What is Algal Oil? How does It Improve Health?

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Algal oil is gaining popularity amongst vegan and vegetarians who do not want to get their long-chain omega-3 fatty acids from fish. It doesn’t pose the risk of contaminants that are found in many types of fatty fish. Algal oil contains DHA and EPA, which provide several benefits for heart health, improve brain function, and lower inflammation.

What is algal oil?

Algal oil is an oil that is extracted from microalgae. It looks and feels similar to other cooking oil, but the main difference is its fat content. It is primarily composed of DHA, along with EPA and ALA. It has a higher smoke point (485oF) as compare to other cooking oils. Another advantage of algal oil is that it does not have any unpleasant odors, as compared to fish oil.

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Though marine algae are the original source of algal oil, commercially produced algal oil is extracted from farm-raised algae. These algae are grown in sterile fermenters where they feed on plant sugars. After a few days, these algae are then expeller pressed to extract oil.

Though cooking with algal oil is a new concept, this oil has been used to fortify foods for several years. In 2001, the FDA approved adding DHA and arachidonic acid from algal and fungal sources to infant formulas. Other foods fortified with algal oil include cheese, soymilk, fruit juices, sauces, and tortillas.

Health benefits of algal oil

1. Improves heart health

Algal oil is high in DHA, one of the two omega-3 fatty acids that help lower the risk of heart disease. It helps in lowering blood pressure, prevents clot formation, and decreases inflammation.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of nutrition, studied the relation between algal oil supplementation and cardiovascular disease risk factors through 11 trials that included 485 participants. The results showed that supplementation with DHA from algal oil could lower triglycerides and boost HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels in people without heart disease (1).

2. Boosts memory

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Algal oil is also known to boost memory in aging adults. Algal oil can also reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. During a 2015 study, when mice were given algal oil supplements for thirty days, it helped in improving their memory (2). Algal oil is rich in DHA, which is an integral part of neural membrane phospholipids that impact brain structure and function. Studies have shown that higher DHA intake can improve cognitive function.

A 2015 research studied the effects of DHA and EPA on the episodic, semantic, and working memory of adults. The study concluded that DHA, alone or combined with EPA, can contribute to improved memory function in older adults with mild memory complains (3).

Another study from Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, The Netherlands, also showed that omega-3 supplementation improved cognitive function better in rats, compared to mice and males, better than females (4).

3. Helpful during pregnancy

Algal oil contains EPA and DHA, which work together during pregnancy and breastfeeding to support the healthy development of the baby. DHA is known as the most crucial omega-3 for pregnancy because it is a critical building block of the brain, retina, and nervous system.  Several studies in both human infants and animals show a correlation between omega-3 intake, especially DHA, and cognitive and visual function, and overall brain development.

Studies also show that infants whose mothers who took DHA supplements during pregnancy have a healthy immune function. EPA and DHA also support healthy labor and delivery outcomes and even improve mood. Studies have shown that EPA and DHA help support mood and well-being in the postpartum period.

4. Improves eye health

The human eye contains very high levels of DHA. Omega 3 fatty acids accumulate in the tissues of the eye during the late fetal and early neonatal stages.  Adequate amounts of omega-3 fats in the diet of pregnant women are essential in healthy infant vision development. According to some studies, omega-3 fatty acids can help protect adult eyes from macular degeneration and dry eye syndrome. Omega-3 fays also help in the proper drainage of intraocular fluid from the eye, which decreases the risk of high eye pressure and glaucoma.

According to a National Eye Institute study, people with high levels of omega-3 in their diet are 30 % less likely to develop macular degeneration. Omega-3 fatty acids can also help treat dry eyes. According to a recent study in mice with dry eyes, topical application of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA led to a decrease in dry eye signs and inflammation associated with it.

5. Can improve depression and anxiety

EPA and DHA, the two omega-3 fatty acids found in algal oil, are thought to have high potential to help people with mood disorders. During a 2009 study, researchers reviewed data from three different studies that used omega-3 fatty acids to treat recurrent depression in adults, bipolar disorder, and major depression in children. The results showed that in all three studies, the subjects that took EPA showed significant improvements as compared to the subjects that received a placebo (5).

Algal oil is also beneficial in treating postpartum depression in nursing mothers. A meta-analysis of 35 randomized trials found that women diagnosed with severe depression could benefit from omega-3 fatty acids (6).

6. Reduces inflammation

Algal oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help to balance out the omega-6 fats in our diet and reduce inflammation. Algal oil also has anti-inflammatory properties, which help lower the symptoms of osteoarthritis. The omega-3s in this oil block inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins and are converted in the body into powerful anti-inflammatory chemicals called resolvins. There have been several studies on the anti-inflammatory powders of EPA and DHA.

It can also relieve the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, which is known to cause symptoms like diarrhea and ulceration of the digestive tract. Algal oil helps lower the inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract.

Is algal oil better than fish oil?

Algal oil is even more concentrated in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, than fish oil. It also contains essential minerals like iodine. Algal oil is an excellent source of omega-3  for vegetarians and vegans. Algae is considered to be environmentally friendly and sustainable. Algal oil can serve the growing demand for omega-3 fatty acids.

Fish oil, on the other hand, is not environmentally sustainable as it has a significant impact on oceans. Destructive fishing practices are destroying the fish population and their habitats. According to the United Nations, the commercial fish population of cod, haddock, flounder, and hake have fallen by 95 percent in the North Atlantic region. Studies have even predicted that there will be a complete collapse of the world fish population by 2048.

Algal oil supplements do not contain any contaminants like heavy metals. Fish, on the other hand, can accumulate toxins such as mercury, dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls. Spoiled fish oil can also produce peroxides.

Side effects of algal oil

Algal oil is considered safe for most adults when taken in the right amounts. It has been used safely in several studies for up to four years. However, some people may suffer from mild side effects like fishy burps, stomach and intestine symptoms, or slightly increased cholesterol levels.

Algal oil contains DHA and EPA. People should limit their intake of EPA and DHA to 3 grams per day. So if your algal oil supplement provides more than three grams of EPA and DHA per day, then it is unsafe as it may slow down blood clotting and increase the chance of bleeding. DHA can affect breathing if you are sensitive to aspirin. DHA is also known to increase the risk of blood pressure becoming too low in people that already have low blood pressure.

What is the correct dosage for algal oil?

The correct dosage for algal oil depends on the user’s age, health, and other conditions. The dosage also depends on the concentration and the purity of the product that you are taking. Algal oil has a lower recommended dosage as compared to fish oil, as it is more concentrated.

Generally, 1 to 2 grams of the supplement is enough to elevate your DHA and EPA. Start with a low dose and slowly increase your dosage. Always follow the directions on the product labels and consult your physician or healthcare professional before using it.

Where to buy algal oil supplements?

Algal oil is available online and at health food stores. Be cautious about the brand that you choose. Choose good quality algal oil from a safe and sustainable source.

Final thoughts

Algal oil is an oil that is extracted from microalgae. It is primarily composed of DHA, along with EPA and ALA. Though marine algae are the original source of algal oil, commercially produced algal oil is extracted from farm-raised algae. Algal oil provides many health benefits, including improved heart and eye health, better memory, reduced inflammation, lower depression, and healthy development of the fetus.

Algal oil is better than fish oil as it does not possess strong odors, and the production of algal oil is more environmentally friendly. Though algal oil is considered safe for most adults when taken in the right amounts, some people may suffer from side effects like fishy burps, stomach and intestine symptoms, or slightly increased cholesterol levels.

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