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Essential fatty acids; what you need to know. What are they? Why are they critical to optimal health and which ones are important?

For a long time, fat has been considered the "bad guy" of the nutrition family. But that is not entirely true.

In fact a great deal of research has been done on essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids are molecules that are required by our body to promote and maintain excellent health. These essential fatty acids have been proven to be of benefit to people with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, skin problems, and infertility.

Fats are complex molecules made of long chains of mostly carbon, hydrogen and small amounts of oxygen. Fats can be further classified into saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated based on the chemical bonds that exist between carbon and hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats are those molecules in which carbons in the chain are completely saturated with hydrogen. Sources of saturated fats are animal fats, whole milk, butter, coconut oil, palm oil etc. When saturated fats are taken in excessive amounts they are responsible for negative health effects such as obesity and heart diseases, stroke and cancer.

Monounsaturated fats are those molecules in which one carbon is not completely saturated with hydrogen and this free carbon forms a double bond. Oleic acid found in olive oil, peanuts, avocado and canola oils is a good example of monounsaturated fatty acids. This is also called an omega 9 because its double bond occurs nine carbons up from the molecule's acid tail. Extensive research over the past decade have shown that monounsaturated fatty acids like oleic acid have favorable effects on blood cholesterol. In addition to the benefits on blood cholesterol, there is also evidence that monounsaturated fatty acids may affect blood clotting by decreasing platelet aggregation (Sirtori et al., 1986). Monounsaturated fatty acids have been shown to reduce blood pressure in patients with non-insulin dependent diabetes (Rasmussen et al., 1993).

Polyunsaturated fats contain more than one unsaturated carbon resulting in many double bonds. Unlike saturated fats, which are solid, polyunsaturated fats are mostly liquid at room temperatures. Do not be fooled by this, it does not mean that all liquid fats are good for you, for example, coconut oil and palm oil are saturated fats and are liquids at room temperature. Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids. These are named essential because they cannot be made within the body and have to be supplemented in the diet. Essential fatty acids (EFA) are distinguished chemically by the position of the first double bond. Omega 3 fatty acids have their first double bond 3 carbons from the molecule's acid tail; they include alpha linolenic acid (ALA)- A great source is deep sea fish. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found primarily in fish oils and marine micro-algae. Deep-sea fish like Mackeral, Salmon, and Sardines are rich in EPA and DHA, while Tuna and Sword Fish have lower amounts of Omega 3's). Fish oil alternatives for EPA and DHA are flaxseed, perilla and black currant oil. There has been some concern regarding the possibility of contamination of fish with mercury, PCB's and other toxins. Fish oil must undergo a refining process to eliminate the heavy metals, but the only way to remove the PCB's is to subject the oil to molecular distillation. It is important to be sure that the fish oil that you consume has gone through these rigorous purification processes.

Omega 6 fatty acids have their first double bond six carbons up from the tail; they include linoleic acid (LA) which is abundant in sunflower and corn oils; gamma linoleic acid (GLA) found primarily in breast milk, in vegetable oils such as flaxseed, black currant, borage, walnut, chestnut and soy and it is also found sparingly in oatmeal; and arachidonic acid (AA) found in meat and eggs. While AA has some important properties, it tends to favor the production of thromboxane A2 that can lead to clotting. AA is also a key step in the inflammatory process, which can if over-promoted can lead to heart disease, stroke, arthritis and premature aging.

The importance of essential fatty acids also relates to their function in the body. The body is made up of cells and a cell membrane's fluidity and function is determined by the fatty acids it incorporates. In the absence of EFA, saturated fats predominate in the cell membrane, making it hard for the membrane to regulate the materials passing in and out of the cell. These unhealthy cell membranes lose their ability to hold water, nutrients and electrolytes. This leads to difficulty in cellular communication and reduces the cells ability to be controlled properly by regulating hormones. This can lead to various disease states such as diabetes and heart disease (Murray & Beautler).

EFA's are also important for the production of prostaglandins, leukotrienes and thromboxanes. The prostaglandins can be organized into three series. Series one prostaglandins reduce inflammation, dilate blood vessels and inhibit blood clotting. Vegetable oils and margarine provide Series One prostaglandins and they primarily contain omega 6 fatty acids. However, do not be fooled by margarine, because the "trans-fat" in margarine is very damaging to the body. Series two prostaglandins increase inflammation, constrict blood vessels and promote blood clotting. Meat and eggs provide series two prostaglandins and they primarily contain arachidonic acid. Series three prostaglandins exhibit mixed actions, from dilating blood vessels to constricting vessels, and these primarily contain omega 3 fatty acids. Since the prostaglandins have a wide range of function, and sometimes opposing actions, it is very important that our diet be well balanced and that any supplement that you take, favor the Omega 3's over the Omega 6's as our average diet leaves us with a very high Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio (this is an unfavorable situation).

Unfortunately, the American diet is rich in saturated fats and arachidonic acid (an Omega 6 EFA), which leads to high levels of series two prostaglandins causing heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The ideal supplementation of EFAs in the diet is in the ratio of 3: 1 of omega 3 to omega 6, favoring series one and three prostaglandins, however our diet has EFAs in the ratio of 1:20. As you can see, you have much to gain by altering your diet and supplementing with an Essential Fatty Acid supplement that provides Omega 3's preferentially to Omega 6's.

EFA and Coronary Heart Disease (CHD):
The American Heart Association recommends a diet that includes at least two servings of dark-meat fish per week for cardioprotection. Several studies have been done on the effect of EFA on heart diseases. The landmark study on EFAs and heart disease appeared in the Lancet in 1999. The study of more than 11,000 heart attack patients showed a 45% decrease in the risk of sudden cardiac death and a 20 percent reduction in mortality from all causes when supplementing with fish oils for three to five years. Research on omega 3 and 6 EFA groups have demonstrated a reduction in the risk of cardiac arrest after myocardial infarction (Charnock, J., Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & EFAs, 1999) and a mitigation of the growth of plague on arterial walls (Fan Y et al, Adv Exp Med Biol, 1999) respectively. In another prospective cohort study (Hu,F et al; Amer J Clin Nutr, 1999) conducted to examine the association between fish and omega 3 fatty acid consumption and risk of CHD in women. They observed a significant inverse association between omega 3 fatty acids consumption and incidence of major CHD events. This inverse association is independent of established cardiovascular risk factors and dietary predictors of CHD such as fiber, trans fatty acids, and the ratio of poly-unsaturated to saturated fats. It was also not explained by differences in intake of red meat or fruits and vegetables. Kromhout et al found that men who consumed 30 g of fish daily had a 50 % lower CHD mortality than men who rarely ate fish. The findings of the above studies are consistent with the hypothesis that omega 3 fatty acids may reduce CHD incidence and mortality through multiple mechanisms, including reduction of serum triglycerides, platelet aggregation and antiarrhythmic effects. (Conquer, J, et al, Nutritional Res, 1996 and Fan, Y, et al, In Vitro Cellul and Dev Biol,1995). Animal studies have established that fish oil intake effectively reduces the incidence and duration of cardiac arrhythmia. There is growing evidence to support the hypothesis that fish oil improves endothelial dysfunction, which is considered an early marker of atherosclerosis. A fish oil alternative, ALA from flaxseed and perilla oils, exhibited the same benefits as did fish oils DHA and EPA, but at a much slower pace (Ezaki, O. et al, J Nutr Sci Viturminol, 1999). GLA from borage oil demonstrated beneficial effects on blood cholesterol in men with high levels of LDL. Flax is the richest known source of ALA, which is a cardio-protective polyunsaturated fatty acid and the precursor to omega 3 fatty acid. Between 5% and 10% of ALA is converted to EPA and DHA, the fatty acids found in cold-water marine fish.

EFAs and Arthritis:
Omega 6 fatty acids like GLA, which form the precursor for series one prostaglandins. Interestingly, ingesting GLA (which in general we want to avoid (as the typical diet has more than enough Omega 6's) helps in the formation of series one prostaglandins, which have anti-inflammatory effects (so this might benefit patients with arthritis), studies have been conducted supplementing GLA in low dosages and have helped patients reduce their use of harmful NSAIDs; ie aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxyn etc. (Belch, J et al, Annals Intern Med, 1988). Scientists have performed experiments where they supplemented GLA in higher doses in patients with arthritis and have found a 36% reduction in the number and severity of inflamed joints and a 28% reduction in swelling of joints (Leventhal, L.et al. Annals Intern Med, 1993).

EFAs in weight reduction:
Omega 6 fatty acids, like GLA and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), aids weight reduction in two ways: It can activate brown adipose tissue, which is often under-active in overweight people and it can encourage the ATP metabolic process, which burns calories (Vaddadi, K and Horrobin, D., IRCS J Med Sci, 1979). Obese people are deficient in GLA and GLA supplementation can help dieters feel full by increasing seretonin in the brain (Delion, S. et al. J Neurochem, 1996). CLA occurs in grass-fed beef and dairy foods and is essential for cell growth and normal functioning of cell membranes. Unfortunately CLA is scarce in today's food supply because cattle are not often fed on grass, which has affected the human population's CLA levels significantly. Scientists have conducted a study on people who are dieting, and found that those taking CLA gain back less fat than those not taking the supplement (Blankson, H. et al. J Nutr, 2000).

EFAs and skin problems:
Skin conditions like atopic dermatitis/eczema have shown a strong positive response to omega 6 fatty acid GLA supplementation, without the side effects common to many prescription medications (Andreassi, M. et al. J International Med Res, 1997) GLA from borage and primrose oil in the treatment of atopic dermatitis reduced itching and vesicle formation by 40% both in adults and children (Andreassi, M. et al). Another skin condition, Psoriasis associated with leukotriene production from arachidonic acid, has also been positively affected by GLA (Ziboh, V and Fletcher, Amer J Clin Nutr, 1992).

EFAs and diabetes:
A high consumption of EFA rich fish has been linked with a lower incidence of diabetes (Adler, A.et al. Diabetes Care, 1994). In addition to benefiting from the cardioprotective effects of EFA supplementation, diabetics might find relief from diabetic neuropathy in the form of omega 6 GLA (Peth, A. et al. Amer J Physiol Regulatory Integrative Com Physio, 2000) (Tomlinson, D. Diabetes and Metabol, 1998)

EFAs and cancer:
EFAs have demonstrated effects against cancer, namely breast and skin cancers. Flax seed slowed tumor growth in patients with breast cancer and helped relieve symptoms of cyclical mastalgia (breast pain) without significant side effects (Goss, P, Presented at 23rd Annual San Antonio Breast cancer symposium, December, 2000). The omega 6 fatty acids also offered benefits in some drug resistant cancers of the bladder and breast by improving uptake of chemotherapy agents. A 2001 study suggested that omega-3, not omega-6 EFAs, may inhibit skin cancer (Davies, C. et al., Euro J cancer, 1999).

EFAs in brain health;
EFAs have been linked to brain health, including depression and infant development. Researchers found not only a DHA deficiency in Alzheimer's sufferers (Conquer, J. et al. Lipids, 2000), but found that fish oil supplementation may be a promising alternative to standard antipsychotic drugs used in schizophrenic patients (Joy, C. et al. Cochrane Data Sys Rev, 2000). Omega 3 deficiency was prevalent in a study conducted on patients with minor and major depression, indicating an abnormal intake or skewed metabolism of EFAs in major depression (Maes, M. et al. J Affect Disord, 1996). Omega 3 EFAs, like DHA, increased the rate of transmission of a brain wave linked to memory and learning. This improved transmission slows down the progression of dementia (memory loss) (Intl Conf on Highly Unsat Fat Acids in Nutr and Dis Prevent, Barcelona, 1996). Deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids has been linked to behavior and sleep problems in children between ages 6 to 12 years (Stevens, S. et al. Physiol Behav, 1996). New born infants are deficient in DHA and breast milk is a good source of DHA and scientists have discovered that breast fed children had higher IQ scores (Birch, E. et al. Dev Med and Child Neurol, 2000). Recently, the National Institute of Health called for supplementation of DHA and AA to all infant formulas. Personally, I do not agree with adding AA to the children's supplement.

EFAs in Pregnancy:
Omega 3 fatty acids are crucial for brain development in the fetus especially during the 3rd trimester. In 3rd trimester the requirement of omega 3 fatty acids greatly increases, if the omega 3 fatty acids are not properly supplemented in the diet of the pregnant mother the fetus will use DHA from mother's brain tissue and other tissue stores of DHA (Holman, R. et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 1991). In addition scientists have found that EFAs if not supplemented in the right proportion or if omega 6 EFAs are supplemented in abundance, it may lead to preeclampsia (high blood pressure in the 3rd trimester of pregnancy) (D'Almeida, A. et al., Women Health, 1992) and may also affect birth weight and gestational length (Olsen, S. et al., Lancet, 1992).

EFAs in infertility:
Did you know that problems in men accounts for approximately 40% of problems with infertility? DHA deficiency is one of the factors that may, in part, be responsible for some cases of male infertility. DHA does not cross the blood testes barrier and ALA supplementation has been found to cross the blood testes barrier and correct DHA deficiency (Horrobin, D. J Reproduct Med, 1983). Therefore, it may be wise to consider supplementing and or correcting your diet to get more of the Omega 3 fatty acids.

EFAs and respiratory diseases:
Evening primrose oil has been suggested as an adjunctive treatment for asthma (Bates, D. et al. J Neurol Psychiatry, 1989), additionally Harvard scientists supplemented GLA and EPA and found them useful in treatment of pulmonary conditions such as asthma and bronchitis (Hassig, A. et al. Med Hypotheses, 2000). Mayo Clinic researchers found that GLA from borage oil increased survival rate in those being treated for acute respiratory distress syndrome (Schwartz, J. Amer J Clin Nutr, 2000).


The essence of a better quality of life is less body fat, greater mental productivity, better physical performance, which leads to a decreased likelihood of chronic disease. All these can be achieved by selecting a proper diet that has an adequate intake of EFAs. In the right proportions EFAs are essential from birth to death and all points in between.

TABLE 1.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-9 Fatty Acids

Alpha linolenic acid, Eicosapentaenoic acid, and Docosahexaenoic acid.

Linoleic acid (LA), Gamma linoleic acid (GLA)and Arachidonic acid(AA)

Oleic acid

Sources: Sea fish, Flax seed, perilla, black currant.

LA and GLA are primarily found in breast milk, in vegetable oils like flaxseed, black currant, borage, walnut, chestnut and soy. >  AA is found in meat and eggs.

Olive oil, peanuts, avocado and canola oils.

Polyunsaturated fatty acid with first double bond three carbons from the molecules acid tail.

Polyunsaturated fatty acid with first double bond six carbons from the molecules acid tail.

Monounsaturated fatty acid in which one carbon is not completely saturated with hydrogen and this carbon forms a double bond.

Advantages: Lowers blood cholesterol. Inhibits platelet aggregation prevents atherosclerosis. >  Antiarrythmic. >  Lowers incidence of Diabetes mellitus. >  Alleviates symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, memory loss and infertility.

Advantages: >  Anti-inflammatory, helps in weight reduction. >  Used in the treatment atopic dermatitis. >  Helps in the uptake of chemo-therapeutic agents in some cancers.

Advantages: Favorable effects on blood cholesterol. May affect blood clotting by decreasing platelet aggregation. Helps in reducing blood pressure in patients with non-insulin dependent diabetes.

 

 

 

 

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