Do Vegans Need to Supplement Omega-3s? A Review of PhytOriginal Vegan EPA Supplement

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It seems like every time you turn around, someone is touting the health benefits of fish oil despite studies showing that it rarely, if ever, does any good.  There are a lot of other problems with fish oil, too, including the fact that it comes from an unsustainable source that is more likely than not to have been raised on GMO corn.  However, it turns out that vegans–and anyone else who thinks fish oil is nasty–can also look to the ocean for a good source of supplementary omega-3s.  Specifically, to algae.

PhytOriginal is an unprocessed vegan omega-3 supplement made from cultured phytoplankton.  It contains around 350mg of EPA per dropper as well as the amino acid proline and two antioxidants: astaxanthin and zeaxanthin.  According to the Aqua Health Labs site, this combination is meant to deliver a wealth of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties, cardiovascular support, better skin, increased athletic performance and vision protection.

And indeed, omega-3 fatty acids do have many important functions in the body.  They help to keep blood from becoming too thick, lower both cholesterol and triglycerides, improve brain function and increase metabolic rate (Bauman, 2012).  Omega-3s also modulate the body’s inflammatory response, an important consideration given that inflammation is the underlying factor in so many of the diseases that people suffer from today.  It also means that omega-3 can be beneficial in reducing the inflammation associated with injury.

Poor Omega-3 Conversion?

Vegans get most of their omega-3s from sources such as flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and hemp seeds in the form of alpha linolenic acid (ALA).  ALA is then converted in the body into EPA and DHA, the fats most often associated with fish oil, with the help of an enzyme called delta-6-desaturase (Bauman, 2012).  The research is conflicting on whether or not this conversion is sufficient to maintain a good omega-3 status.  Some studies show very low conversion rates in the general population while others claim that vegans have little or no EPA and DHA in their blood.  On the other hand, a 2010 study done in the UK showed little difference in EPA and DHA status in people who didn’t eat fish versus those who did, suggesting that ALA intake and conversion was adequate in non-fish-eaters.

When looking at studies like this, it’s important to note the details.  For example, individuals in the study showing low conversion rates were eating diets high in both saturated and omega-6 fats.  While we need some omega-6 fats to be healthy, excessive intake can lead to inflammation and may also cause a deficiency of omega-3s due to the fact that they compete for the delta-6-desaturase conversion enzyme. (The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is around 3:1).  Compounding the problem is the fact that conversion also requires vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium (Bauman, 2010), any or all of which may be deficient in the standard American diet as well as “junk food” vegan diets.  Conversion may also be impaired in those with compromised liver function (Bauman, 2012).

The takeaway here is that there isn’t enough current research to know exactly how well those on a vegan diet convert ALA into EPA and DHA, nor has there been any research done on omgea-3 status in people eating solely a whole-foods, plant-based diet.  So the question becomes: when is it a good idea to supplement?

My Experience with PhytOriginal

PhytOriginal vegan EPA supplement

Image courtesy of Aqua Health Labs

A sample bottle of PhytOriginal arrived in my mailbox in May, shipped with a cold pack to keep it fresh.  I started taking it soon after to see if I felt any difference from the boost of omega-3s.  You can mix it with just about anything, including a smoothie, which is ultimately what I wound up doing.  You can also take it straight up if the green color of the algae doesn’t bother you.  (I thought it was pretty neat!)

It didn’t take long for me to notice that PhytOriginal was, in fact, doing something for my health.  I’d been having some pain in the tendons of one of my knees for a while, and it was pretty unpleasant.  I was getting hot, tingly pins and needles up the side of my leg every time I stretched too far.  After a few days on the supplement, I noticed that the pain did reduce and stayed that way as long as I kept taking it.  Once I was done, the pain came back a little but was noticeably less.  I can’t say for sure since I didn’t go to a doctor to verify what kind of injury I had, but just from the feel of it I think that the PhytOriginal did help with the healing process.  The folks at Aqua Health Labs confirm that the proline, which is a building block of cartilage (Bauman, 2010), is likely part of the reason why I felt better as quickly as I did.

Overall, though, I didn’t feel too much different with the extra omega-3s.  Since I’ve never experienced symptoms of low omega-3 status, I can’t say whether or not it would help someone who has–but I suspect that it would given that it’s a more direct form of delivery than ALA.

The Bottom Line

Given the conflicting information in the current health studies, I’m not going to say that vegans should assume they need a supplement to get enough EPA and DHA.  In fact, as there seem to have been no studies done on the EPA and DHA status of those following whole-foods, plant-based diets, it’s hard to know what the conversion rates are in that particular part of the population.  This type of diet delivers a much higher concentration of the nutrients the body needs to convert ALA to the long-chain omega-3s and excludes most–if not all–of the substances that inhibit it.

My recommendation?  Try PhytOriginal if you’ve been tested and have a confirmed deficiency in omega-3s or if you’re recovering from any type of sports injury.  You can’t really argue with having a live, natural, 100% vegan alternative to the fish oil that the supplement industry keeps trying to insist that everyone should take.


 

Additional references:
Bauman, E. (2012). NC105.3 Fats and oils. [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from Bauman College: http://dashboard.baumancollege.org/mod/resource/view.php?id=1417
Bauman, E.(2010) NC210.1 The musculoskeletal system and osteoarthritis. [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from Bauman College: http://dashboard.baumancollege.org/mod/resource/view.php?id=1987

About The Author

Sam has been a vegan since summer of 2009 and has spent the subsequent years experimenting with all manner of vegan food. She holds a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a graduate of the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant Program. She is a member of Toastmasters International and currently serves as part of the Capital View Toastmasters club. When she's not blogging or cooking, Sam likes to read, play silly card games and knit socks.

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