The surprising source of an essential fatty acid

With fish oil now the nation's best-selling nutritional supplement, it seems like most people have gotten the message about omega-3 fatty acids.

Too bad the message is incomplete.

Along with the EPA and DHA found in fish oil, there's another essential fatty acid your body needs -- one it can't make on its own. It's called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, and a new small study finds a surprisingly good source of it:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-chia!

You probably remember those old commercials for Chia Pets, the terra cotta animals with fuzzy heads of grassy "hair." Now, researchers say the same seeds used to grow that hair can also raise levels of ALA and EPA, at least in older women.

In the study of 10 normal-weight postmenopausal women with an average age of 55, 25 grams of chia seeds a day for seven weeks increased blood levels of ALA by 138 percent.

That's impressive, even if most people don't realize that ALA plays a key role in controlling the body's inflammation levels -- which means it can help protect the heart and brain and even cut your risk of autoimmune disorders.

In addition, your body can convert ALA into the other omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, although that wasn't quite seen in the new study. While levels of EPA rose by 30 percent, levels of DHA actually fell slightly.

In other words, chia seed isn't going to replace your fish oil -- but if this holds up to more research, you might want to take it with your fish oil.

Some people might even want to add it now, but not necessarily for that ALA. Chia seed is an excellent source of fiber, and I've recommended it for years for constipation relief as well as overall regularity.

But if your digestion is normal and you want a more proven source of ALA, I recommend walnuts, olive oil, flaxseed, pumpkinseeds and leafy green vegetables.

The only downside is you can't use them to grow "hair" on little terra cotta statuettes.