver Oil and Fish Oil provide the EPA and DHA our bodies need.

Omega-3 fatty acids are very important for our heart health. They can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and blood clots.[3] They can also help to reduce high blood pressure, which is common among adults in the United States.[4]

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Omega-3 supplements can also help to reduce high cholesterol and plaque formation in your arteries.[5][6] They can also help to reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death, which occurs when the heart is either pumping irregularly or ineffectively, making it unable to pump blood as intended to the rest of your vital organs.[7]

One important thing to note is that while getting your Omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources such as fatty fish provides these benefits, studies have shown that taking Omega-3s in the form of supplements does not reduce the risk of heart disease.[8]

Omega-3 fatty acids have non-cardiac benefits as well. Studies show that they can reduce your risk of glaucoma, certain cancers, and certain mental health disorders.[9][10][11]

Some studies also show that including Omega-3 fatty acids in your lifestyle may lead to improved weight loss when combined with a healthful diet.[12]

With all of these possible benefits, it’s understandable why you would want to increase your Omega-3 intakes. If eating fatty fish, such as tuna or salmon, or plant sources of Omega-3s, such as nuts and seeds, consistently doesn’t seem realistic for your lifestyle, you’d likely be interested in taking an Omega-3 supplement. But which supplement is right for you? Let’s explore the benefits of each.

Are These Supplements Safe?

According to the National Institutes of Health, side effects experienced by users of Omega-3 supplements, if any, are usually mild. These side effects may include unpleasant taste, bad breath, headache, and gastrointestinal symptoms. This could include symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, or heartburn.[13]

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Another thing to note with Omega-3 supplements is that they may interfere with medicines that many Americans take to prevent blood clotting. If you’re on one of these medications or if you have a seafood allergy, it’s important to speak with your doctor before deciding to start taking Omega-3 supplements.

While many consumers may be worried about the mercury content of fish oils, a literature review conducted showed that fish oil capsules do not contain mercury. They noted that when the oil is extracted from the fish, the mercury and other heavy metals that may be present actually stay behind.[14]

How Much Should I Take?

The tricky thing about these supplements is that there is no standard recommended dosage for EPA or DHA. It’s recommended that you read the supplement label and only take the recommended dosage. Especially if you choose to take Cod Liver Oil, it’s important to follow the recommended dosage on the supplement’s label as too much Vitamin A can be toxic.

Regardless of which supplement you’re taking, you can also speak with your primary care doctor to determine what dosage is right for you. If you want to research a particular brand of Omega-3 supplement, you can use the Dietary Supplement Label Database from the National Institutes of Health.[15]

Cod Liver Oil vs Fish Oil Benefits

Here are the differences in the benefits between consuming cod liver oil vs fish oil.

Cod Liver Oil Benefits

Cod Liver Oil was often used at the turn of the 20th century to treat rickets, a bone disease caused by Vitamin D deficiency. This is because Cod Liver Oil contains Vitamin D.[16] Cod Liver Oils tested tended to provide about 400 IU of Vitamin D. The recommended daily intake of Vitamin D for adults is 600 IU, so these supplements provide the majority of what you need.[17]

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Getting enough Vitamin D through diet or supplements is especially important for individuals who don’t get a lot of sunlight during the day or don’t already get enough Vitamin D from their diet alone. Additionally, Cod Liver Oil contains Vitamin A, which is important for eye health and immune function.

One important thing to note is that Vitamin A can be toxic in high amounts, so when taking Cod Liver Oil, it’s important to stick to the recommended dosage. Cod Liver Oil also has other possible benefits. It’s long been a popular folk remedy for inducing labor and managing constipation.[18]

Fish Oil Benefits

As opposed to Cod Liver Oil, which is a specific type of fish oil, the commonly called “Fish Oil” supplement is a bit different. Fish Oil supplements typically contain oil that has been extracted from fatty fish, such as herring, tuna, or anchovies.[19]

While Fish Oil also contains Omega-3s and, therefore, has similar benefits to Cod Liver Oil supplements, it has one primary benefit: the fish used in these supplements are fattier than Cod. Therefore, Fish Oil supplements have a higher Omega-3 content.[20] This may mean that taking Fish Oil supplements, as opposed to Cod Liver Oil supplements, may end up giving you a bigger bang for your buck.

Cod Liver Oil vs Fish Oil: Which Is Better?

Both Cod Liver Oil and Fish Oil supplements provide the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids without having to increase your weekly intake of fatty fishes. They both may provide a reduced risk of glaucoma, improved heart health, and reduced risk of mental health disorders and certain types of cancers.

If you’re looking for a supplement that gets the most bang for your buck, Fish Oil supplements may be right for you. They contain a higher level of Omega-3 supplements than Cod Liver Oil supplements, which may end up being more cost-effective for some consumers.

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However, if you have a diet low in Vitamin D or Vitamin A or don’t get enough sunlight during the day, it may be helpful to take an Omega-3 supplement that also contains these vitamins. In that case, Cod Liver Oil may be right for you. One of the drawbacks of this supplement, however, is that it does contain lower levels of Omega-3 than Fish Oil supplements do.

As noted, if you are on blood thinners or have a seafood allergy, it’s important to speak with your doctor before starting any of these supplements.

Whichever supplement you choose, know that these supplements have overall very mild possible side effects and can be a great addition to a healthful diet to promote overall wellness.

Featured photo credit: Caroline Attwood via cod liver oil vs fish oil

Reference

[1] NIH: Omega-3 Supplements: In-Depth
[2] Harvard School of Public Health: Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution
[3] Cleveland Clinic: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
[4] PubMed.gov: Moderate consumption of fatty fish reduces diastolic blood pressure in overweight and obese European young adults during energy restriction
[5] ResearchGate: Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and growth and development
[6] PubMed.gov: Effect of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation on endothelial function: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
[7] Mayo Clinic: Ventricular fibrillation
[8] NCCIH: Omega-3 Supplements: In-Depth
[9] TVST: Oral Omega-3 Supplementation Lowers Intraocular Pressure in Normotensive Adults
[10] PubMed.gov: Dietary fatty acids and colorectal cancer: a case-control study
[11] PubMed.gov: Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for indicated prevention of psychotic disorders: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial
[12] PubMed.gov: Randomized trial of weight-loss-diets for young adults varying in fish and fish oil content
[13] NCCIH: Omega-3 Supplements: In-Depth
[14] Anabolic Labs: Fish oil supplementation: Evidence for health benefits
[15] National Institutes of Health: Dietary Supplement Label Database (DSLD)
[16] PubMed.gov: Vitamin D, cod-liver oil, sunlight, and rickets: a historical perspective
[17] ConsumerLab: What is the difference between fish oil and cod liver oil? Is one better than the other?
[18] NCBI: What Started Your Labor? Responses From Mothers in the Third Pregnancy, Infection, and Nutrition Study
[19] Healthline: What’s the Difference Between Cod Liver Oil and Fish Oil?
[20] Medical News Today: What are the differences between cod liver oil and fish oil?

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