Your body needs essential fatty acids for optimal health and wellbeing. Essential means that the body cannot produce the specific fatty acid and has to take them in from outside sources – either through food or supplements. Linoleic acid (omega-6), linolenic acid (omega-3) and arachidonic acid (this is formed from linoleic, linolenic acids) are indispensable for the biochemistry of the body. There are many forms of omega-3 fatty acids including alpha- linolenic acid (ALA) which is a precursor to many other important omega-3 fatty acids. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is a further step in the omega-6 pathway.
You have probably heard of these before. Savvy food manufacturers, seeking to make the most of increased awareness of their health benefits, are increasingly putting these names on their labels if they possibly can. So what exactly do these substances do?
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) perform many functions. They:
- are an important part of cell membranes. They help to determine the fluidity and chemical activity of cell membranes.
- enable the synthesis of prostaglandins – hormone like substances found in all cells which are responsible for many functions at cellular level and regulate many body processes such as: cardiovascular function, immune system processes and maintenance of the musculoskeletal system.
- regulate oxygen use, electron transportation and energy production (these are the most important processes occurring in the cells).
- help to form red blood pigments (haemoglobin).
- support the production of secretions of digestive enzymes.
- help make the lubricants that allow joints to move effectively.
- help transport cholesterol in the blood.
- help to generate electrical currents and keep the heart rate regular.
- needed by the tissues of the brain, retina, adrenal glands and testes.
- help immune function in fighting infection.
- help balance the immune system and prevent allergies.
- ensure proper nerve transmission from one nerve to the next – especially in the memory and concentration areas of the brain.
- ensure adequate bone formation and repair.
We need more omega-3 than omega-6 – in a ratio of about 2:1. A typical Western diet contains only small quantities of omega-3 fatty acids. Modern food processing destroys a lot of the essential fatty acids. The imbalance in the diet of omega-3 to omega-6 places a physiological burden on the body. To get sufficient omega-3 to balance the ratio you would need to eat at least three to four servings of salmon per week. Omega-6 fatty acid is found in abundance in our food supply. It is contained in most plant foods and in virtually all vegetable oils. It is harder to get sufficient alpha- linolenic acid (ALA). The richest food sources of ALA are flaxseed and flaxseed oil, hemp seed oil, pumpkin seeds, soy beans, walnuts and dark green leafy vegetables. If your diet contains sufficient linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha- linolenic acid (ALA) then your body is usually able to produce the other omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that it needs. This includes the fatty acids eicosapentanoic (EPA) and docosahexanoic (DHA). EPA is needed for the prostaglandins and DHA is a critical nutrient for the brain and nervous system and for vision. One problem for vegetarians who eat just enough plant sources of ALD is that a lot of the fatty acids are used as energy sources and only a small amount is converted to EPA and DHA.
There are many factors that can inhibit the conversion of linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to their derivatives. These include:
- the intake of trans-fatty acids (found in brick margarine, shortening, commercially baked goods and processed foods and foods containing partially hydrogenated oils),
- consuming too much sugar,
- alcohol consumption,
- nutrient deficiencies,
- viral infections,
- genetic anomalies such as deficiencies in certain enzymes and
This means that many people would benefit from supplementation with essential fatty acids in particular omega-3 fatty acid. Essential fatty acid supplementation is beneficial in treating more that 60 health conditions including:
- cardiovascular conditions,
- arthritis and
- auto-immune diseases.
For example, omega-3 fish oils have an important role in the prevention and treatment of heart disease. Diets that are rich in fish oils lower blood pressure as well as the bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides. They also raise the good cholesterol (HDL). These factors have been shown in accepted studies to significantly reduce the risk of developing heart disease. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is often effective in the treatment of inflammatory diseases such as asthma, arthritis, allergies, dermatitis and eczema. It also reduces the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome like breast pain, bloating, depression and irritation. Docosahexanoic (DHA) is particularly important for pregnant and nursing mothers. Growing babies depend on their mothers for their DHA.
EFAs play a role in every body process – we cannot exist without it. When the diet is poor in EFAs or the metabolic pathways are blocked through an imbalance of omega-3 to omega-6 multiple health problems will develop including: injury, infection, chronic diseases and unrelenting stress.
Omega 3/DHA fish oil products have been promoted widely for their excellent support for heart health. We believe they do have an important role in the cardiovascular system but the heart benefits have been overplayed at the expense of the many other benefits from these oils.
These oils are needed within the body just as vitamins and minerals are needed. The oils play a vital role in the development and operation of many essential substances and physiological functions.
More recent research has shown that these oils are just as important for the brain as they are for the heart. We encourage you to follow the links to learn more about the importance of nutritional oils. Just remember that they should be added to your basic daily supplement routine. One concern everyone faces when consuming seafood and fish-based supplements is the risk of contamination. The world s waterways have become terribly polluted, many dangerously so.
It is clear that dietary oils have been seriously overlooked for many years. They were falsely branded as bad for health by misguided orthodox health authorities, who railed against them as either dangerous for the heart or simply fattening. Fortunately, it now appears that they are changing their tune and are finally beginning to recognize the vital importance of this nutrient group.
If you already eat plenty of fresh, oily fish then reflect on your own health and wellbeing and let it be your guide. Consider the areas of activity of the oils as mentioned above and if you have no problems then stick with your diet alone. You would be one of a very small number. Most people we know would benefit from supplementation.
So I recommend that you take a good look at your current consumption of healthy oils in your diet. If you aren’t certain that you are consuming enough of the right types, in the appropriate relative proportions, we urge you to supplement your diet. Just be certain that it really is high quality and not merely being marketed using claims that it s high quality (they all do don t they?).
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) – Why Do We Need Them? by Dr Jenny Tylee