Too Much Flaxseed Oil

I recently got the following email:

I’d like to advise caution about the use of excessive omega-3s, such as flax and fish oil. I discovered that too much of these oils can induce an omega-6 deficiency, since both n3 and n6 oils compete for the same enzymes in the biosynthesis pathways of prostaglandin precursors. In susceptible people, of which I am one, this leads to insomnia, psoriatic lesions, and when combined with food avoidance (e.g. Atkins-like diets, etc.), can lead to loss of immunological tolerance to food antigens. It turns out that n6 arachidonic acid is critical for the development and maintenance of oral tolerance (Newberry, 1999).

I asked her for details. She replied:

I started taking 2 tablespoons of flax oil daily with meals, and this was my exclusive added fat source for several months; I also got fat from meat and dairy. This was back in 2001. The insomnia happened almost immediately, and the psoriasis and “cellophane-like” skin developed over several weeks. I quit the flax oil after 3 months, but this was around the same time that I learned of Atkins and the Weston Price foundation- so, I cut back on carbohydrates and added fish oil and “whole foods” to my diet. It’s not clear what exactly happened around that time, but I started to descend into chronic illness: chronic flu-like symptoms, blood-sugar fluctuations, disordered sleep schedule, arthritis in my wrists and toes, rapid weight gain, etc. (And I should mention that before that I was an invincible young woman grad student, an outdoorsy athlete, was proud to never get a cold, and only mildly overweight.) I dealt with it as best as I could, since I was also trying to do my PhD thesis in engineering. I also quit taking any dietary supplements, because nothing seemed to help and I would often get weird side-effects from simple things like calcium supplements. On the advice of a physician in 2004, I added more carbohydrate back to the diet (re-introduced wheat carbs) and got hit with some frightening digestive complaints (cramps, vomiting, IBS symptoms.) It looked a lot like celiac disease, but all of the tests were negative. I didn’t have the proper genetic markers for celiac disease, either, but a strict gluten-free and dairy free diet helped nonetheless.

The GI symptoms were much better by 2005 after going gluten and dairy free, but I was still not well. What gave me the “aha moment” was taking a random dose of fish oil during that time, and having an immediate relapse in symptoms. Then I started researching arachidonic acid (the “bad” n6), with the question of “well, what is it good for, then?” That’s when I found the Newberry paper, and it dawned on me that I had inadvertently created an n6 deficiency by overdoing it on flax/fish oil. I also became quite an expert on essential fatty acid metabolism. What I had likely done was impair my ability to tolerate the introduction of new foods. I knew that my problem wasn’t gluten per se, because I would develop symptoms soon after adding exotic foods (coconut milk, pork, tapioca flour, etc.) to replace the eliminated things like milk and wheat flour.

Here are the three things I did to get well:

1) After discovering the Newberry paper, I decided to focus on acquiring pre-made sources of arachidonic acid in the diet. I found that the best source of pre-formed arachidonic acid is egg yolks and poultry, and I looked to worldwide intakes of AA to gauge my dose. It turns out that the French get a good daily dose of AA (190mg for women), and I settled on 2 egg yolks per day (65mg each) plus incidental sources. This is where I really turned the corner on feeling well.

2) I avoided known problem foods temporarily. I consulted with Jonathan Brostoff on food intolerances, and he said that the immune system requires about 6 months to “forget” its hypersensitivity to a food antigen before it can be re-introduced. I did the gluten and dairy free diet for 3 years in total, and added back foods on an experimental basis once I had been on the egg-yolk regime for a year.

3.) Finally, a gastroenterologist called my problem IBS, which is a catch-all trash diagnosis. However, I had been thinking in terms of celiac disease for a long time, and after doing searches on IBS I came across some new information about a probiotic that was supposed to help with IBS. I tried Bifidobacterium infantis (Align) for 2 months last winter, and it put me over the top. This was around the same time that I tried gluten and dairy for the first time in 3 years, and I was able to introduce it with no problems.

Today, I feel that I’m back to 100% and cured, except for the weight that I acquired during the illness. (I stopped gaining after going gluten free, but could never lose anything.) My propensity to experiment on myself led to some serious consequences, but I discovered something that relatively few people know about the importance of omega-6s.

Keep in mind that deficiency of omega-6 is very rare and overconsumption very common (e.g., the Israeli Paradox). In 2002, the Japan Society for Lipid Nutrition recommended reducing linoleic acid (LA) intake; LA is the short-chain omega-6 fatty acid, found in high concentrations in many vegetable oils, such as soybean oil. LA is converted to AA in the body.

12 Replies to “Too Much Flaxseed Oil”

  1. Great research by the emailer. I have not seemed to realise benefits from flax either, and on my most recent round of experimentation with it felt quite nauseous from it and actually feel an aversion toward it. I am thinking about trying fish oil instead, as there may be a subtlety in how I process the ALA into DHA/EPA or something else (lignans?) causing the nausea — alternatively it may be my body telling me not to consume it. Maybe there is an O6 relationship?

    I have found that intermittent fasting (limiting eating to a short window during the day, typically 4-6 hours for me, meaning ‘fasting’ for 18-20 hours a day) has allowed me to become much more aware of the effects of different foods on me. For instance, I get really sleepy within an hour of eating bread — something I’ve never noticed previously, and it became obvious because the fasting period makes creates more contrast between periods with a food, and periods without. So observations are easier.

    Incidentally, my energy levels are normal for me, or slightly better — I can exercise vigorously with nothing in my stomach and recover as quickly as I ever have. It does help many people with weight loss and/or muscle gain, if the O6-emailer wishes to keep experimenting 🙂

  2. This is very interesting.

    About a dozen years ago I luckily discovered by doing something random and unusual (consuming a large egg-salad sandwich for lunch) that an intolerance for eating eggs was the source of a long-standing, mysterious, seeming randomly occurring, disabling lethargy. When this lethargy hit me, simply walking to the end of the driveway was almost too much.

    I now can eat items, such as baked goods, which include a small amount of egg without a problem. I haven’t (yet) tried eating a plain cooked egg since the possibility of the lethargy’s recurring seems just too unpleasant.

    I don’t have any other food intolerances, don’t have asthma or other chronic problems, and don’t have any allergies (with the exception of mild allergies to juniper).

  3. Agreed, great information by the emailer. I hadn’t heard that ‘6 months’ hypersensitivity issue. Maybe this means I can eat chocolate again? (There’s nothing like having your throat close down to put you off chocolate.)

    My readings about Omega-6s and Omega-3s indicate that it is best to aim for a balance, because the two fats compete. The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids recommends a Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio of 1:1 to 2:1.

    And it is important to keep the overall Omega-6s down to the 4400 – 6670 milligram range; it’s not just a matter of increasing Omega-3s.

    Another thing to consider is that the Omega-3s that improve the body are EPA and DHA: flaxseed oil contains ALA. One author says that ‘only a miniscule amount of ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in the body–(the conversion rate is less than half of one-percent, 0.03%)’.

    As for fish oil capsules, physicians in one book that I’m currently reading say, ‘Researchers had pulled bottles of fish-oil capsules off the shelves of health food stores and checked them for rancidity. They found that in almost 50 percent of the cases some of the capsules in a given bottle were rancid. When fish oil becomes rancid it doesn’t go from being a good fat to being a neutral fat, it becomes a harmful fat . . . substances called lipid peroxides that cause all kinds of problems once they get inside us.’

    Thank goodness for canned sardines and grilled salmon.

  4. Thank you for your article on flaxseed oil, fish oil and soybean oil.

    I have to search for my own answers because doctors do not know how to help with severe RA except methotrexate and Orencia which only suppress some symptoms.

    You still have your RA and when you stop the meds your RA is worse than it was before starting the medications.

    The avoidance of soybean oil in America will be extremely hard because it is in just about every product in the grocery from bread and baked items to salad dressings.

  5. I’ve quit taking fish oil. Been off it now for two weeks – and feel fantastic. The background (and breakthrough) is this: I was diagnosed with hypertriglycemia 20 months ago. At the same time, I mysteriously began having “panic attacks” that mimicked the exact symptoms of a heart attack: cold sweating, sharp pains in chest, hard to breathe, pains running down left arm and shoulder, tightness in throat etc. I’ve been admitted through emergency rooms three times in the past year and half. All tests were done and all usual suspects ruled out: no heart enzyme problems etc. NO heart attacks at all. These episodes have been ruled “panic” or “anxiety” attacks and they do seem to come whenever I was stressed…

    Yet not one of the many doctors suggested a link between my “off the chart” triglycerides (above 400) and these “panic” attacks.

    Since my cholesterol levels are that of a teenager (I am in my 50s) and I don’t smoke or drink excessively, weight lift and workout regularly, I am still about 20 or 25 lbs overweight. Being overweight is a factor in high triglycerides, but no association with the panic or mock heart attacks. The only drug I’ve been given is Xanax, and that is what I’ve been taking when I feel those symptoms. Until now.

    I have religiously taken a daily dose of 1000 mg of fish oil for almost 30 years. For about one year several years ago, I alternated between flax oil and fish oil every other day. That is probably a good reason my cholesterol is that of a teenagers. BUT nobody has made the connection between high triglycerides and fish oil. I’ve looked all over the internet – nothing. I also can’t find anything connecting high triglycerides and panic attacks…

    On my own (and against my doctor’s opinion) I decided to stop taking the fish oil. Since high triglycerides are basically a high amount of soluble fats in the bloodstream, I figured it couldn’t hurt. I am glad I did.

    If anybody knows of any info about “too much” fish oil or toxicity from it, and I don’t mean allergic reactions, please let me know ok?

  6. UPDATE: had my quarterly labs done at the VA, and my triglycerides have gone down to 309 from 330 last time. Even though that’s still WAY too high and dangerous (100-150 is normal) it is a lot better than the 400 it was.

    Here’s yet another happy side effect of NOT taking fish oil: I no longer have dispepsia/acid reflux. For about a decade, I’ve been taking Pepcid AC, then Zantac, then Prilosec. All good, but I still took them whenever I needed them – which was every day. Only a few days after stopping the fish oil, I no longer had heartburn/reflux! I’m feeling better all the time…

    FYI: read somewhere that up to 50 percent of all fish oil sold is rancid or contaminated. Can’t google that story right now, but maybe that has something to do with it. I’m sticking with just eating a lot of seafood and to hell with those supplements! – reeko

  7. One of the things that I didn’t notice in browsing over this page was whether you or anyone is consuming the flax oil in combination with Whey Protein. It is extremely important for one to mix flax with Whey Protein as Whey has sufficient sulfur proteins that allow the flax to combine with it to make it water soluable and gives the body the ability to easily assimilate it. This is all based on the work of the 6 time Nobel prize nominee Joanna Budwig. She actually doesn’t recommend taking flax oil on its own without this combination…. do a search on Joanna Budwig, and you can buy her books translated to English online….

  8. interesting discussion. Some fairly good insight is also provided by Dr. Donald O Rudin so you can look it up. It seems we all have some pretty varied responses to mega doses of omega 3. the only reason to use high doses is to “do an oil change”. but we have to listen to our bodies carefully and after a while titrate back to something sane with a good ratio of 6/3.
    It seems since this is genetic food adaptaion we are talking about here and we are a very diverse genetic world population with out genes all mixed up
    we are all going to be having different reactions to levels of these fats in our diet in both the long and short run. I have to admit as well that when i try to read the work of Joanna Budwig her reasoning seems to be kind of faulty. The general idea is that we have a regulatory system based on lipids. you could call it a prostaglandin system that needs to be in ballance. remember you cant use fish oil alone for 3 because of no ALA.
    also might want to include evening primrose oil for GLA. remember that the conversion of molecules in the body is very complex almost like a chemical based computer with many redundant systems and pathways all built up as a response to our environment. we do our best based on current research but actually understand very little about how it all works so diet variety is the key.

  9. SUCCESS! The no-fish-oil regimen worked. I had my lipids checked again today, and after only six months of going off fish oil, my triglycerides are now normal: 145. Just two years ago, they were “off the charts” – over 400. And back in October after only a month of going off fish oil it had dropped to 309. I also began taking a low dose niacin in the mornings as well.

    I feel fantastic, no more dyspepsia/heartburn, much more energy, no more panic attacks (that mimic heart attacks) and my lipids are all within normal ranges.

    No matter what anybody says, I took fish oil (or flax) for almost 30 yrs, and here is proof, as far as I’m concerned that it is NOT the greatest thing to do for everybody. To each his own and good luck, but the best “prevention” may sometimes just be living naturally – and save your money on the supplements. 😉 reeko

  10. Just entered here via Google. @ Reeko I agree with you on the opinion that the best thing is living naturally and have varying diet. I have been using supplements for quit some time. I stopped because I think fish oil is also a supplement that is very stimulating. I think it can help you being active, but I don’t always like that.

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