What Makes Fatty Acids So Essential?

Upon discovery in 1923, alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6) were originally labeled vitamin F.  Research conducted on rats in 1930 however, showed that these two essential compounds belonged with fats as opposed to vitamins.

Essential fatty acids or EFAs are necessary for good health.  Lacking the proper enzymes, they cannot be produced by the body, so EFAs must be gained from food.  In addition to providing fuel, EFAs play a role in other biological processes, and new discoveries are continually being made regarding their benefit to the health.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A new study in mice has found that the omega-3 fatty acids in certain types of fish and nuts may prevent two diseases that lead to human blindness – retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.  The research team led by Dr. Lois Smith at Children’s Hospital in Boston, concluded that omega-3 fatty acids help regulate blood vessel growth in the eyes, which might result in eye sight improvement and perhaps stave off these diseases.

Research also indicates that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for heart health.  Randomized controlled trials have shown that an increase in the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of heart attack and sudden death in people with heart disease.  The American Heart Association recommends an intake of oily fish high in these essential fatty acids at least twice a week.

It is important to consume fish with low levels of mercury like herring, sardines, shrimp, pollock, salmon, catfish and light canned tuna.  Avoid the consumption of shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tile fish due to high mercury amounts.  Other natural dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids are walnuts, soy beans, collard greens and broccoli.  To complement good nutrition, health supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids are available from local natural health stores and websites selling natural health products. 

Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids boost brain function and contribute to growth and development.  They also help to regulate the metabolism and maintain health of the skin, hair, bones and reproductive system.  Most of the healthy omega-6 fatty acids consumed in the human diet are in the form of linoleic acid found in vegetable oils like soy, sunflower, safflower, sesame and corn oils.  These are polyunsaturated fatty acids or (PUFAs).  The body converts linoleic acid into gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) which may be beneficial for several health concerns.  Supplements containing GLA are further converted to a substance called DGLA that may reduce inflammation in the body.

It has recently been found that those suffering from eczema lack the enzyme that converts LA into GLA, preventing the body from making the omega-6 fatty acids needed to prevent or treat eczema.  GLA is not found in the common diet, but can be found in supplements of various oils – namely borage seed, black currant and evening primrose oils.

A double-blind study tested children with eczema by coating the inside of undershirts with borage seed oil for a period of two weeks.  Symptoms were significantly reduced for most of the children.  By adding borage seed oil to an already healthy diet, similar effects have been observed in people of all ages with a variety of skin conditions.

Essential fatty acids are vital to a healthy body as they support the cardiovascular, immune and central nervous systems.  The proper ratio of omega-6 versus omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is important.  A healthy diet should include a ration of 2:1 or 3:1, or two to three times as many omega-6 fatty acids as omega-3s.  In the standard American diet, this ratio is about 20:1 because people consume many products made with refined vegetable oils like margarine, crackers, cookies and other processed foods.  Some experts believe an EFA imbalance can contribute to a host of mental health concerns like depression, hyperactivity and schizophrenia.

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