Essential fats, or essential fatty acids (EFAs) are essential nutrients just like other vitamins and minerals. EFAs are polyunsaturated fats, which are considered “good” fats. EFAs contribute to the healthy functioning of cell membranes, and are also critical for the synthesis of eicosanoids, a family of hormone-like substances that help in cell maintenance on a minute-to-minute basis. Just like other essential vitamins and minerals, EFAs are necessary for the maintenance of good health. Research with EFA supplementation has shown promise in a number of areas including: rheumatoid arthritis, skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, high blood cholesterol, coronary heart disease, diabetic neuropathy, high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides, and cancer.
Physiologically speaking, there are two fatty acids that are truly “essential”. These are Linoleic Acid (LA) and Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA). The body cannot manufacture these fats itself, yet they are essential for health. A healthy body uses LA and ALA to produce other fatty acids, which, in turn, produce beneficial hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids. The derivative fatty acids each play specific roles in the maintenance of good health and we generally include them when we talk about “essential fatty acids”: Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). There is one other derivative fatty acid that isn’t always a good fat, but it, too, is necessary in small amounts: Arachidonic Acid (AA).
|Linoleic Acid (LA)||LA is found in processed foods, margarine, and vegetable oils. LA helps improve skin conditions. It may also be partially converted to GLA in the body (see more on GLA below). The typical North American diet includes an excess of LA, so we do not need to worry about supplementation with this fatty acid.|
|Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)||ALA is found primarily in Flax seed oil and is also found in black currant oil. The positive effects of ALA have been documented in areas including: high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, immune system function, male infertility and cancer. The body also converts a portion of ALA into two other fatty acids, EPA and DHA (see below).|
|Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA)||A healthy body may derive some GLA from LA (see above). The richest natural source of GLA is borage (also known as starflower) Oil. GLA is also found in black currant and evening primrose oils. The body uses GLA to produce eicosanoids that are highly anti-inflammatory, dilate blood vessels, and reduce blood clotting. GLA is popularly used by women suffering from PMS. However, GLA has been clinically indicated to have therapeutic benefits in many other health conditions including: rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetic neuropathy, cancer, and skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. The body definitely needs GLA and most North Americans are likely not getting enough of it.|
|Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid (EPA and DHA)||These two difficult-to-pronounce fatty acids are responsible for the beneficial effects of fish oils. EPA produces eicosanoids that have many beneficial effects in the body. Research demonstrates that fish oils containing EPA and DHA have therapeutic benefits in areas including: rheumatoid arthritis, high blood triglycerides, high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), infant brain development, and cancer.|
|Arachidonic Acid (AA)||AA is necessary for the infant brain development and small amounts are required for overall fetal development. However, it is not generally deemed a “good” fat, because, in excess, AA may have some harmful effects. AA is produced in the body from LA (see above). It is also found in meat, eggs, and some shellfish. The body uses AA to produce a class of eicosanoids that are strongly pro-inflammatory, constrict our blood vessels, and increase the possibility of blood clotting. These compounds are very useful when you accidentally cut your skin while peeling potatoes – without them you would bleed to death. But once you have an excessive amount of these eicosanoids, the blood can clot in places you don’t really want it to – for example, arteries.|
“Omega-3” and “Omega-6” are scientific names for two different categories – or “families” – of essential fatty acids. These names are derived from the chemical composition of the fatty acid molecules. “Omega-3” fatty acids include Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). “Omega-6” fatty acids include Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA), Linoleic Acid (LA), and Arachidonic Acid (AA). Although the terms “Omega-3” and “Omega-6” may be scientifically useful, they are not particularly useful for the average person. In truth, the body needs a balance of each fatty acid, regardless of the “family” it belongs to. For this reason, it may be easier to think not in terms of “families” but simply about the importance of each essential fat – like vitamins, the body needs all of them for good health.
To say that all omega-6s are “bad” is an oversimplification. It is true that we generally get an excess of the omega-6 Linoleic Acid in our diet. But many factors of our modern lifestyle hamper the body’s ability to produce the good omega-6, GLA: consumption of sugar, alcohol, saturated fats and trans-fatty acids, diabetes, aging, stress, prescription medications, and viral infections to name a few. Insufficient quantities of zinc, magnesium, and vitamins B6, C, and niacin also slow the process. For this reason, it is a good idea to supplement with a readily absorbed source of GLA such as borage or evening primrose oil in addition to supplementing with sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as flax and fish oil.