Linolenic Acid

Nonessential Micronutrient

OVERVIEW

Summary

Linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) is the most important EFA for humans — supportive in thousands of biochemical reactions, including immune function and endurance as well as the functioning of the cardiovascular, reproductive, and nervous systems.

Other names for Linolenic Acid

alpha-linolenic acid, omega-3 essential fatty acid

Where to find Linolenic Acid

Cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, trout, halibut, and sardines, are rich in linolenic acid. Flaxseed, canola, soy, black current, and walnut oils are also good sources.

Note Because linolenic acid deteriorates rapidly when exposed to light, heat, air, and metals, it should be kept in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight.

Popup: Foods highest in Linolenic Acid

PERFORMANCE BENEFITS

Why athletes use Linolenic Acid

Athletes have found linolenic acid, most often in the form of fish oil or flax oil, important for optimal performance — decreasing muscle breakdown and inflammation, increasing lean mass, speeding recovery, plus supporting hormone secretion and healthy joints and connective tissue.

Ways that Linolenic Acid can enhance Muscle Gain & Recovery:
  • Reduce inflammation to speed muscle recovery time
  • Maintain the health and structure of connective tissue and joints
  • Support healthy testosterone levels in men for optimal muscle development
Ways that Linolenic Acid can enhance Mental Functioning:
  • Influence mood to reduce levels of depression

HEALTH BENEFITS

Signs of Linolenic Acid deficiency

Deficiency of Linolenic Acid has been linked to:

  • Dry skin
  • Impaired immune function
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Circulatory complications
  • Retarded growth
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea
  • Gallstones
  • Impaired healing of wounds
  • Diabetes
Potential uses for Linolenic Acid

Research indicates that Linolenic Acid may also be useful in the treatment of:

  • Asthma
  • Skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis
  • Skin allergies
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Arthritis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Cancer
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Menstrual pain

DISCUSSION

More about Linolenic Acid

Linolenic acid (sometimes called omega-3) is the most important essential fatty acid (EFA) for humans. It is considered essential because our bodies can’t produce it, and we must have it to live. The only way to get linolenic acid is through diet or through supplementation.

Why is it important?

Linolenic acid is converted into three substances in the body: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA); eicosapentenoic acid (EPA); and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Linolenic acid found in fish oil is converted into EPA and DHA (linolenic acid from flaxseed is also converted but to a lesser extent). These essential fatty acids are needed to make a family of hormones called “eicosanoids,” which are essential for normal brain functioning and are also involved in regulating blood pressure and immune response.

EPA and DHA have been shown in research to dramatically decrease triglyceride levels and significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. In a more recent study, it’s also been shown to improve the elasticity of arteries, which may help lower blood pressure. Researchers also have found that DHA influences mood because it is the major EFA in the central nervous system. In fact, studies have found that people with low levels of DHA tend to have higher levels of depression.

Linolenic acid also regulates prostaglandins, vital hormone-like substances that support many of the major systems in our bodies, including immune, cardiovascular, nervous, and reproductive.

Performance benefits?

In addition to its potential heart benefits, linolenic acid may support athletic performance in a number of ways. It may substantially shorten the time it takes muscles to recover following exercise because it facilitates the conversion of lactic acid to water and carbon dioxide.

Studies also show it may decrease muscle breakdown, increase muscle growth, aid in the transfer of oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream, and enhance a wide range of metabolic and hormonal functions.

Male athletes on extremely low-fat diets may also benefit significantly from essential fatty acid supplements. Studies have drawn a close correlation between diets low in omega-3’s and decreased testosterone production. One study found individuals with a 36% dietary fat intake compared to individuals with a 7% fat intake had an average of 22% higher testosterone levels.

Because testosterone plays such a key role in building muscle size and strength, athletes on fat-deprived diets may be compromising their muscle development. But keep in mind, we’re talking about unsaturated essential fatty acids, not unhealthful saturated fats found in so much of the American diet.

Protecting cells for greater health

This essential fatty acid also helps construct the membranes in every cell in our bodies, protecting them from harmful invaders and contributing to their structural integrity. For this reason, an essential fatty acid supplement that contains linolenic acid is often recommended for people who suffer from painful joint conditions, including arthritis.

Essential for everyone

Because linolenic acid is required for thousands of biochemical reactions throughout our bodies, it is one of the most beneficial of all supplements. Diet can play a key role in correcting linolenic deficiencies. But, a number of factors decrease our bodies’ ability to use linolenic acid from foods, such as diets high in processed vegetable oils, sugar, and alcohol. Certain vitamin deficiencies and high cholesterol levels can also interfere with our bodies’ ability to make the most of linoleic acid.

What’s more, these healthful fats are routinely processed out of most foods and unnatural oils, such as unhealthy trans-fatty acids and hydrogenated oils, are added back in to take their place.

In conclusion

With all the talk about Americans consuming too much fat, it may seem unlikely that we could suffer from a deficiency, but that is indeed the case. Too many of us simply don’t get enough of the “good fats,” such as linolenic acid. The solution? Cut down on the artery-clogging saturated fats found in burgers and fries and include a high-quality essential fatty acid supplement rich in linolenic acid in your daily routine to fill in the nutritional gaps.

NOTES ON USAGE

Amount

Some experts recommend 2 to 9 grams (1 to 2 teaspoons) of linolenic acid to prevent deficiencies and 9 to 18 grams per day with meals to support optimal health and performance. Studies found that as little as 2.6 grams a day was effective for reducing arthritis pain.

Timing

Linolenic acid should be consumed with or as part of meals.

Synergists of Linolenic Acid

No synergists have been noted.

Toxicity of Linolenic Acid

No known toxicity.

Bans and restrictions

None reported.

RELATED RESEARCH

  • Alexander, J.W., “Immunonutrition: The Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” Nutrition 14.7-8 (1998) : 627-33.
  • Anderson, G.J., and Connor, W.E., “On the Demonstration of Omega-3 Essential-Fatty-Acid Deficiency in Humans (editorial),” Am J Clin Nutr, 49.4 (1989) : 585-7.
  • *Brilla, L.R., and Landerholm, T.E., “Effect of Fish Oil Supplementation and Exercise on Serum Lipids and Aerobic Fitness,” J Sports Med Phys Fitness 30.2 (1990) : 173-80.
  • Horrobin, D.F., “The Importance of Gamma-Linolenic Acid and Prostaglandin E1 in Human Nutrition and Medicine,” J Holistic Med 3 (1981) : 118-39.
  • Prisco, D., et al., “Effect of Medium-Term Supplementation with a Moderate Dose of n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Blood Pressure in Mild Hypertensive Patients,” Thromb Res 91.3 (1998) : 105-12.
  • Sargent, J.R., “Fish Oils and Human Diet,” Br J Nutr 78.S1 (1997) : S5-13.
  • Schmidt, E.B., and Dyerberg, J., “Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Current Status in Cardiovascular Medicine,” Drugs 47.3 (1994) : 405-24.
  • Yehuda, S., “Essential Fatty Acids Are Mediators of Brain Biochemistry and Cognitive Functions,” J Neurosci Res 56.6 (1999) : 565-70.