Newtrition Blog

Guest Post: The Science of Bioavailability

Author: Hillary Webster, ND

Is Your Fish Oil Working?

By now, most people know that omega-3 fatty acids have numerous benefits in both preserving health and helping to fight disease. Many well-intentioned people take their daily fish oil supplement without any way of knowing whether it is helping them. Unfortunately, most fish oil supplements are taken incorrectly, meaning that most of their benefit is flushed down the toilet. To gain more insight into the efficacy of your fish oil supplement, we must discuss bioavailability and offer a way for you to test your omega-3 status.


What is Bioavailability?

Scientifically speaking, bioavailability is “the amount of substance that reaches the systemic circulation or the place of physiological destiny (activity).” Not all of an omega-3 supplement will be absorbed by the body; some of it will be excreted through the digestive system, and even less will actually make it to the intended tissues. Omega-3 fatty acids are of utmost importance for the eyes, brain, skin, heart,  lungs, and many other tissues in the body. It is therefore of great concern that your supplemental omega-3s get to its target area of the body. The amount that becomes usable and beneficial for the body depends on absorption. Scientists have speculated that lack of proper absorption may account for the few studies that claim no benefit to omega-3 consumption.

How are Omega-3s Absorbed?

There are two steps involved in absorbing omega-3s for use. The first is digesting the fatty acids and incorporating them into red blood cells where they can be distributed to the necessary body parts. When omega-3s are digested, they depend on the release of bile acids by the gallbladder to emulsify the fats into tiny droplets that can then be absorbed by the gut. This emulsification occurs in the presence of a high-fat meal, but if omega-3s are supplemented on an empty stomach, or with a low-fat meal, their absorption is significantly compromised. Luckily, researchers have developed a technology that maximizes omega-3 absorption to ensure the right dose of the right compound makes it to the right tissues for optimal benefit.

The SMEDS Solution

To remedy this absorption issue, scientists have developed a self-micro-emulsifying delivery system (SMEDS) to ensure valuable omega-3s are absorbed through the digestive system and remain in the bloodstream long enough to make it into the tissues. Emulsified omega-3s have been shown to improve absorption into blood cells over 6-8 hours and 48 hours, but what about longer duration?

One 12-week study involving emulsified omega-3s, showed superior concentration over time for both omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) when compared to an equal dose of non-emulsified control fats; these benefits persisted over the 12-week study period. Other studies have shown emulsified preparations of EPA and DHA to absorb 6 times better than non-emulsified versions.

To add more complexity, the absolute value of omega-3 fats in the blood is not nearly as important as the ratio of anti-inflammatory omega-3s to pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. Omega-6:omega-3 ratios average 15-16:1 in Western populations, whereas most begin at ratios of less than 5:1. Disease processes are linked to ratios above 10:1. Supplementing omega-3 fats is an effective way to lower this ratio.

To determine your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, you can test your omega-3 levels via the Omega-3 Index test. This at-home test determines your absorption levels over the past 120 days and is a validated method of testing omega-3 levels. To help each individual determine how much to supplement, as well as to measure the effect of supplementation, we suggest pairing an Omega-3 Index test kit with a quality, absorbable, omega-3 supplement to get the most value from your heart health plan.

About the Author

Dr. Hillary Webster is a board-certified Naturopathic Doctor and a self-proclaimed Hormone Advocate. She helps high achievers uncover and repair their hidden hormonal and nutrient deficiencies to get their world-conquering energy back. She loves dogs, writing articles, and grey sweaters. She sees patients in Toronto, Canada.