What's so essential?
Alan C. Logan, ND
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are critical for human survival, and yet we are incapable of manufacturing them. Learn why, along with the health benefits of EFAs.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are critical for human survival, and yet the human body is incapable of manufacturing them–that’s why they’re essential.
The two types of EFAs, omega-6 (linoleic acid) and omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid), can only be obtained through diet and supplements. There are other fatty acids, including omega-7 (palmitoleic acid) and omega-9 (oleic acid), with health-promoting properties, although these are technically not classified as essential because the human body can synthesize them.
The omega-6 is widely available in the North American dietary supply, so deficiencies are rare; sources include sunflower, safflower, corn, and soybean oils. Omega-3 is found in flaxseeds, walnuts, hemp, Salvia hispanica or salba seeds, free-range eggs, green leafy vegetables, and berries. In North America the intake ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is generally believed to be least 10 and up to 20:1, whereas many health experts believe the ideal ratio–the one human beings evolved with–is 1:1.
EFAs make up important constituents of all cell membranes. They can be converted into breakdown products that can either ignite or quell inflammation. Therefore, the dietary omega-3 to omega-6 ratio has enormous health consequences. In excess, omega-6 drives the production of inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins and leukotrienes. On the other hand, omega-3 and its conversion products, eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids (EPA and DHA, which are found in fish-oil supplements), reduce the production of the most inflammatory leukotrienes and prostaglandins.
Inflammation is at the root of most chronic medical conditions, from arthritis and acne to cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. The anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3 may be the primary mechanism in its role in promoting optimal health. The bulk of the research on EFAs has often focused on their cardiovascular benefits; however, studies on these healthy fats have also expanded into examining their role in promoting healthy pregnancy and addressing conditions such as asthma, allergies, cancer, autoimmune disorders, and weight loss.
Adequate EFAs are critical for proper brain development, structure, and function. Recent studies have shown the benefits of EFA supplements, particularly fish oil-derived EPA and DHA, in mental health and behavioural disorders, including depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In addition to mediating aspects of mood and behaviour in those with mental health disorders, EFAs may also be involved in improving day-to-day mental outlook in otherwise healthy adults. Research also shows a protective influence of EFAs against cognitive decline later in life.
Commercially available EFA supplements often include omega-6, -7, and/or -9. Given the abundance of omega-6 in the North American diet, consumers may wonder why they should purchase supplements with these fatty acids.
Look for dietary supplements with the omega-6 called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) derived from evening primrose, borage, and blackcurrant seed oils. Research shows that when taken in supplement form, GLA pushes the formation of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. Clinical studies have documented the benefits of GLA supplements in reducing inflammation, promoting healthy skin, and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Research shows that other nonessential fatty acids also provide health benefits, including the cardiovascular-protective properties of omega-7 and omega-9.
Along with a quality multivitamin-mineral formula, EFAs are one of the most important supplements to consider for the promotion of human health. The scientific evidence and rationale for regular supplementation is compelling. Supplementing with ground flax, hemp, or salba seeds–or fish oils derived from wild, ocean fish–might be considered a nutritional insurance policy to ensure adequate intake of omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Given the inadequacy of omega-3 in the North American diet, supplementing with the right essential fatty acids is… essential.