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Essential Fatty Acids

Depression, Heart, Skin Conditions, Inflammation, Pregnancy | February 2, 2018 | Author: Naturopath

Inflammation, dementia, heart disease, pregnancy

Essential Fatty Acids

Foods high in fat, have received a bad reputation as many low-fat products are promoted for heart health and weight loss. However, fats are very important—especially those that the body cannot make and must come from our diet. These fats are referred to as essential fatty acids (EFAs) and are based on linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha linolenic acid (omega-3). In a typical western diet, there is a disproportionate intake of omega-6 fatty acids over omega-3 fatty acids—leading to an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.

Signs of deficiency include dry skin disorders, dandruff, brittle nails and attention deficits in children. In fact, studies have found that increasing your intake of certain fatty acids can increase health, treat allergies, decrease your risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation and improve cognition.

What are essential fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids cannot be manufactured from the diet and must come from the foods we eat. They are different to other fatty acids which the body can synthesise from other fats.

Essential fatty acids are divided into two groups:

Alpha linolenic acid is metabolised to arachidonic acid (AA)—important for the synthesis of hormones, leukotrienes, prostaglandins and thromboxanes which are involved in numerous homeostatic biological functions and inflammation.

Alpha linolenic is converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—important for a wide range of health functions.

Signs and symptoms of an essential fatty acid deficiency

Things to look at for which can point to an essential fatty acid deficiency include:

  • Dry and scaly skin, including dermatitis and eczema
  • Alopecia
  • Cracked heels and fingertips
  • Dry hair
  • Dandruff
  • Brittle nails

In children, this can include:

  • Growth retardation
  • Learning disorders
  • Attention deficits

Why do we need essential fatty acids?

Why do we need essential fatty acids?Essential fatty acids affect many aspects of our health.

Their functions include stimulating growth and reproduction, the health and growth of skin and hair, wound-healing, reducing cholesterol and neural development.

They are also involved in regulating our genes, reducing inflammation and heart function.

Essential fatty acids are an essential component of the phospholipids that improve cell membrane fluidity and mitochondria which are involved in energy production.

Dietary sources

Omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs are commonly derived from either seed oils or marine oils. Alpha linolenic and alpha linoleic fatty acids are primarily found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils such as flaxseed, hemp, chia, canola and soy. Nuts such as walnuts contain significant amounts as well as grass-fed meats and dairy. Some eggs contain omega-3 but only if the chickens have been fed a diet rich in this nutrient.

Gamma-linolenic acid, a fatty acid that is made from linoleic acid can be found in hemp, starflower, evening primrose and blackcurrant seed oil.

The most concentrated sources of EPA and DHA are deep-sea, cold water fish such as sardines, anchovies, salmon, mackerel and halibut. It is recommended that we eat 2 serves of fish each week as part of a healthy diet.

While vegetable sources of ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA, this process is reliant on enzymes, such as delta-6-desaturase and might be impaired due to ageing, poor diet or nutrient deficiencies.

Unless you are a vegan or vegetarian, fish oil supplementation is the most efficient way of getting therapeutic results and reducing deficiency.

However, if there is an omega-6 deficiency, it is suggested that evening primrose oil be supplemented instead.
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Top 3 reasons to increase your essential fatty acid intake

1. Promote heart health

Promote heart healthEssential fatty acids are well known for supporting healthy heart function. In addition to this they help to reduce risk factors which are associated with cardiovascular disease.

In particular, omega-3 has been found to reduce blood pressure, triglycerides, arteriosclerosis (plaque in the arteries) and factors that contribute to coagulation of blood. They have also been shown to significantly reduce the risk for sudden death caused by cardiac arrhythmias and all-cause mortality in patients with known coronary heart disease.

Approximately 1 g/day of eicosapentaenoic acid plus docosahexaenoic acid is recommended for cardio protection. Higher dosages of omega-3 fatty acids are required to reduce elevated triglyceride and cholesterol levels (2-4 g/day). 
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2. Reduce inflammation

Chronic inflammation is linked to a slew of health problems including autoimmune disease, arthritis, cancer and heart disease. Studies have confirmed that essential fatty acids help in the treatment of a wide-range of inflammatory conditions and is comparable to ibuprofen for pain-relief.

Both GLA and fish oil supplementation has been found to be beneficial in rheumatoid arthritis, but symptomatic relief may take up to 2-3 months.
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Top 3 reasons to increase your essential fatty acid intake3. Brain health and function

Essential fatty acids are important to keep our brain healthy and protect against depression and anxiety. In children they may improve cognition, concentration and attention, while in the ageing population they provide protection against Alzheimer’s disease.
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So now you’re probably wondering how you can get more essential fatty acids into your diet.

Ways to boost your intake of essential fatty acids

It’s easy to incorporate foods rich in essential fatty acids into the diet. Here’s some handy tips:

  • Use flaxseed oil as a salad dressing or take 1 tbsp daily
  • Add nuts and seeds to salads or eat raw
  • Add chia seeds to your breakfast cereal or smoothie
  • Eat less takeaway and processed foods
  • Buy grass-fed meat and dairy products
  • Look for organic eggs that contain omega-3
  • Eat 2 serves of fish each week
  • Take a supplement such as fish oil, evening primrose oil or chia oil  Australia’s best online discount chemist


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Maroon JCBost JW. Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) as an anti-inflammatory: an alternative to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for discogenic pain. Surg Neurol. 2006 Apr;65(4):326-31

Reed GW, et al. Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis with marine and botanical oils: an 18-month, randomized, and double-blind trial. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2014;2014:857456

Ross BM, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids as treatments for mental illness: which disorder and which fatty acid? Lipids Health Dis. 2007 Sep 18;6:21

Bos DJ, et al. Effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on human brain morphology and function: What is the evidence? Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2016 Mar;26(3):546-61

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