Essential Fatty Acids: What Are They and Why You Need Them
In a time where tremendous focus is placed on losing weight and getting rid of unwanted fat, the idea o putting more fat in the body may be hard to grasp. However, there is both a good and bad side to fat.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are beneficial fats that are called essential for two reasons:
Linoleic acid (LA), called omega 6 fatty acids, and Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), called omega 3 fatty acids are not manufactured by the body, so one must get them from diet or supplement.
EFAs are necessary for almost all cellular processes in the body and without them, the body cannot function properly.
Necessary for Life
Research on EFAs in the 1920s showed that animals that lacked EFAs initially exhibited dry skin conditions and inflammation. As time progressed without adequate EFA, there was damage to internal organs and then death. More extensive research in the 1950s began to point the relationship of EFAs to “disease of civilization”: heart disease, cancer, inflammation, diabetes, stroke, and skin diseases. As food became more processed and the consumption of bad fats (saturated fats and trans-fatty acids) increased subsequently, the consumption of good fats decreased. Current research on EFA consistently shows the tremendous health benefits of increasing good fats and decreasing bad fats in the diet.
Here is a list of some of the known physiological benefits of EFAs:
Can raise HDL (good cholesterol) while helping to lower bad cholesterol
Are the building blocks of cell membranes, enabling he cells to obtain nutrients and expel waste
Responsible for prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that regulate body process such as blood pressure, blood clotting, heart rate, reducing inflammation and supporting the immune system
Necessary for proper brain development in a fetus, for continuing neural development and maturation of sensory systems in children, and for optimal brain function in adults.
Current Research on Omega-3s
Current studies continue to support the use of EFAs for both heart and brain benefits. Here are some highlights:
Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to lower triglycerides, improve arterial elasticity, and reduce the risk of heart failure. They were also known to reduce atherosclerosis and shorten length of hospital stay following coronary bypass surgery.
In children, EFAs given daily helped calm children with ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Children deficient in Omega-3 oils may be more likely to have behavioral and learning problems including hyperactivity, anxiety, temper tantrums, impulsivity, and sleep problems. Specific studies showed benefits for children with autism.
In adults, fish oil may suppress the release of stress hormones that can cause anger and hostility in stressful situations, thus reducing anger and violent tendencies in both teenagers and adults. Numerous studies show a close correlation between low omega-3 levels and most forms of depression as well as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
In elderly, EFAs have been shown to reduce the incidence of dementia and improve cognitive function. Additional studies have shown EFAs to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and reduce agitation in Alzheimer’s patients.
Other areas of promise in the use of EFAs include cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes, bone support, inflammatory conjditions, reproductive health, skin conditions, and even weight loss. All these areas have shown positive response to elevating EFAs in the diet.
Research on GLA
Much of the research on EFAs involves the omega 2 fatty acids, but GLA from omega 6 fatty acids is valuable as well. Here are some reasons to consider using it:
GLA has been used for many years as a support substance for hormonal health, specifically as a beneficial fat for relieving both PMS and menopausal complaints.
Studies have shown GLA to be extremely helpful for eczema and other inflammatory for skin conditions
GLA also shows promising benefit for rheumatoid arthritis
The use of GLA in conjunction with omega 3 fatty acids has been shown to have anti-cancer benefits, to improve acute respiratory distress syndrome, to be an effective supplement for the immune system of AIDS patients, and may help to reduce dementia, among other things.
Accessing EFAs in the Diet
It is important to understand how to improve levels of EFAs in the body to experience the positive effects that have been mentioned here. Ideally, Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) produces omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), and Linoleic Acid (LA) produces the omega 6 (GLA). The typical American diet is very low in ALA and omega 3 fats, but happens to be rich in LA. The problem is that cannot easily produce omega 6 because of excess sugar consumption, trans-fatty acids and saturated fats in the diet, diabetes, alcohol, lack of certain nutrients, stress, and medications. In order for your body to elevate its levels of good fats, try following these recommendations:
Increase consumption of foods rich in ALA and omega 3 fatty acids:
Cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna
Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
Supplements of omega 3 are also effective, but look for reputable companies who use high quality fish oils from fish not contaminated with high levels of toxic metals
Decreasing consumption of saturated fats and trans-fatty acids by:
Reducing consumption of fried foods, dairy and meat except fish
Reducing processed foods and substituting natural alternatives
Eliminating hydrogenated margarine and reducing vegetable oils such as sunflower and corn
Supplement with GLA/omega 6 from Evening Primrose Oil, Borage Oil, or Black Currant Seed Oil.
With the overwhelming evidence supporting the use of essential fatty acids, for optimal health, everyone should include a healthy dose of EFAs through diet and/or supplementation.