Fish, flax and borage oils all contain essential fatty acids, or EFAs, but they are not created equal and differ in their health benefits. Fish oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseed oil contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, whereas borage oil is rich in omega-6 fatty acids. Alpha linolenic acid, or ALA, is the primary omega-3 fatty acid found in flax oil that needs to be converted in the body to have optimal health benefits. Gamma linolenic acid, or GLA, is the omega-6 fatty acid found in borage oil and is readily available for your body to utilize in its native form. Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, known as EPA and DHA, respectively, are the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil and tend to have the greatest health benefits.
The EPA and DHA found in fish oil are readily available to your body to utilize. These constituents of omega-3 help decrease inflammation and pain in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and dysmenorrhea, or painful periods, and are known to improve cardiovascular health and reduce cholesterol levels.
When it comes to flax oil, also known as linseed oil, your body has to convert its ALA into EPA and then to DHA to have any nutritional value, and can really only do so if your body is healthy. The body is not very efficient at converting ALA into DHA and EPA. The enzyme needed for its conversion can be blocked by alcohol, tobacco, stress, high levels of omega-6 fatty acids and becomes less efficient as you age. Flax oil can, however, be a good dietary source of soluble fiber that may be beneficial in promoting regular bowel movements. Flax oil also needs to be converted by the body into GLA in a similar manner.
Borage oil is one of the most abundant sources of gamma linolenic acid, or GLA, an omega-6 fatty acid mostly found in plant-based oils. Although most Americans obtain an excess of linoleic acid through diet, it's often not converted to GLA due to diets rich in sugar, alcohol or trans fats from processed foods, as well as smoking, pollution, stress, aging, viral infections, and other conditions such as diabetes. This is a reason to supplement with borage oil, or GLA, as it may help improve diabetic neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, premenstrual syndrome, eczema, and aid in cancer treatment, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center based on several clinical studies.
Whereas EPA and DHA help to reduce inflammation, omega-6 fatty acids may promote inflammation. Fish oil, therefore, is the preferred fatty acid supplement for those individuals with inflammatory diseases. Flaxseed oil can be used to improve skin conditions, counter constipation and perhaps inhibit cancer growth. Borage oil is mainly prescribed for PMS and menopausal symptoms, although research supports fish oil for these conditions.
The Bottom Line
Borage and fish oils do not require conversion; they are available to the body in their native forms. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, your best bet is to supplement with flax and borage oils and incorporate a healthy lifestyle and good diet. In general, the intake ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should ideally be between 1:1 and 4:1, as found in research through The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC. Essential fatty acid deficiency and omega-6 and omega-3 imbalance has been linked to serious health conditions such as cardiovascular events, cancer, insulin resistance, asthma, lupus, schizophrenia, depression, accelerating age, stroke, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer's disease, among others.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Flaxseed Oil
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Gamma-linolenic acid
- Mayo Clinic: Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, alpha-linolenic acid
- Oregon State University: Linus Pauling Institute: Essential Fatty Acids
- The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health: Ratio of essentail fatty acids