Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) are the “good fats” that are all over the news these days, and a very hot research topic. More is known about them every week as more studies come forward.
Much of the information about them has been know for some time. For example, bad fats compete with good fats, so it’s important to minimize the intake of trans fats and cholesterol (animal fat) while consuming enough good fats. Also, good fats raise your HDL or “good cholesterol”. One of the jobs of this High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) or “good cholesterol” is to grab your bad cholesterol, LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein), and escort it to the liver where it is broken down and excreted. In other words, these good fats attack some of the damage already done by the bad fats. This is very important in an age when so many Americans are struggling to get their cholesterol down, and fight heart disease and obesity.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s)
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) are necessary fats that humans cannot synthesize, and must be obtained through diet. EFA’s are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids derived from linolenic, linoleic, and oleic acids. There are two families of EFA’s: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-9 is also necessary although it is not considered “essential” because the body can manufacture a modest amount on its own, provided the other essential EFA’s are present. The number following “Omega-” represents the position of the first double bond, counting from the terminal methyl group on the molecule.
Omega-3 fatty acids are derived from Linolenic Acid; Omega-6 from Linoleic Acid; and Omega-9 from Oleic Acid.
- EFA’s support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems in particular. The human body needs EFA’s to manufacture and repair cell membranes, enabling the cells to obtain optimum nutrition and expel harmful waste products. A primary function of EFA’s 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 EFA’s through the mother’s dietary intake.
- EFA deficiency is common in the United States, particularly Omega-3 deficiency. An ideal intake ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids is between 1:1 and 4:1 (although the jury is still out on this), with most Americans only obtaining a ratio between 10:1 and 25:1. The minimum healthy intake for both linolenic (Omega-3) and linoleic (Omega-6) acid via diet, per adult per day, is 1.5 grams of each. One tablespoon of flaxseed oil can provide this amount, or larger amounts of other linolenic-rich foods. Because high heat destroys linolenic acid, cooking in linolenic-rich oils or eating cooked linolenic-rich fish is unlikely to provide a sufficient amount.
- 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 aging, stroke, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s Disease, among others.
Omega-3 (Linolenic Acid)
- Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) is the principal Omega-3 fatty acid, which a healthy human will convert into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and later into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and the GLA synthesized from linoleic (Omega-6) acid are later converted into hormone-like compounds known as eicosanoids, which aid in many bodily functions including vital organ function and intracellular activity.
- Omega-3s are used in the formation of cell walls, making them supple and flexible, and improving circulation and oxygen uptake with proper red blood cell flexibility and function.
- Omega-3 deficiencies are 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.
Found in foods:
- Flaxseed oil (flaxseed oil has the highest linolenic content of any food), flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, avocados, some dark leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, purslane, mustard greens, collards, etc.), canola oil (cold-pressed and unrefined), soybean oil, wheat germ oil, salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, albacore tuna, and others. * Bach Bars contain significant amounts of: Flax seeds, flax meal, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds!
- One tablespoon per day of flaxseed oil should provide the recommended daily adult portion of linolenic acid, although “time-released” effects of consuming nuts and other linolenic-rich foods is being studied, and considered more beneficial than a once-daily oil intake.
- Flaxseed oil used for dietary supplementation should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer, and purchased from a supplier who refrigerates the liquid as well. Flax seeds &/or flax meal do not need to be refrigerated like flax oil does.
- Canola oil is often used as a cheaper alternative to the healthier virgin olive and grapeseed oils. Although Canola has at least some linolenic content, supermarket varieties of canola oil are often refined and processed with chemicals and heat, which destroy much of its linolenic acid. Cold-pressed, unrefined Canola oil is a healthier type of Canola (sometimes pricier than virgin olive oil), and found primarily in health food stores and specialty markets. The word “canola” is derived from “Canadian oil”, as Canola was developed in Canada from the rape plant. Rape is a plant in the mustard family, and its rapeseed oil has at times been illegally blended with olive oil, particularly in Europe, to cheapen olive oil production costs. Although rapeseed oil is high in linolenic acid, it can make humans seriously ill if enough is consumed, and olive oil cheapened with rapeseed oil has a history of severely sickening its consumers. (Ever feel itchy after eating commercial brands of peanut butter? Check the label — it probably contains rapeseed oil.) Canola was developed to eliminate chemicals toxic to humans in rapeseed oil, thus creating an inexpensive oil with linolenic acid. Unlike olive and flaxseed oil, both known to the ancients and used as mankind evolved, Canola is a recent oil, and its long-term effects on humans are not yet known. * We are not fans of and do not recommend Canola oil.
- Unripe flaxseeds contain a natural form of cyanide, and home gardeners should be cautious if trying to grow flax. The seeds must be ripe before harvesting. If attempting to grow flax at home, consult an experienced grower.
Omega-6 (Linoleic Acid)
- Linoleic Acid is the primary Omega-6 fatty acid. A healthy human with good nutrition will convert linoleic acid into gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which will later by synthesized, with EPA from the Omega-3 group, into eicosanoids.
- Some Omega-6s improve diabetic neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, PMS, skin disorders (e.g. psoriasis and eczema), and aid in cancer treatment.
- Although most Americans obtain an excess of linoleic acid, often it is not converted to GLA because of metabolic problems caused by diets rich in sugar, alcohol, or trans fats from processed foods, as well as smoking, pollution, stress, aging, viral infections, and other illnesses such as diabetes. It is best to eliminate these factors when possible, but some prefer to supplement with GLA-rich foods such as borage oil, black currant seed oil, or evening primrose oil. Additionally, the way many of the commercial oils and foods are processed leads to a damaging or alteration of the omega 6 structure. So, even though all the literature indicates that most people get too much omega 6 in relation to the amount of omega 3 they get, most, if not all of the omega 6 is not in its natural, healthy form. Thus, in reality, most people are deficient in omega 6 EFA’s as well as omega 3 EFA’s! By extrapolation, if most people are deficient, or even marginally deficient, in omega 3 & 6 EFA’s, they will also tend to be deficient in omega 9 non-essential fats as well since 9s are made from 3s & 6s.
Found in foods:
- Flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, grapeseed oil, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds (raw), olive oil, olives, borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, chestnut oil, chicken, among many others.
- Avoid refined and hydrogenated versions of these foods.
- Corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oils are also sources of linoleic acid, but are refined and may be nutrient-deficient as sold in stores.
Omega-9 (Oleic Acid)
- Essential but technically not an EFA, because the human body can manufacture a limited amount, provided essential EFA’s are present.
- Monounsaturated oleic acid lowers heart attack risk and arteriosclerosis, and aids in cancer prevention.
Found in foods:
- Olive oil (extra virgin or virgin), olives, avocados, almonds, peanuts, sesame oil, pecans, pistachio nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, etc.
- One to two tablespoons of extra virgin or virgin olive oil per day should provide sufficient oleic acid for adults. However, the “time-released” effects of obtaining these nutrients from nuts and other whole foods is thought to be more beneficial than consuming the entire daily amount via a single oil dose.
Signs and symptoms of EFA deficiency include:
- Skin problems: dry, eczema, dandruff, poor wound healing, sweating, loss of pigment, weak blood vessels/bruising, rough skin on upper arms and thighs. Cold peripheries.
- Organs/glands: kidneys enlarge, kidney failure, blood in the urine, fatty liver degeneration, wasting of salivary and tear glands, pancreas shrinks, subfertility.
- High cholesterol and impaired glucose metabolism.
- Hormone imbalances and PMS. Cystic breast disease.
- Allergies (atopic eczema, asthma)
- Learning disabilities, ADHD, Depression , Autism, and Behavioural disturbances. Higher risk for psychotic illnesses.