The essential fatty acids: essential nutrition for health and wellness

The study of essential fatty acids is one of the fastest growing areas of study in nutritional science.

When most people hear the word "fat," it is received in a negative fashion. Most people associate fat with obesity and heart disease. However, the essential fatty acids are an important part to a healthy diet.

Essential fatty acids are necessary for the formation of healthy cell membranes, the proper development and functioning of the brain and nervous system, and for the production of hormone-like substances called eicosanoids. These chemicals regulate numerous body functions including blood pressure, blood viscosity, vasoconstriction and immune and inflammatory responses.

There are two types of essential fatty acids. These two families are the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Eicosanoids formed from the omega-6 family have the potential to have negative effects on the body like increased blood pressure and inflammation; platelet aggregation, causing blood clotting; allergic reactions; and cell proliferation.

Those formed from the omega-3 family have opposing effects.

Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are not interchangeable; we must consume both.

The standard American diet is unbalanced with high amounts of omega-6 fats and low amounts of omega-3 fats. The primary sources of essential fatty acids are plants on land and in the sea.

Omega- 6 oils are found primarily in seeds, nuts, grains and legumes.

Omega-3 oils are found in the green leaves of plants, including phytoplankton and algae, and in selected seeds, nuts and legumes (flax, canola, walnuts and soy).

There are animal sources of the essential fatty acids with meat and poultry having high levels of omega-6 oils and fish having high levels of omega-3.

Because the American diet relies so heavily on vegetable oil, meat, poultry and relatively few vegetables, this imbalance of omega-6 oils to omega-3 oils may be one of the sources of chronic diseases we see in the United States.

Since most diets are low in omega-3 fatty acids, one way to improve the essential fatty acid balance is to reduce omega-6 intake and increase omega-3 intake.

Currently, there are no formal governmental recommendations for the dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids. However, numerous studies show improvement in diseases with increased omega-3 intake.

Epidemiological studies have shown that an increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with decreased incidence of heart disease. Studies in the 1970s showed fish oil protected the heart. Another study showed fish oil combined with vitamin E reduced the risk of dying from a secondary heart attack after an initial heart attack.

Increased omega-3 intake may reduce triglyceride levels and increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels.

Studies done in Type I diabetics showed improvement in platelet function when they ate 5 grams of fish oil day, and another study showed improvement in metabolic control with a decrease in the HBA1C, an indicator of long-term blood sugar control.

The studies utilizing omega-3 fatty acids are too numerous to mention, but improvements have been seen with arthritis, asthma, premenstrual syndrome, psychiatric disorders and cancer.

Increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake can be achieved numerous ways. Consuming more fatty fish like salmon is one method and taking supplements is another.

There are a host of options for Omega-3 supplementation. Omega-3 oils can be found in fish-oil capsules, cod liver oil and bottles of fish oil liquid.

Improvements have been made in fish oils to increase their palatability like flavoring and emulsification with fruits.

If one is following a vegan diet and fish-oil supplementation is not an option, a tablespoonful of flax-seed oil can be used. Consult your health care professional for doseage and options.

Richard S. Nicholas is the managing pharmacist at Pharmaca, He is also a fourth-year naturopathic medicine student at Bastyr University.

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