Dr Sarah Brewer April 12, 2017

Oils are fatty acids that form a liquid at room temperature. Put them in the fridge, however, and they will usually solidify. Some fatty acids are 'essential', as your cells cannot make enough to meet your needs, so they must come from your diet.

Many people, for example, struggle to get enough of the essential omega 3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from their diet. The best sources are nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flaxseed. Bread, spreads and milk are increasingly fortified with small amounts of ‘added omega 3’ in the form of ALA derived from vegetable oil.

Why do you need them?

Only around 5 per cent of ALA is converted by your body into the most important omega 3s: EPA and DHA. That is why these are often classed as essential, too. EPA and DHA are longer-chain omega 3s, used to make nerve cell membranes and to damp down inflammation. These properties make them vital for a healthy brain, heart, eyes and joints. Food sources of EPA and DHA include oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, pilchards and fresh (not tinned) tuna. They are also found in grass-fed wild game meats such as venison and buffalo.

One of the most common signs of an essential fatty acid deficiency is dry, scaly, itchy skin – an annoying problem that is often seen in older people. Other signs associated with a lack of essential fatty acids include: dehydration and thirst, acne, brittle hair and nails, hair loss, slower wound healing and hormone imbalances.

Government recommendations suggest we get at least 450mg of the long-chain omega 3s, DHA and EPA, per day. This is a smallest amount to prevent deficiency. Higher intakes may be needed by those with inflammatory conditions, such as painful joints. Here is our guide to the most popular oil supplements

Evening primrose oil

Evening primrose oil (EPO) is a rich source of GLA (gamma linolenic or gamolenic acid). It is one of the few omega 6 oils with an anti-inflammatory action like omega 3s. Used in skin cell membranes, EPO may help to improve skin softness, luminosity and hydration. It may also help hormone balance, improving the severity of hot flushes and dry skin at the menopause. In one trial involving women in their 40s, those taking evening primrose oil experienced a twenty per cent improvement in skin moisture, smoothness, elasticity and firmness within three months.

Dose: 500mg-1,000mg EPO daily (providing 40mg to 80mg GLA). Higher doses of up to 3,000mg (providing 240mg GLA) daily can be used if skin is particularly dry. Taking EPO with food aids absorption.

Starflower oil

Starflower oil also know as borage oil is extracted from the seeds of the herb. Like EPO, starflower oil has a high content of gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and provides similar benefits in a more concentrated form.

Dose: 1,000mg daily, providing 205mg GLA.

Flaxseed oil

Flaxseed is an excellent, plant-based source of the essential omega 3, ALA. It is often used as an alternative for those who prefer not to eat fish. The fatty acids improve skin hydration and reduces roughness and scaling. Research also shows that flaxseed oil reduces skin sensitivity and improves the skin’s barrier function. Another benefit of flaxseed oil is its rich content of oestrogen-like plant hormones, known as lignans. These are beneficial for women experiencing menopausal symptoms.

Dose: 1g (1,000mg) to 3g daily.

Omega 3 fish oils

Oily fish are a rich source of the long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Guidelines recommend that boys, men and women past reproductive age should aim to eat one to four portions (140g each) of oily fish a week. Girls and women of child-bearing age should only eat up to two portions of oily fish a week. This lower amount is to reduce potential exposure to marine pollutants. Few of us achieve these levels -On average, people in the UK eat a third of a portion of oily fish (50g) a week, and an astonishing seven out of ten people don't eat any oily fish at all.

If you don't like fish, or do not want to increase your intake, then supplements are a useful alternative. Select one that is made to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards. This ensures they are virtually free from marine pollutants.

Dose: 1g to 3g daily. On average, one gram of high-strength fish oil contains around 500mg of the important long-chain EPA and DHA.

Cod Liver Oil

The flesh of white fish, such as cod, contains little oil. Instead, as its name implies, cod liver oil is derived only from the fish liver. Cod liver oil is popular because it also contains high amounts of both vitamin A and vitamin D, which provide extra health benefits. Vitamin D is especially important during winter when we are not exposed to enough ultraviolet light to trigger its formation in our skin.

Dose: 1g daily. A 1g capsule of high-strength fish oil contains around 500mg of the important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Those described as high or extra high strength provide the highest amounts.

NB. If you take cod liver oil and a multivitamin, check the total amount of vitamin A does not exceed 1,500mcg per day. Do not take cod liver oil if you are pregnant, as excess vitamin A can be harmful to a developing baby.

Krill Oil

Krill oil is extracted from a shrimp-like, Antarctic crustacean. As well as supplying rich amounts of the long-chain omega 3s, EPA and DHA, it contains two powerful antioxidants, astaxanthin and canthaxanthin. These pigments are the same as those which give flamingos their attractive pink plumage, and make krill oil an attractive red colour. The combination of omega 3 plus antioxidants make krill a popular ‘super-supplement’ for reducing inflammation. Astaxanthin also has a beneficial effect on blood fats.

Studies suggest that krill oil can lower triglyceride, total cholesterol and ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol with no change in ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol. This is exactly what is needed in a heart-friendly supplement. Krill oil is also used to help premenstrual syndrome and painful periods.

Sustainable supplements are available and endorsed by the Marine Stewardship Council. These do not impact on the feeding grounds of marine animals such as baleen whales, Antarctic Fur Seals and Adelie penguins.

Dose: 500mg to 3g daily.

Algae oil

For vegetarians and those who are unable to take fish oil products, marine algae are a great source of the long-chain omega 3s, DHA and EPA. A typical capsule containing 250mg algae oil can provide as much as 100mg of DHA.

Dose: 1g per day.


Because of their blood thinning effect, people with clotting disorders or those who take blood-thinning medication should seek advice from their doctor before taking a supplement. However, no significant increase in blood clotting time is expected at total daily intakes of EPA and DHA of 3g per day, or less.

[i] Blonk MC et al. Am J Clin Nutr 1990;52(1):120-7

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.



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