Healthy Omega-3 from Echium Seed Oil

Omega fatty acids refer to a class of fat that we need to include in our diets to avoid becoming deficient. While our bodies can manufacture certain types of fat, we do not have the ability to make them all. However, the term ‘omega fats’ should really be clarified; they are the name of a family of fat or ‘fatty acids’ of which there are many types, each with specific functions, but some having quite different and more important functions than others. There are two main types of omega fatty acids, both plant oil derived polyunsaturated fats: LA (the parent omega-6 fatty acid) and ALA (the parent omega-3 fatty acid). Humans are able to convert LA and ALA to more physiologically active fatty acids through a series of reactions – DGLA and AA from the omega-6 series, and EPA and DHA, from the omega-3 series. These important long-chain fatty acids are necessary for the formation of healthy cell membranes, but also for the proper development and functioning of the brain and nervous system, and for the production of hormone-like substances which regulate numerous body functions including blood pressure, immune and inflammatory responses.

Although vegetarian diets are generally lower in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than non-vegetarian diets, omega-6 intakes are significantly higher in vegans and vegetarians than in meat eaters. Because the consumption of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (found mainly in fish but also in eggs – in small quantities) is low in vegetarian populations and absent in vegans, levels of EPA and DHA in body stores are significantly decreased. Indeed, people who don’t eat fish are dependent on the successful conversion of the parent fatty acid ALA to EPA and DHA. The first step in the pathway that converts ALA to EPA and DHA is via the enzyme delta-6-desaturase, however this step is relatively inefficient and If this enzyme is impaired for any reason (the significant factors are: old age, stress, diabetes, the consumption of alcohol, caffeine and diets high in saturated fats, also viral infections) and intake of omega-6 is high, then the rate of conversion of parent omega-3 to long-chain omega-3 may be inadequate for normal and healthy function.

Flaxseed oil is generally well known for its high content of ALA, (comprising around 58%) and, until recently, had bee a clear favourite source of omega-3 for non fish-eaters. However, it appears that the health benefits of flaxseed oil may not be as significant as originally thought and that vegan in particular who rely on flaxseed oil for their omega-3 may be at an increased risk of cardiovascular problems. Years of research have now given an alternative to all omega-3 followers. A novel source of omega-3, derived from the seeds of the plant Echium Plantagineum, is now easily available to vegetarians and vegans and the overwhelming health benefits are receiving a lot of attention.

Unlike flaxseed oil, echium seed oil, derived from the seed of the plant Echium Plantagineum, provides a rich source of omega-3 SDA and compares favourably with dietary EPA in side-by-side experiments. Furthermore, SDA itself is known to beneficial for ensuring healthy immune and inflammatory systems, and echium seed oil as a source of SDA also appears to possess beneficial effects on the risk factors of coronary heart disease in a similar way to conventional fish oils. Echium oil also contains other beneficial fatty acids, including the potent anti-inflammatory omega-6 gamma linolenic acid (GLA), as well as the omega-9 oleic acid, known for its cardioprotective properties. According to research SDA in combination with GLA raises red blood cell EPA levels more efficiently than SDA alone, suggesting that echium seed oil may be the ideal nutritional supplement for those who are vegetarian, vegan or allergic to fish, to help boost the levels of important omega-3s in the diet.

Dr. Nina Bailey is a nutritional scientist whose efforts are concentrated within the role of dietary health and nutritional intervention in disease, with particular emphasis being placed upon the role of essential fatty acids in conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and depression. Dr. Bailey received her PhD in Cell Biology from Cambridge University. Her doctoral research was conducted under the supervision of Prof. Sheila Bingham at the Dunn Human Nutrition Unit, Cambridge. Nina has published papers with the British Nutrition Foundation and with the trade magazine Network Health Dietician.


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