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Essential Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats. Some fatty acids are "essential" because we need them to live, yet we cannot manufacture our own. Of the hundreds of different fatty acids found in nature, 20 of them are common in human foods, and two are essential to human health. These two are therefore called essential fatty acids. Other fatty acids are manufactured by the body and so even though they are needed by the body for health, they are not labeled as "essential".

Major Vital Functions of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA):

  • Essential Fatty Acids EFA's are required for the transport and metabolism of both cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Essential Fatty Acids EFA's are required for the development and function of brain and nerve tissue, particularly Omega 3s.
  • Essential Fatty Acids EFA's stimulate metabolism, increase metabolic rate, increase oxygen uptake and increase energy production.
  • Essential Fatty Acids EFA's are required for the maintenance of cell membrane fluidity and stability and also for proper cell division and genetic expression.
  • Essential Fatty Acids EFA's are integral to the action of immune function and in the functions of hormones including those governing inflammatory responses.

    It is very common in western society today to consume foods that are low or even deficient in essential fatty acids. This is due to the fact that processing and use of chemicals in the food industry have changed the make up of the fatty acids in order to make them more stable for a longer shelf life. Another reason for diminished content of Essential Fatty Acids in animal protein is overuse of grains for animal feed.

    There is a difference between "good fat" and "bad fat". It is not wise to be on a diet that is extremely low in all fat. You want to limit intake of saturated fat but have adequate ingestion of unsaturated fat.

    Essential fatty acids may be taken in the form of a food supplement. When it is taken in liquid form it is very concentrated and may be easily added into a regular diet by adding flax seed and borage oil combinations to salad dressing. Only a tablespoon a day is required. Cod liver oil is also an excellent source of EFA's.

    EFAs influence the functioning of fundamental systems in the body. The effects are subtle and the changes are perceived once the intake of essential fatty acids is regulated.

    The effects of Essential Fatty Acids are both psychological and physiological:
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    • Essential fatty acids lower high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
    • They regulate diabetes: stabilize insulin and blood sugar levels.
    • Essential fatty acids also treat and prevent arthritis.
    • They have anti-inflammatory effects on the body relieving any muscular or joint discomfort
    • Essential fatty acids are helpful in inflammatory conditions.
    • Essential fatty acids also relieve asthma.
    • They relieve PMS symptoms.
    • They also decrease allergy responses and strengthen the immune system.
    • Essential fatty acids relieve water retention and help kidneys remove sodium and water.
    • Essential fatty acids also make skin smooth and soft.
    • Essential fatty acids alleviate psoriasis.
    • They have a calming effect and regulate mood as a result of the influence that the essential fatty acids have on the hormonal systems.

    There are two main subtypes of fatty acids: the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The Omega-3's are those with their endmost double bond 3 carbons from their methyl end. The Omega-6's are those with their endmost double bond 6 carbons from their methyl end.

    Linoleic acid (an omega-6) or LA and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3) or ALA are the only true "essential" fatty acids because if it has these two the body can manufacture the others required.

    Omega-3 or Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA):

    Its richest food source is flax seed oil and it is found in oils from cold water marine animals (mackerel, sardines, salmon etc). ALA and its derivatives belong to an omega 3 family of superunstaurates. Besides alpha-linolenic acid (LNA), this family includes stearidonic acid (SDA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). If ALA is provided by foods, our cells make SDA, EPA and DHA. When the conversion of EFAs to their derivatives is inhibited by the factors listed above, DHA from black currant seed oil, or EPA and DHA from fish oils and northern ocean algae can be given.

    Essential Fatty Acids in fish oil are important for membrane flexibility and synaptic cell signaling. Studies support the use of fish oil supplements for treatment and prevention of diseases and disorders such as:

    • rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease
    • arrythmias, coronary heart disease and stroke
    • hypertension
    • breast, prostate and colon cancer
    • atopic dermatitis
    • diabetes
    • cardiovascular disease
    • atherosclerosis
    • stroke
    • asthma
    • as well as:
    • regulation of triglyceride and cholestrol levels and prevention of atherosclerosis
    • human growth and development
    • mood disorders, depression and dementia

    From EPA, through a couple of more steps, the body makes DHA docosahexaenoic acid, which is also found in fish oils. EPA is also the parent from which the body makes a group of hormone-like regulating substances called Prostaglandin 3 (PG3) series.

    Omega-6 or Linoleic Acid, (LA):

    It is found in most plant oils, nuts seeds and soybean. If LA is provided by foods, our cells make GLA, DGLA, and AA. Bad fats (margarines, shortenings, trans-fatty acids, hard fats, sugar and cholesterol), lack of minerals (magnesium, selenium, zinc) and vitamins (B3, B6, C, E), viruses, obesity, diabetes, aging, and rare genetic mutations can all inhibit omega 6 conversion. In such situations, an supplement containing omega 6 derivatives can help. GLA is present in evening primrose, borage, and black currant seed. DGLA is found in mother’s milk. AA is found in meats, eggs, and dairy products.

    Diseases characterized by chronic inflammation may be attenuated by GLA. GLA has been found to exhibit anti-tumor activity, lower blood pressure, reduce stroke risk, normalize fat metabolism and benefit neuropathy in diabetics, prevent liver damage due to alcoholism, relieve PMS and hormonal imbalances, eczema and dermatitis, and prevent dryness and atrophy of tear and salivary ducts (Sjorgens disease).

    From GLA the body makes dihomo-gamma linoleic acid, DGLA, also found in mother’s milk. From DGLA the body makes arachidonic acid, AA. DGLA is the parent of hormone-like Prostaglandin 1 series (PG1) and AA of Prostaglandin 2 series (PG2). Medical researchers have studied PG2 series extensively because they mediate a number of degenerative conditions. Arachidonic acid is found in MEAT, DAIRY PRODUCTS AND EGGS, which explains in part why diets high in these products predispose us to degenerative disease.

    It is essential to have sufficient intake of Vitamin A, C, E, B2, B6, pantothenic acid, B12, biotin and the minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium, sulfur, and zinc in order to convert Omega 6 to the healthful prostaglandins.

    Both LA and ALA are metabolized to biologically active substances called eicosanoids:

    • Prostaglandins:
      Local hormones that govern cellular responses, immune function and hormone synthesis. They are also involved in inflammatory response, fat metabolism, growth and tissue repair, and energy production
    • Thromboxanes:
      Increase blood viscosity, produce vasoconstriction and oppose prostacyclin (a potent substance in the body that decreases blood viscosity and promotes vasodilation);
    • Leukotriences:
      Regulate allergic and inflammatory reactions.


    Comparing Signs of EFA Deficiency
    LA (Omega-6) ALA (Omega-3)
    Eczema-like skin eruptions High blood pressure
    Loss of hair High triglycerides
    Liver or kidney degeneration Learning impairment
    Behavioural disturbances Poor motor coordination
    Excessive sweating with thirst Tingling arms and legs
    Susceptibility to infections Behavioural changes
    Poor wound healing Immune dysfunction
    Sterility (males)/miscarriage Sticky platelets
    Growth retardation Dry skin or edema
    Heart/Circulatory problems Mental deterioration

    Of approximately fifty known essential nutrients, LA has the highest daily requirement. The amount needed varies with season, latitude, levels of activity and stress, nutritional state, and individual differences.

    1% -2% of calories (1 tsp, 3 to 6 grams/day) prevent signs of deficiency in most healthy adults. LA optimums are around 3 to 6 percent of calories (1 tbsp., 9 to 18 grams/day), requiring about 30 IU of vitamin E. Obese people and those eating hard fats, sugar, and trans-fatty acids require more.

    Nutrients essential for LA functions include magnesium, selenium, zinc, and vitamins A, carotene, B3, B6, C and E.

    Alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) optimums range between 2 and 9 grams (1 or 2 tsp.) per day, averaging 2 percent of daily calories. Body content in healthy people is around 2 percent of fat, or 200 grams (half a pound) of LNA. LNA requires the same antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins necessary for LA functions.

    Clinical trials have shown fish oils (EPA) to be effective in IBD, possibly due to the increased production of less potent prostaglandins at the expense of the more potent ones.

    A double-blind crossover study conducted by Stenson and colleagues involved patients with active Ulcerative Colitis taking both fish oils and placebo, Patients showed improvement in sigmoidoscopic and clinical scores whilst taking the fish oils. Although patients continued their present medication, i.e. corticosteroids and 5-ASAs, a steroids sparing effect was noted when fish oils were taken.

    Another study by McColl and colleagues reported a decline in disease activity in a 12-week open study using EPA. Results may have been subjective as both patients and doctors were aware that they were receiving fish oils. However, colonic mucosa was found to contain increased amounts of EPA.

    A recent study by Belluzzi and colleagues in Italy showed that an enteric coated fish oil preparation was effective in reducing the rate of relapse of Crohn's disease patients in remission. 78 patients with Crohn's disease were randomised to receive either 3 capsules of fish oil 3 times daily or 3 capsules of placebo 3 times daily. Patients were clinically in remission and off medication three months before trial entry - blood tests, however, indicated a mild increase in inflammation.

    Out of 39 patients in the fish oil group, 11 relapsed compared to 27 out of 39 in the placebo group. After one year of treatment 23 patients in the fish oil group were still in remission compared to only 10 in the placebo group.