Understanding Alpha Linolenic Acid


A term often associated with flaxseed oils is a term known as Alpha-Linolenic Acid which is shortened to ALA. As a quick refresh, and to keep this in some type of context, flaxseed oil is made by crushing flax seeds, and these seeds contain Omega 3.

It is the Omega 3 element that is known under the wider term of an ALA. Hopefully that makes sense, and in simple terms if you use or plan to use either flax seeds or the oil or capsule version, you are in fact taking an alpha-linlenic acid. Therefore it is important to understand what it is, what benefits it may have, and if there are any side effects.

What Exactly Is an ALA?

Let's remove some confusion right away. Quite a number of people mix up two acids as they both have the same abbreviation of ALA. The two are:

  1. Alpha-Linolenic acid
  2. Alpha-Lipoic acid

We are discussing the first one here, and the second one is an acid that helps the body turn glucose into energy. I just wanted to deal with that as it often can be confusing for people.

So according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, an ALA is a kind of omega-3 fatty acid. You can also find this acid in soy, walnuts, perilla and flaxseed.  Soy as you know is a member of the pea family and perilla is the general name for the mint family of herbs. The main point is that it is found in several plants and mostly in seeds and nuts.

ALA has been medically tested and researched and helps reduce inflammation, helps with arthritis and also prevents the risk of heart disease. Clearly these are all good things, and in addition to that, there have been studies that show ALA helps with brain health and development. The main supporting evidence is that, in general terms, people who eat a healthy Mediterranean style diet, have less risk of heart diseases.

When you look at this type of diet in more detail, you will notice that it contains a lot of cereal, oils, green vegetables, fish and a lot of fruit. So to relate this to ALA, these people are getting the right amount of Omega-3, and as such, have a much healthier lifestyle and a well balanced diet. ALA is also found in fish oil, and that is often taken in a supplemental format.

It is also known at helping with the reduction of inflammation, and it may be this element that is contained in flaxseed oil, that actually has that property, rather than the oil itself. As a direct result of that a number of studies have observed that this can really help in the reduction of arthritis, joint pains and that in turn can help with mobility issues as grow older. It is also worth pointing out, that the research at this time could not be described as being conclusive, and more needs to be done. That said, the early signs are indeed positive.

Crohn's Disease and the Bowels

For those that do not know, Chron's disease is an irritable bowel disorder and one that cause a lot of discomfort for sufferers. In fact the medical groups classify this as a chronic illness.  When people suffering from this illness were tested, it was noticed that all of them had a low content of Omega-3 present in their bodies. Tests have yet to be concluded that actually prove that having a higher level of Omega would have helped prevent this illness.

Nevertheless, the early signs again look positive, and more research is being conducted.

Are There Risks from ALA?

All of the research that I have read does point to one risk, which people should know about. If you are someone who takes a medicine to help thin the blood, then you should not take flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil or any form of ALA. The reason is that an ALA would most likely increase the thinning of your blood and could therefore lead to bleeding.

The general advice is to talk to your doctor if you are taking medicines such as "Warfarin," "Aspirin," or any type of blood thinning agent. This is indeed good advice and I would also advise women who are pregnant, or planning to have a baby, to also speak with their medical advisor. It is always a good idea to speak with your own doctor before taking any form of supplemental medicine.

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