Essential Fatty Acids

In my naturopathic clinic one of the most widely prescribed supplements is the essential fatty acids — fish oils, vitamin E and evening primrose oil. Because essential fatty acids deficiencies are commonly observed during client consultations or a live blood analysis, I thought I would discuss them in detail here.

What are essential fatty acids (EFAs)?

EFAs are polyunsaturated oils. They are called ‘essential’ because our body does not manufacture them and they must be obtained through our diet on a daily basis for optimal health and well being. The most important EFAs are EPA and DHA (omega-3s) and GLA (omega-6). They are our, ‘look good and feel good’ nutrients.

What are EPA, DHA and GLA?

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is a long chain Omega-3 polyunsaturated ‘essential fatty acid’ found in varieties of cold water fish. EPA is said to support the cardiovascular system and reduce inflammation.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long chain polyunsaturated Omega-3 essential fatty acid also found in varieties of cold water fish. The brain is particularly rich in DHA and here it increases membrane fluidity, promotes nerve cell growth and sup-ports functions such as learning, memory and cognitive function. It is also shown to be beneficial in protecting the body against the harmful effects of stress.

Gammalinolenic acid (GLA) is an Omega-6 essential fatty acid.In general, the Western diet contains too many Omega-6 fatty acids (found in sun-flower oil, corn oil, and other foods) and too few of the Omega-3 fatty acids…an imbalance that may predispose many towards inflammatory conditions. However the Omega-6 found in borage and evening primrose are anti-inflammatory similar to EPA. GLA can however metabolise into the pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fat arachadonic acid, but if taken with EPA this effect is inhibited, potentially making the effect of the two greater than the sum of its parts.

Why are EFAs important?

The body must receive a constant and balanced supply of EFAs to: regulate pain and swelling; help maintain proper blood pressure and cholesterol levels; support healthy brain, eyes, skin and nervous system regulation; and most importantly, protect the body against stress.

Where are EFAs found?

The richest and most beneficial EFAs are from EPA and DHA found in cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring. Borage and evening primrose oil are rich sources of GLA.

The following foods contain both omega-3 and omega-6 oils:
Almond, flax seed, hazelnut, pecan, pine nut, pumpkin seed, sesame seed, sunflower seed, walnut, avocado, buckwheat, corn, garbanzo, millet, miso, oats, olives, quinoa, brown rice, soybeans.

As you can see there are plenty of sources of EFAs but the nuts and seeds are often difficult to digest. During a colonic irrigation, nuts are one of the main undigested foods I see going straight through people when they do a colonic. Also whenever I see oil floating through the colonic tube, on questioning, I generally find it is flax oil.

Of course for an EFA to be any use to someone it must first be digested. In the case of seeds and nuts, soaking them first and chewing well can help the digestive process. (Nuts and seeds contain an enzyme inhibitor that needs to be soaked off first before consumption.)

Prostaglandins: An insight into the essential fatty acids

Many of the positive effects of essential fatty acids come from their conversion into hormone-like substances in the body known as prostaglandins (PGs). Prostaglandins are thought to play a role in the regulation and function of every organ and cell in the human body. Their wide ranging effects help explain the multitude of diverse properties of the essential fatty acids.

There are many different PGs: the most relevant, according to current research, are those of the ‘E’ family. There are ‘series’ (sub-groupings) within the ‘E’ and all other PG families, which depend on the fatty acid source. These series are denoted by subscripts. For example, much of the action of EPA and DHA is the result of their conversion into an ‘E’ family of prostaglandins denoted by the subscript 3: PGE3.

GLA, a fatty acid synthesised in the healthy body from linoleic acid, converts into PG1. PGE3 and PGE1 both have heart and artery-protecting values.

The essential fatty acid arachidonic acid (AA) comes primarily from animal products. AA produces a prostaglandin of the type PGE2. In excess, PGE2 can produce pain and inflammation and encourage the blood to clot. AA also releases in the body substances known as ‘leukotrienes’, which act beneficially to heal wounds and injuries, but in excess are thought to provoke inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.

The inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis is considered a direct result of excessive leukotrienes. Other leukotriene-related conditions are asthma, dermatitis, rhinitis, psoriasis, and lupus. Therefore if an inflammatory condition is present, a diet high in animal products is not recommended.

Aspirin and various steroid drugs block the production of PGE2 and therefore clot-ting, pain and fever. Aspirin in particular is now used regularly to protect the heart and for the pain of arthritis and other maladies. However, aspirin also blocks the production of the beneficial PGE1, so that when it is used for arthritis and heart disease, the inflammation and deterioration of tissue from leukotrienes continue.

Taking essential fatty acids — when diet is not enough

Foods traditionally thought to be good sources of EFAs may contain harmful toxic metals. Much of the salmon on the market today is farmed and fed a grain diet. As a result, the fish can be abnormally high in linoleic acid and pesticides and low in Omega-3 fatty acids.

In addition, life-style and health influences can inhibit the conversion to the right type of fatty acids and reduce absorption. These influences include: low levels of vitamin B3, B6, C, zinc and magnesium; alcohol consumption; some prescription drugs; a diet high in hydrogenated and trans fats; ageing; com-promised immune status and certain health conditions such as diabetes. For many people, taking a supplement of EFAs may be the most effective way to achieve proper essential fatty acid balance.

Written by Sue Kira from True Vitality. First published in Here & Now magazine 2005

Related to - Naturopathy | Food and Nutrition

By Sue Kira

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