Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are fats that must be consumed through diet because the body is unable to manufacture them on its own. These fats are needed by the body in order to maintain overall health. There are two essential fatty acids for humans, Omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) and Omega-6 (linoleic acid).
There are three different types of omega-3s. Key omega-3 fatty acids include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), both found primarily in oily cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel. The third omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found primarily in dark green leafy vegetables, flaxseed oils, and certain vegetable oils. Although ALA has different effects on the body than EPA and DHA do, the body has enzymes that can convert ALA to EPA. All three are important to human health.
Scientists made one of the first associations between omega-3s and human health while studying the Inuit (Eskimo) people of Greenland in the 1970s. As a group, the Inuit suffered far less from certain diseases (coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, psoriasis) than their European counterparts. Yet their diet was very high in fat from eating whale, seal, and salmon. Eventually researchers realized that these foods were all rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which provided real disease-countering benefits.
Researchers continue to explore this exciting field. They’ve found that without a sufficient supply of polyunsaturated omega-3s, the body will use saturated fat to construct cell membranes. The resulting cell membranes, however, are less elastic, a situation that can have a negative effect on the heart because it makes it harder to return to a resting state.
- Improve heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to play a part in keeping cholesterol levels low, stabilizing irregular heart beat (arrhythmia), and reducing blood pressure. Researchers now believe that alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the omega-3s, is particularly beneficial for protecting against heart and vessel disease, and for lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Omega-3 fatty acids are also natural blood thinners, reducing the “stickiness” of blood cells (called platelet aggregation), which can lead to such complications as blood clots and stroke.
- Reduce hypertension. Studies of large groups of people have found that the more omega-3 fatty acids people consume, the lower their overall blood pressure levels.
- Improve rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Raynaud’s disease, and other autoimmune diseases. Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish oils) have been shown to increase survival in people with autoimmune diseases.
- Improve depression and symptoms of other mental health problems. Researchers have discovered a link between mood disorders and the presence of low concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids in the body. Omega-3s enhance the ability of brain cell receptors to comprehend mood-related signals from other neurons in the brain.
Ocean fish, wild game, omega-3 eggs are great sources of EPA and DHA. Canola oil, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables such as kale are all good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids through foods. However, be sure to check with your doctor first if you are taking a blood-thinner such as warfarin or heparin.
One benefit of omega-3 fatty acids is that they are very safe to consume. However, most sources recommend that fish consumption be limited to two to three servings weekly because so many fish are tainted with mercury and other contaminants. Fish oil capsules don’t present this same risk.
The most healthful sources of omega-6 are those that contain linoleic acid. These are converted by the body into gamma linoleic acid (GLA). Once processed by the body, GLA is converted into prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that can either block inflammation or promote it. GLA-rich supplements such as borage oil and evening primrose oil help calm inflammation. This can make them an attractive treatment option for many inflammatory conditions.
- Reduce the aches and pains of rheumatoid arthritis. By creating “good” prostaglandins, omega-6s can help reduce inflammation. By using a conventional prostaglandin-inhibiting anti-inflammatory (such as ibuprofen) at the same time, the effects of both will be increased.
- Relieve the discomforts of PMS, endometriosis, and fibrocystic breasts. By creating good prostaglandins and blocking the “bad” variety, released during the days before and during menstruation, omega-6 supplementation may be helpful in reducing symptoms such as breast tenderness, bloating, or cramps.
- Improve GLA levels. Many PMS sufferers are found to have low levels of GLA, which is why supplements rich in this omega-6 fatty acid seem to be helpful. In addition, women with fibrocystic breasts frequently have low levels of the mineral iodine. GLA appears to enhance the absorption of iodine, which helps to explain its usefulness in fibrocystic breast syndrome.
- Reduce the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis. EFAs serve as natural anti-inflammatories and as nutrients for healthy skin cells.
- Clear up acne and rosacea. Omega-6 may reduce the risk of pores becoming clogged and lesions developing. It also helps to treat rosacea by reducing inflammation, controlling the cells’ use of nutrients, and by producing prostaglandins, which stimulate the contraction of blood vessels.
- Prevent and improve diabetic neuropathy. Studies have shown that in people with diabetes, GLA supplementation improves nerve function and may even prevent nerve deterioration from occurring in the first place.
Good dietary sources of omega-6 fatty acids include cereals, eggs, poultry, most vegetable oils, whole- grain breads, baked goods, and margarine. Supplement examples include Borage Seed Oil, Evening Primrose Oil and Black Currant Seed Oil. It should be noted that not all sources of omega-6s contain the same percentage of GLA. Borage oil features more GLA (17%) than evening primrose oil (9%), and blackcurrant oil offers rich stores as well (13%). Borage oil and blackcurrant oil may be better values than evening primrose oil simply because they are less expensive and contain more GLA than the better-known evening primrose oil.
Although the body needs both omega-3 and omega-6 to thrive, most people consume far more omega-6 than omega-3. This is due to the prevalence of omega-6 in the diet. When the body consumes much more omega-6 than omega-3, health issues can arise such as inflammatory conditions. Many health experts agree the ideal ratio is 2:1 to 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3. In order to achieve this proper ratio, supplementation of Omega-6 might be necessary.