By Dr. Bill Rawls
By now, you’ve likely heard about the many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of dietary fat called polyunsaturated fatty acids found primarily in marine sources. Consuming enough omega-3s reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, depression, and anxiety. It also helps fight inflammation, slow cognitive decline and improves joint health, bone health, and eye health.
It’s not just for these reasons that omega-3s are considered “essential.” Our bodies need them, as they’re an integral part of our cell membranes, which play a key role in cell function.
Also, we can’t produce omega-3s on our own, meaning we have to get them from outside sources like salmon (2,260 mg per 3.5 ounces), oysters (370 mg per 6 oysters), flax seeds (2,350 mg per tablespoon of whole seeds), and soybeans (670 mg per half cup). Yet more than 90% of Americans consume less than the recommended daily intake of 1,100 mg for women and 1,600 mg for men from our diet.
So, making up for what you’re missing by taking a daily omega-3 supplement makes sense. Many Americans get omega-3s from fish oil, which comes from fish like mackerel, salmon, and herring.
While there’s nothing wrong with fish oil, a growing body of research suggests there’s a smarter source: Krill oil.
Here’s what you need to know about krill oil and what the science shows about its health-enhancing potential.
What is Krill Oil?
Krill oil comes from krill - small shrimp-like crustaceans found in oceans worldwide. Krill are tiny, measuring about two inches in length; however, they play a giant role in the ecosystem, serving as the primary food source for various marine animals such as fish, seals, penguins, and whales.
Like fish oil, krill oil has two fundamental types of omega-3 fatty acids: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These acids do various things: EPA helps with inflammation and immune responses, while DHA is a component of cell membranes that facilitates nerve communication and supports brain development and health function. DHA and EPA work together in your body, and you need both.
The 6 Advantages of Krill Oil Benefits over Fish Oil
1. Omega-3s in Krill Oil are Easier to Absorb.
Though both fish oil and krill oil contain EPA and DHA, the molecular structure of their fatty acids is different in a way that matters. In krill, the omega-3s are in the form of phospholipids, molecules of glycerol, two fatty acids, and the mineral phosphorus. In fish oil, the omega-3s are triglycerides, compounds of glycerol, and three fatty acids.
That slight difference in molecular makeup gives krill oil the advantage in terms of omega-3 bioavailability: The phospholipid form of omega-3 fatty acids in krill was shown to help facilitate the incorporation of omega-3s into tissues faster and more effectively than the triglyceride form in fish. In other words, the omega-3s in krill are easier for the body to absorb, suggesting you can take about 37% less krill oil than fish oil to get the same benefit.
2. Krill Oil Phospholipids Offer Critical Benefits That Fish Oil Cannot.
Humans need sufficient levels of phospholipids to ensure optimal cell function, cell growth, and the generation of new cells. In fact, phospholipids have been shown to help boost brain health and have protective effects against heart disease and liver disease, poor immune function, stress, depression, and more.
But as we age, our cells’ phospholipid levels naturally decrease. And because modern-day diets contain only about a third of the phospholipids they used to 100 years ago, it’s tough to replenish stores through food alone.
Supplementing with krill oil — which has omega-3s in phospholipid form — can help fill those nutritional gaps that fish oil won’t.
3. Krill Oil Has Brain-Boosting Choline; Fish Oil Does Not.
Keeping things on a molecular level for another moment, the structure of phospholipids in krill oil brings one more benefit. Phospholipid molecules have a “head group,” a phosphate group that can be modified with a simple organic molecule. In the case of krill oil, the molecule is choline, an essential vitamin-like nutrient.
Choline is known for its vital role in brain development in utero and early childhood, but it’s also essential for a healthy heart, liver, brain health, and more at every age. Our bodies convert choline to acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for learning, breathing, memory, sleep health, and metabolism.
While we can produce a small amount of choline in the liver, it’s not enough to meet our needs, so we must get some from diet — the recommended daily intake for men is 550 mg/day; for women, 425 mg/day. Sadly, most of us fall short in getting our daily intake: 90% of Americans have inadequate choline intake, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
A choline deficiency can lead to serious health concerns, including fatty liver, muscle damage, and atherosclerosis (the buildup of cholesterol plaque in artery walls). Supplementing with krill oil is an easy way to help you hit your choline levels.
4. Krill Oil Has More Antioxidant Power than Fish Oil.
Though omega-3 fatty acids have some antioxidant actions — they help reduce inflammation and counter cell-damaging free radicals — they’re not technically antioxidants. Krill oil, however, contains a naturally occurring antioxidant called astaxanthin, adding beneficial compounds to its toolbox; fish oil does not.
Astaxanthin is responsible for the dark red color of krill oil and helps keep the omega-3 fatty acids in the oil stable. In our cells, astaxanthin offers protection against free radicals and helps normalize oxidative stress — the process by which free radicals are formed — in people with higher levels of oxidative stress, such as smokers—the result: Less inflammation throughout the body, and especially the vascular system.
Astaxanthin has been linked with several health benefits, including improved heart, liver, joint, eye, and prostate health, faster recovery from exercise, and pain reduction. Thanks to astaxanthin, krill oil has 48 times the antioxidant power of fish oil.
5. Krill Oil Has Fewer Fishy Side Effects than Fish Oil.
One of the top complaints about fish oil supplements is their tendency to cause a fishy aftertaste and “fish burps.” Because they’re triglycerides and don’t absorb well in the body, fish oil omega-3s tend to sit on the surface of your stomach contents, which can result in reflux and that gross aftertaste.
Krill oil’s omega-3s, on the other hand, are phospholipids, which means they disperse more easily in the fluids in your stomach and don’t have the same reflux reaction.
6. Krill Have Naturally Lower Mercury Levels Than Fish.
Mercury levels in the atmosphere have increased exponentially in recent decades, thanks to increases in mercury emissions from burning fossil fuels and gold mining. That mercury eventually falls into our water systems, where it starts to make its way up the food chain: Microscopic algae and other tiny sea creatures eat it, which is subsequently ingested by small fish and different marine life, which are then gobbled up by larger fish, and so on.
That’s why, generally speaking, the bigger the fish, the higher the mercury levels. Krill — which finds itself near the bottom of the food chain — accumulates much less mercury than the tunas of the world.
Now, mercury in fish oil supplements isn’t really a concern, as experts have learned how to process mercury out successfully. But regularly eating fish introduces more mercury into your system. It also increases the demand for fish, contributing to overfishing, habitat destruction, irresponsible catch methods that hurt other species like sea turtles and dolphins, and more. So, if you’re looking for a more sustainable way to get your omega-3s, supplementing with krill oil is a more planet-friendly bet.
The Bottom Line: Make the healthy switch to krill oil!
Given the recent research on krill oil’s functionality and health benefits, it makes sense to switch from fish oil to get the most out of your omega-3 supplement. If you’re not already taking omega-3s, now’s a great time to start so you can begin reaping all the body and mind benefits these healthy fats have to offer.
Amazing Krill Facts
- A female krill can lay up to 10,000 eggs at one time.
- Krill one of the largest single-species biomass on earth.
- Krill swim in huge swarms up to 3.7 miles long, with a density of up to 1 million individuals per cubic meter.
- Krill swarms are so dense, they can be seen from outer space.
- The estimated weight of all krill is far more than the total weight of all humans: 725 metric tons vs. 250 million metric tons, respectively.
- Krill can live up to 200 days without food by slowing their metabolism.
- When under threat, krill can spontaneously molt, which leaves behind a confusing empty shell.