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Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)

What is alpha-linolenic acid? Why do we need it?

Alpha-linolenic acid is an essential fatty acid that comes from plants. It is considered an essential nutrient, and is used as a source of energy by the body.

ALA is considered a "parent" fatty acid; it is converted by the body into omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish oils. Omega-3 fatty acids perform a number of regulatory functions in the body, including heart rate; blood pressure; immune response; and breakdown of fats. Essential fatty acids such as ALA are also used to make brain and nervous tissue.

Small studies have shown that ALA may prevent coronary heart disease and stop artherosclerosis. Other researchers have begun studying ALA's anti-inflammatory and immunologic effects for conditions such as migraine headaches and depression. Currently, ALA is used to reduce cholesterol levels, treat allergic and inflammatory conditions, and fight autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lupus.

How much ALA should I take?

There is no recommended daily allowance of ALA. However, a healthy diet should include less saturated fats and more essential fatty acids. Before taking ALA supplements, discuss the situation with your health care provider.

What are some good sources of ALA?

The following foods and oils are good sources of ALA:

Foods: Flax seeds, margarine (if based on canola or soybean oil), mackerel, pumpkins, salmon, walnuts

Oils: Canola oil, flaxseed oil, linseed oil, soybean oil

What can happen if I don't get enough ALA?

As previously stated, there is no recommended daily allowance of ALA. If you have questions or concerns, talk with your health care provider about ALA and ALA supplements.

What can happen if I take too much? Are there any side-effects I should be aware of?

ALA supplements are usually high in calories; excess amounts may lead to unwanted weight gain. Flaxseed oil (a source of ALA) may increase the body's need for vitamin E. Make sure to talk with your health care provider for more information.


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  • DeDeckere EA, Korver O, Verschuren PM, Katan MB. Health aspects of fish and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from plant and marine origin. Eur J Clin Nutr 1998;52:749—753.
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