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Essential Fatty Acids

 

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are a group of complex molecules principally found in certain seed oils and in oily marine fish. They control or modulate a wide range of cellular processes, and just like the essential vitamins and minerals, are required for good health. They are referred to as 'essential' because they are either not made in the body, or synthesis is slow, and so they are best obtained from food sources or supplementation. A lack of EFAs may be associated with a variety of health problems in much the same way as for vitamin or mineral deficiencies. Symptoms of mild deficiency may include dry skin, splitting or peeling cuticles, continual tiredness and lack of energy, mental sluggishness, susceptibility to ‘bugs’, headaches, and aching joints.

Research with EFA supplementation has shown promise in a number of areas including: diabetes, cardiovascular health (high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides), rheumatoid arthritis, skin auto-immune conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, brain function and certain mental disorders, acne and obesity.

Fatty acids are divided into 3 groups, omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9. The -3 and -6 groups contain the essential fatty acids, ALA, GLA, EPA and DHA (see below). The ideal mix (the ratio we have evolved to consume) is considered to be about 1:1 omega-3 to omega-6, with smaller amounts of omega-9 fatty acids, which are not essential. Because the average Western citizen now consumes so much grain and olive oil, however, most people receive a great deal of omega-6 FAs in their diet, but very little omega-3, especially EPA and DHA. This means that most Westerners are actually deficient in omega-3 essential fatty acids, and not only commonly display symptoms of deficiency but also fall prey to a host of near-epidemic diseases such as diabetes and obesity that may be associated with this deficiency.

This picture is further complicated by the fact that although some omega-3s are found in certain plant oils such as flax seed oil, some are only found in quantity only in oily fish products such as krill oil or fish oil. The four fatty acids considered to be 'essential' are ALA, EPA, DHA and GLA:

Omega 3 oils

Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) - found principally in seed oils such as soy bean, rapeseed (organic, cold pressed, not canola) walnut and flaxseed. ALA can be metabolised into EPA and DHA, but the process is inefficient and requires a number of vitamins and mineral to be present.

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) - found principally in fish oils and organic beef

Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) - found principally in fish oils and organic beef

Arachidonic Acid (- non-essential)

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School in Boston have shown that fish oil improves bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depression. Other research demonstrates that low levels of EPA/DHA are also commonly found in: ADD/ADHD, Parkinson's disease, aggression, Alzheimer's disease, and depression.


Omega 6 oils

Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) - found principally in seed oils, especially in borage oil. Its precursor, Linoleic Acid is found in large amounts in many vegetable oils in the normal diet (LA is non-essential but potentially convertible to GLA in the body)

The richest natural source of GLA is borage (also known as starflower) oil. GLA is also found in blackcurrant and evening primrose oils. GLA is popularly used by women suffering from PMS. However, GLA appears to have therapeutic benefits in many health conditions including: rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetic neuropathy, and skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. However it should be taken with care as an excess may worsen deficiencies in omega-3 EFAs.


Omega 9 oils

Oleic acid (- non-essential)

 

Supplementation

There are a number of very good natural sources of essential fatty acids, including several plants and some species of fish. Oils are extracted from some of these sources for dietary supplementation. Some of the best natural sources of essential fats include borage (also known as starflower), evening primrose, blackcurrant, flax, and oily fish.

For the average person, supplementation with the following EFAs is required for the maintenance of good health:

GLA: 500 mg daily - this amount is found in 2 grams of borage oil

ALA: 500 to 1000 mg daily - this amount is found in 1-2 grams of flax seed oil

EPA/DHA: 400 mg daily for both combined - this is found in 2 grams of fish oil

A practical solution is to look for a blended oil product that combines a balance of these essential fats in one convenient capsule. People with specific disease conditions should follow the recommended dose for the individual fatty acids, as described above, for a therapeutic effect.

Regular supplementation with EFAs is an important but often overlooked part of a balanced diet. Deficiency can cause a variety of subtle but potentially serious effects.

 

 

 

 

 

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