What are essential fatty acids?

Vital's expert explains what fatty acids are and why they are good for you.

General

Many people are taking responsibility for their health by following healthy diets based on scientific and medical research.  The strong message of eating healthily by avoiding unhealthy saturated fats, to reduce the risk of heart disease, has created the impression of dietary fats being “bad”.

This, along with obesity linked to high fat diets, motivated many people to eliminate fat from their diets. Recent research has shown the incredible benefits and necessity of EFAs in our diets for the prevention and management of many diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, psoriasis, eczema, depression and even ADD and schizophrenia.

Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are important components of fats.  While some fatty acids are manufactured by the body, the EFAs cannot be manufactured and we have to include food sources to optimise our intakes. The essential fatty acids are classified as Omega 3, Omega 6 and Omega 9 fatty acids.

Essential Fatty Acids

•  Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Docosapentaenoic acids (DPA) are Omega 3 fatty acids with protective effects against heart disease, anti-inflammatory benefits in the management of arthritis, and the support of immune function. They are found in fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and krill.

•  Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) is an Omega 3 fatty acid that has to be converted by the body into the two other important omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Foods rich in ALA are flaxseed oil, walnuts and canola oil.

Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) is an important Omega-6 Fatty Acid for the formation of biological messengers that help regulate blood clotting, blood pressure, inflammation immune function. It is found in evening primrose and starflower (borage) oil.

Linoleic Acid (LA) is a prominent Omega 6 fatty acid and is converted by the body into the biologically active Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA). Food sources of LA are plant oils such as sunflower, soya bean and canola oils.

Oleic Acid (OA) (Omega 9 fatty acid) Oleic acid is derived from Olive Oil and it supports the health of the arteries and thus the cardiovascular system.

Ratios of EFAs in the Diet

The typical Western diet contains very little Omega 3 fatty acids, with low intake of fatty fish and other concentrated sources. Omega 6 fatty acids are found abundantly in the Western diet, in the form of fried or processed foods, margarines, mayonnaise, sauces and dressings, all containing sunflower oil.

The ratio of intake of Omega 6 : Omega 3 fatty acids is important for optimal health and according to medical research, the ideal ratio should be 1:1, as opposed to the typical Western diet with a ratio of more than 10:1 Omega6  vs. Omega3 fatty acids. Therefore, great emphasis is on increasing intakes of omega 3 fatty acids, while limiting intakes Omega-6 fatty acids and reducing intake of saturated fats.

Mono-unsaturated fatty acids (Omega 9) are recommended to replace saturated fats in the diet as they are associated with a lower risk for heart disease.

EFAs and Health
Apart from being important energy sources, EFAs are important components of our cell membranes, including blood platelets, red blood cells, white blood cells and liver cells.  EFAs are also precursors of eicosanoids, important biological chemicals that behave as hormones and affects immune responses, inflammation and the regulation of blood flow. Our intakes of EFAs therefore affects the body’s response to infections, inflammation and blood clotting, with obvious far-reaching health consequences.

EFAs in Disease Management
Many of the health benefits of EFAs in the prevention and treatment of diseases are substantiated by credible scientific research, which has also shown the safety of these nutrients taken in supplement form such as Krill Oil, Salmon Oil, Evening Primrose Oil, and Flaxseed Oil.

Cardiovascular disease

Cholesterol: Omega 3 fatty acids are known to help reduce high levels of cholesterol. Research has shown Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation to reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels by helping to increase the HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels and lowering triglyceride levels. Regular intake of Omega 3 fatty acids have also been shown to help reduce the body’s own production of cholesterol. Omega 9 fatty acids are recommended to replace saturated fats in the diet to reduce the risk for high cholesterol levels.

Hypertension: Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation is known to help lower moderately increased blood pressure. Omega 6 fatty acid supplements such as Evening Primrose Oil and Starflower Oil are also recommended to help regulate blood pressure. Precaution: Never substitute prescribed hypertension medication with nutritional supplements without your doctor’s recommendation or consent, as the physiological actions of supplements differ from most medications.

Inflammatory disease

Omega 3 fatty acids are very efficient in assisting the treatment of numerous inflammatory disorders.
Eicosanoids, that regulate inflammation in our bodies are derived from Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids in our cell membranes. Eicosanoids formed by Omega 3 fatty acids may reduce inflammation. This means that a diet rich in Omega 3 fatty acids could help reduce pain and swelling associated with inflammation.

Arthritis: Contrary to popular belief, Omega 3 fatty acids do not “grease” the joints of arthritis sufferers. The anti-inflammatory actions of Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation are responsible for the improvement of symptoms such as joint pain and discomfort, which may even reduce the need for anti-inflammatory drugs.

Psoriasis:
Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin disorder related to an overactive immune system. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to help relieve symptoms of psoriasis such as itching, scalding and skin reddening, by helping to regulate the immune response.

Eczema: Eczema is a skin disorder, characterised by itching, flaking patches of dry skin, believed to be stress induced and related to diet. GLA (Omega 6 fatty acids), found in Starflower Oil and Evening Primrose Oil is known to be effective to aid in the treatment of eczema.

Diabetes: There is believed to be an inflammatory component to the development of diabetes mellitus. A diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk by regulating the inflammatory response and the body’s natural response to insulin, with Omega 3 fatty acids being incorporated into cell membranes.  Research has shown improvements in blood glucose control in non-insulin dependent diabetics after Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation.

Brain food

DHA, one of the Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil, is an important building block for brain tissue.  Sufficient DHA levels are necessary for the transmission of nerve signals in the brain, which is related to intellectual capacity.

Nutrition During Pregnancy: More than 25% of all our brain cells and tissues are formed before birth and sufficient intakes of Omega 3 fatty acids are believed to be essential for optimal development of the brain.

Therefore foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids are important as part of a healthy, optimal diet during pregnancy. Precaution: During pregnancy, high dosages of Vitamin A should be avoided. Therefore, when pregnant, avoid high doses of Cod Liver Oil, naturally rich in vitamin A, to increase your daily Omega 3 fatty acid intakes.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD): ADD is believed to be partially related to deficient intakes of Omega 3 fatty acids and Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation is often used in the treatment of symptoms of ADD.

Alzheimer’s Disease: According to research, it is also believed that the development of Alzheimer’s disease could be impaired, or the risk may be decrease with a high intake of Omega 3 fatty acids.

Depression: Sufficient intakes of Omega 3 fatty acids have also shown decreased risks for depression and schizophrenia.   Based on only the latest scientific literature, it is clear that EFAs can help optimise your health status, and that regular intake could assist in the treatment of some diseases.

With current and future research, exploring further health benefits of EFAs, the recommendations to include these fats for health purposes will become even more significant.  It is recommended that you should evaluate your intake of these healthy fats and find ways to increase your daily intake, for optimal health benefit.

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