What Are the Benefits of Alpha Linolenic Acid?

Alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is derived from plants, and it is similar to those found in fish oil. It is found in high amounts in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil and in lesser amounts in canola, soy and walnut oils; as well as in soybeans, tofu and pumpkin seeds. It can also be taken as a supplement in liquid or capsule form, and due to its omega-3 content, alpha-linolenic acid may be beneficial to a variety of disorders.

A close-up of flax seeds. (Image: Anetlanda/iStock/Getty Images)

Purported Benefits List

Omega-3s, and therefore alpha-linolenic acid, help to control blood clotting, build cell membranes in the brain and reduce inflammation. Some studies suggest that ALA can help to reduce arthritis related joint pain and stiffness and improve mobility. The University of Maryland Medical Center, or UMMC, says that more research needs to be done, but ALA may also help to treat autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, increase lung function in asthma sufferers, prevent breast cancer, prevent and treat depression, and reduce menstrual pain.

Inflammatory Bowel Disorders

ALA is also beneficial to a variety of colon disorders. UMMC says that many people with Crohn's disease, which is a type of irritable bowel disorder, have been found to have low levels of omega-3s in their bodies. According to the June 2012 "Journal of Nutrition," although omega-3s are shown to be anti-inflammatory, their use in treating Crohn's has mixed results. Omega-3s may also help to reduce cancer cell replication in patients with colon cancer, but the studies were conducting, using fish oil and not ALA. UMMC says however, that although studies have not been done on humans yet, preliminary studies done on animals suggest that ALA might actually be more beneficial than fish oil in the treatment of colon disorders.

Cardiovascular Disorders

Alpha-linolenic acid has been found to be beneficial for the prevention and treatment of a variety of cardiovascular disorders including heart attacks and stroke. According to UMMC, people who eat a diet rich in alpha-linolenic acid are less likely to suffer from a fatal heart attack. One study done on women found that those who consumed 1.5 grams of ALA per day had a 46 percent lower risk of sudden cardiac death than those who consumed less than 1/2 gram per day. ALA also helps to increase the healthy HDL cholesterol levels and decrease the unhealthy LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. In addition, several studies have found that ALA can help to lower high blood pressure significantly in individuals with hypertension.

Precautions

Unfortunately, alpha-linolenic acid needs to be converted in the body into the omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, or EPA and DHA, in order for it to be effective. Animal-derived sources of omega-3s on the other hand provide readily available EPA and DHA without the need for conversion. Research therefore suggests the beneficial effects of alpha-linolenic acid may be less pronounced than the benefits from taking omega-3s derived from animal sources.

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