Confused about essential fatty acids (EFA’s)? It’s pretty hard not to be because much of the information out there is inaccurate, incomplete or wrapped around an advertisement for a particular product. Here are the basics together with answers to some of the more common questions we’ve been asked.
Why do we need essential fatty acids?
There are four major categories of essential nutrients that must be ingested by the human body in order for it to function optimally. Without them we get sick. The four categories are vitamins, minerals, eight of the amino acids and two fatty acids. In the case of these two fatty acids, because they are necessary for health and our bodies don’t make them, we have to ingest them. Seems that someone could have invented a better system!
The two fatty acids have specific names:
1.) Linoleic acid is the omega-6 type
2.) Linolenic acid is the omega-3 type
These essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are necessary for many reactions in the body, including proper cell membrane functioning and for making “local” hormones called prostaglandins, which are crucial to the body’s inflammatory response (how we react to infection or injury.) You’ve heard omega-6 (linoleic acid) referred to as “inflammatory” and omega-3 (linolenic acid) as “anti-inflammatory.” An over-simplification, but we can think of the EFA’s in this way with regard to inflammation. (See diagram on following page.)
Since EFA’s are embedded in cell membranes, which are the “gatekeepers” controlling chemical messages (and actual chemicals) allowed in and out of each of the billions of cells in our bodies, it makes sense that a healthy balance of EFA’s in our diet affects many conditions. Some of those are brain and cardiovascular health. When EFA’s are balanced, our neuron cell membranes send and receive signals better, and our capillary cells are more elastic, which inhibits plaque formation. EFA’s are also converted into compounds such as EPA, DHA and GLA, which modulate inflammation and have a whole cascade of effects on our physiology. Science is still discovering those effects.
Where can I get essential fatty acids in my diet?
All whole unprocessed foods contain some essential fatty acids. Omega-6 EFA is abundant in seeds and nuts including; safflower, sunflower, soybean, canola and flax. Omega-3 EFA is scarce and found in smaller quantities in seeds and nuts. However, there are exceptions: Flax, perilla, hemp, chia and walnuts contain high amounts of omega-3s. According to Healthy Fats for Life by Karlene Kurst, flax and perilla seeds are approximately 50% omega-3 by weight, while hemp seeds contain 20% omega-3s. (Yes, we carry perilla.)
Flax is truly unique. It contains both EFA’s in the balance our bodies need, which is three parts rare omega-3 EFA to one part omega-6. This is why we love flax!
Due to delicate chemical structures, oils produced from omega-3-containing seeds are damaged by light, heat and oxygen and by commercial refining to extend shelf-life and remove odor. According to Udo Erasmus, in his book Fats that Heal Fats that Kill, ingesting poor quality, damaged fats may cause inflammatory disease in the same way a lack of omega-3 EFAs in our diet does. The moral: eat EFAs, but know your source or manufacturer. Buy carefully processed oils in opaque bottles and store in the refrigerator.
EFA Conversion in Our Bodies
Ideally, our bodies make small amounts of EPA/DHA (found in fish oil) and GLA (found in borage, black currant and evening primrose seeds.) Therefore, these constituents are not essential, but diabetics, for example, have difficulty converting omega-6 to GLA, and people with osteoarthritis have been shown to benefit from EPA/DHA supplementation.
As the diagram indicates, there are two major pathways by which we process EFAs. Healthy functioning of these pathways involves a delicate balance between conversion of omega-6 and omega-3. We believe that since omega-6 is more prevalent in our diets (20:1 ratio with omega-3), omega-6 conversion dominates, which fuels inflammatory conditions that, over time, may contribute to chronic diseases like osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and atherosclerosis.
Which Fatty Acids should I take and how much?
EFA supplementation benefits dryness of mucus membranes, skin, hair, eyes and chronic inflammatory diseases. In his book Encyclopedia of Natural Supplements, Michael Murray, ND, recommends 1-2 tbs of flax oil for just about every condition, including basic health maintenance. Presently, most natural practitioners agree fish oils (EPA/DHA) have more immediate therapeutic benefit than flax alone for chronic inflammatory and mental health conditions. GLA also appears to have an anti-inflammatory benefit (particularly for skin).
We’re all different. Our gene pools are different. Our overall state of health varies as does our ability to convert EFAs. So there’s no one answer how much essential omega-6, omega-3, EPA/DHA and/or GLA we need. But it’s pretty clear that we’ll each benefit from a diet that encourages omega-3 conversion. For general health maintenance, or as a basis for a therapeutic protocol, consider the following: 1.) Good organic sources of EFAs such as flax, perilla or other EFA rich oils (1-2 tbs/day); 2.) Decrease the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3; 3.) Reduce intake of trans- and heavily refined fats; 4.) Limit the intake of AA (fats from meat – eat only organic meats); 5.) Add EPA/DHA (500-2,000 mg for maintenance; 2,000 mg or more for therapeutic benefit) and/or GLA (130-300 mg for maintenance; 300 mg or more for therapeutic reasons).
As with everything else in life, EFA supplementation is only a part of living healthy. Don’t forget exercise and laughing with friends. Try to obtain as many of the essential nutrients as possible from organic fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Beyond that, consider putting these good oils into your morning smoothie. Ask us for other ideas!