Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)
We are taking a look at Essential Fatty Acids – EFas, and how they are soooo important for pretty much everything in the body, and why most of us should be taking supplements of extra Essential Fatty Acids.
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are necessary fats that humans cannot synthesise, and must be obtained through diet.
Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats. Chemically speaking, a fatty acid is a chain of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached and a carbon-oxygen-oxygen-hydrogen group (the unit that makes it an acid) at one end.
There are two families of EFAs: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-9 is necessary yet “non-essential” because the body can manufacture a modest amount on its own, provided essential EFAs are present.
Omega-3 fatty acids are derived from Linolenic Acid, Omega-6 from Linoleic Acid, and Omega-9 from Oleic Acid. A healthy human with good nutrition will convert Omega 3s to EPA and Omega-6s to gamma linolenic acid (GLA), and then synthesise them both into Eicosanoids.
It is important to have the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 (another essential fatty acid) in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation.
It is evident that western diets are deficient in omega-3 and excessive in omega-6, and balancing of this ratio would confer numerous health benefits.
What do EFAs do?
EFAs are important for just about everything in the body, they support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems.
- The human body needs EFAs to manufacture and repair cell membranes, enabling the cells to obtain optimum nutrition and expel harmful waste products.
- Another primary function of EFAs is the production of prostaglandins, which regulate body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood clotting, fertility, conception, and play a role in immune function by regulating inflammation and encouraging the body to fight infection. Essential Fatty Acids are also needed for proper growth in children, particularly for neural development and maturation of sensory systems, with male children having higher needs than females. Fetuses and breast-fed infants also require an adequate supply of EFAs through the mother’s dietary intake.
- Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioural function.
- They are also good for lowering high cholesterol. EFAs form HDLs (high density lipoproteins – good cholesterol) which escort LDLs (low density lipoproteins – bad cholesterol) to the liver to be excreted. People who follow a Mediterranean style diet tend to have higher HDL or good cholesterol levels, which help promote heart health. Inuit Eskimos, who get high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from eating fatty fish, also tend to have increased HDL cholesterol and decreased triglycerides (fats in the blood). Several studies have shown that fish oil supplements reduce triglyceride levels. Finally, walnuts (which are rich in alpha linolenic acid or ANA, which converts to omega-3s in the body) have been reported to lower total cholesterol and triglycerides in people with high cholesterol levels.
What is are the effects of EFA deficiency?
- EFA deficiency and Omega 6/3 imbalance is linked with serious health conditions, such as heart attacks, cancer, insulin resistance, asthma, lupus, schizophrenia, depression, postpartum depression, accelerated ageing, stroke, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s Disease, among others.
- Omega-3 deficiencies are also linked to decreased memory and mental abilities, tingling sensation of the nerves, poor vision, increased tendency to form blood clots, diminished immune function, increased triglycerides and “bad” cholesterol (LDL) levels, impaired membrane function, hypertension, irregular heart beat, learning disorders, menopausal discomfort, itchiness on the front of the lower leg(s), and growth retardation in infants, children, and pregnant women.
- Infants who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation.
What foods are they found in?
- Fish, plant, and nut oils are the primary dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found in cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, and herring.
- ALA is found in flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, purslane, perilla seed oil, walnuts, and walnut oil. The health effects of omega-3 fatty acids come mostly from EPA and DHA. ALA from flax and other vegetarian sources needs to be converted in the body to EPA and DHA. Many people do not make these conversions very effectively, however. This remains an ongoing debate in the nutrition community; fish and sea vegetable sources of EPA and DHA versus vegetarian sources of ALA.
- Other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include sea life such as krill and algae.
- Available Forms: Both EPA and DHA can be taken in the form of fish oil capsules. Flaxseed, flaxseed oil, fish, and krill oils should be kept refrigerated. Be sure to buy omega-3 fatty acid supplements made by established companies who certify that their products are free of heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium.
- The Mediterranean diet also has a healthy balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil, garlic, as well as moderate wine consumption.
- “Time-released” effects of consuming nuts and other Omega-3-rich foods is also being studied, and may be considered more beneficial than a once-daily oil intake.
- High heat, light, and oxygen destroy EFAs, so when consuming foods for their EFA content, try to avoid cooked or heated forms. For example, raw nuts are a better source than roasted nuts. Don’t use flaxseed oil for cooking, and never reuse any type of oil.
- Replace hydrogenated fats (like margarine), cholesterol-based fats (butter/dairy products), and poly-saturated fats (common cooking oils) with healthy EFA-based fats when possible. For example, instead of margarine or butter on your warm (not hot) vegetables, use flaxseed and/or extra virgin olive oils with salt.
- Sprinkling flaxseed/linseed meal on vegetables adds a slightly nutty taste. Whole flaxseeds are usually passed through the intestine, absorbing water only and not yielding much oil.
Dosage for Supplements
Dosing for fish oil supplements should be based on the amount of EPA and DHA, not on the total amount of fish oil. Supplements vary in the amounts and ratios of EPA and DHA. Different types of fish contain variable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and different types of nuts or oil contain variable amounts of ALA.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, you should only take dietary supplements only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
Omega-3 fatty acids should be used cautiously by people who bruise easily, have a bleeding disorder, or take blood thinning medications including warfarin, clopidogrel, or aspirin. High doses of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding, even in people without a history of bleeding disorders — and even in those who are not taking other medications.
Also, people with type 2 diabetes may experience increases in fasting blood sugar levels while taking fish oil supplements. If you have type 2 diabetes, use fish oil supplements only under the supervision of a health care provider.
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