Science in Action: Omega-3 (flaxseed oil vs. olive oil)

As I’ve described in previous posts, flaxseed oil (high in omega-3) seems to improve my balance. As I increased the daily dose, I found that 4 tablespoons (T)/day had almost the same effect as 3 T/day. To measure the effects of omega-3, I plan to use 3 or 4 T/day flaxseed oil — which presumably produces near-optimal omega-3 levels — as a baseline for measuring the effect of other things.

For my first comparison I chose olive oil: widely believed healthy, but low in omega-3. (And recommended by me in The Shangri-La Diet.) I used an ABA design: several days flaxseed oil, several days olive oil, several days flaxseed oil. In all conditions, I took 2 tablespoons of the oil at about 10 am and 2 tablespoons at about 10 pm each day. I measured my balance at about 8 am the next day. Each daily test consisted of 30 trials. Each trial consisted of balancing on one foot on a board atop a metal cylinder (pictures). The score was how long before I lost my balance and put the other foot down.

Here are the results.

flaxseed oil vs. olive oil

While drinking the olive oil, my balance slowly got worse. When I returned to flaxseed oil, my balance quickly returned to its previous level. Very clear difference between the oils, F(2,40) = 18, which corresponds to a tiny p value and t about 5.

A possible explanation is that when the concentration of omega-3 in the blood is low, the omega-3 in cell membranes slowly “evaporates” into the blood. When a cell’s membranes lose omega-3, it doesn’t work as well.

27 Responses to “Science in Action: Omega-3 (flaxseed oil vs. olive oil)”

  1. August Says:

    So, how would someone already taking a flavorless oil to lose weight also manage to take flaxseed oil too? Nose clips? Is there a flavorless omega 3 out there?

  2. seth Says:

    yes, with nose clips. that’s what I used (with both the flaxseed oil & the olive oil).

  3. Candy Minx Says:

    I take flax seed oil everyday in a shot glass, then I don’t need nose clips because I swallow it quickly.

    I am fascinated by this experiment. I don’t know if my balance is especially good because I take flax seed oil, but I feel as if my energy level is higher. Taking the flax seed oil affects my sense of hunger. I don’t feel very hungry after I shoot back a half ounce.

    Seth, I love your blog and your great attitude towards experiments.

  4. Sean Says:

    Why not an ABAB design?
    It gives us a better look at experimental error.

  5. Dale Says:

    It would be interesting to compare fish oil to flax seed oil and olive oil.

  6. seth Says:

    I agree.

  7. Candy Minx Says:

    I think it would be very interesting to compare the flax oil with the fish oil.

    Just quickly, two contrasts i can think of is difference in cost betweent he two oils.

    Plus, fish oil…I believe, doesn’t have Alpha Linolenic Acid. ALA is one of the factors that contribute to the efficency of motor skills and absorbtion of all the Omega #s. But I am rather rusty on these differences.

    A friend of mine started a flax seed oil company…I think they were the very first flax seed oild ocmpany…and their website might have some value or interest to you Seth, or your readers.

    http://www.omeganutrition.com/

    I am going to e-mail my pal and let him know about your experiments here.

  8. Matt McIntosh Says:

    Just want to say that I’ve been enjoying the omega-3 posts, and have been thinking about Tim Lundeen’s results. This doesn’t fit within the self-experimentation paradigm, but it’d be interesting to do a controlled study comparing the scores of omega-3 supplement users vs. non-users on the WAIS. Or perhaps better yet, since the test-retest consistency is about 0.9, just have the same people write the test without supplementation and then a few months later write it again after a week of supplementation.

    That way we could get a handle on whether it was just processing speed and/or working memory that was given a boost, or g. This could shed some light on the neurobiology of intelligence and ways to boost it as well. I’ve got plausible models dancing in my head, but more data would help . . .

  9. Andrew Gelman Says:

    Seth,

    I suggest you try to do this experiment using a blind design, so you can do your measurements without being influenced by your knowledge about which oil you’re taking. See here for more thoughts on this:
    http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2007/04/testing_omega3.html

  10. seth Says:

    I like Andrew’s comments about this at his blog. Here is what I wrote in reply over there:

    That’s a perfectly good suggestion except that the low-omega-3 oils take perhaps 5 days of exposure to have an easily-noticed effect, as my graph shows. Learning this time course is a very good reason to do the easier unblinded experiment first.

    Yes, I should do such a blinded experiment, no doubt. But what experiment should I do next? That’s a harder question. This is much like our interest in sample size: Sure, a study with a larger n is always a good idea, in some sense. But which sample size should be used next? That’s a harder question. And a more practical one.

    I think it is curious how little has been written to help scientists answer such questions, which all of them who gather data have to answer many times.

  11. gill Says:

    Hello , I have read your comments with interest. I take 2000 mgs of flaxseed oil –in capsule form – daily. I tend to suffer from nervousness– I can get shaky if I am the centre of attention etc– but since upping my dose from 1500 mgs to 2000 mgs I have noticed a huge lessening of my nervousness. In fact, only this week I had a very high profile event to attend where I would be photographed and introduced to lots of people and I sailed through without any nervousness at all. But the main reason I started to take flaxseed oil is because I read that it can help combat high cholesterol-mine is slightly raised- I don’t know if any studies have been done on this. Also I am a vegetarian and so would not take cod liver or other fish oils.

  12. seth Says:

    Your comments about raising the dose are very interesting. I suspect many people taking flaxseed oil are taking a lower-than-optimal dose.

  13. Gill Says:

    Hello, I recently had another cholesterol test and my levels are now normal with my HDL being above optimum. I have made no changes whatsoever to my diet and lifestyle apart from increasing my dose of flaxseed oil so I would think that it must have contributed to my lower levels.

  14. seth Says:

    Thanks for the update.

  15. Gill Says:

    Hi Seth, are you still getting comments /info about your research re flaxseed oil? I have not read anything since my last comments. Regards, Gill

  16. seth Says:

    yes, I am still getting comments. You can read all my posts on omega-3 — including the ones since your last comments — by clicking on “omega-3” in the category list.

  17. Marcia Says:

    Hi Seth, this is a great site, so interesting. I started having ground flaxseed’s after I read in a book ‘The Gabriel Method’ (brilliant!) that to have ground flaxseeds are so much more affective than the oil, (even tho the oil is still great!) The only thing is, you have to grind them (in a coffee grinder) just before you consume them, they go rancid very easily so even buying them pre-ground isnt good enough. I have about 3 tbs ground with a few walnuts every morning with natural, fat-free yoghurt, crushed frozen blueberries and a trickle of honey, I really look forward to it everyday now, I dont feel way different but I dont get sick and I know I am eating healthy, Im sure long term will benefit me even more!! Thanks Seth, I will keep on reading. :)

  18. anonTMI Says:

    Pardon the TMI, but I have tried using flaxseed oil a couple of times for SLD. I get a negative side effect in that my prostate enlargement gets worse. Has anyone else noticed this?

    Details: Male (duh), 50 years old, taking 2T Flaxseed oil twice daily according to SLD rules (nose pinched shut, 1 hr before and after flavors).

  19. Angela Says:

    how do you determine the appropriate dosage of flaxseed oil or other oil in capsule form? I was thinking about taking flaxseed oil in capsule form however, the directions state to take 1 to 3 capsules daily. Considering that the caloric intake from just one capsule is only 15 calories, how does one take enough to get the weight loss effect desired and appropriate for one’s weight without overdosing?

  20. Seth Roberts Says:

    Angela, I determined how much flaxseed oil to take by figuring out amount made my brain work best. I ignored what bottle labels said. The best dose for me turned out to be about 30 capsules/day. So that’s how much I took (in liquid form).

  21. flaxseedguy Says:

    I read an article today that talked of how flaxseed oil can actually cause prostate cancer. Anybody else read anything on this?

  22. Sam Says:

    I’ve read somewhere that you should not combine Omega-3 with alcohol, maybe a combination like this might be the problem?

  23. Jazi yechezkel zilber Says:

    only extra virgin olive oil is supposed to have health benefits, and it comes from the non oil compenent or from being negtly handled and not processed.

    (According to “fats that heal fats that kill” a very deep review on the biochemistry etc. of oils)

    Here it was extra light olive oil, If I guess correctly. Thus it is compatible with existing evidence. (which is a positive!)

  24. Seth Roberts Says:

    I think the experts are wrong about this. Flaxseed oil is high in omega-3, olive oil is not.

  25. Ross Says:

    I’ve searched your site, and I can’t find any reviews of good flaxseed oil brands. Do you have a preference? Or a pointer to a good page of flaxseed oil reviews?

  26. Seth Roberts Says:

    I tested several flaxseed oil brands (Barleans, Spectrum, Whole Foods) and found no difference between them. In China, however, the flaxseed oil I bought turned out to be defective.

  27. Lares Says:

    I just took my first two tablespoons of EVOO about a half hour ago (10 am). When should I take the next dose?

    Seth: Try 1 or more hours after dinner.