What Are Essential Fatty Acids?

What Are Essential Fatty Acids?

Essential fatty acids seem to be mentioned everywhere these days but just what are essential fatty acids? We often hear of omega-3 fatty acids as well as omega-6 and omega 9 so let's look at essential fatty acids in slightly more detailed way.

We are often being advised to eat oily fish at least twice a week as well as a combination of nuts because they contain the 'good fats' and that is the usual answer. The reason for eating oily fish and nuts is because they contain essential fatty acids, or EFA's, which are important for general health. 

EFA's are fatty acids which the body cannot make or is unable to make in any meaningful amounts which means that we have to obtain these essential fats from our diet.

There are two main types of EFA's which are the omega-6 family of essential fats comprising of linoleic acid. The second one is omega-3 comprising of alpha linoleic acid. There are two other omega-3 fatty acids called eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, DHA, which are termed semi-essential since the body can manufacture these albeit in very limited quantities. 

What is the role of essential fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids are required by every single cell of the body and are involved in the manufacture of hormones, the transport of some vitamins and for the protection of the heart and liver. However, this statement does not apply to all fats. Most people consider fats as bad for you because they can block your arteries and encourage weight gain, but the desire to avoid fats can actually be detrimental to your body.

Omega-3s may help to regulate cholesterol levels, support heart health, maintain healthy brain function as well as helping to alleviate dry skin concerns. 

Omega-6 fatty acids are important to a degree in the linoleic acid may maintain healthy cholesterol levels as well as supporting skin and hair health.

As far as good fats are concerned, we all need to increase our uptake of omega-3 fats because an abundance of omega-6 can be pro-inflammatory, meaning inflammation may be caused in the body. We are supposed to get sufficient omega-6s from our diet in spreads and oils so extra omega 6 is often not necessary. Inflammation in the body is the leading cause of many diseases including cardiovascular and arthritic concerns. Most people do not have a sufficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids. 

What foods contain omega-3 essential fatty acids?

Alpha-linoleic acid, ALA, is found in seeds, nuts and vegetable oils. 

EPA and DHA are found predominantly in oily fish especially salmon, mackerel and sardines. 

The conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA is very small which we we are often reminded of the need to eat oily fish rich in these important omega-3s. 

There are several types of omega-6 fats which include linoleic acid found in vegetable oils such as rapeseed and sunflower oils, gamma-linoleic acid found in vegetable oils including evening primrose oil and starflower oil, and conjugated linoleic acid, CLA, found in animal meats and some dairy products. 

As mentioned previously, omega-6 fats might be inflammatory if taken in excess and so it would be prudent to increase the intake of omega-3 DHA and EPA fats either through supplements or through dietary intake.

How much omega 3 per day should one take?

There is not a set number that one should take unlike vitamins. The UK government recommends two portions of 140 grams each of fish every week and one of these should be oily fish. This intake should provide between 400mg and 450mg of EPA and DHA which is normally equivalent to one capsule of a quality omega-3 supplement. The consensus in the scientific community is that this is simply not enough considering the multiple processes that require omega-3's in the body and of course we need more omega-3 fats since most of us consume far too much omega-6 fatty acids through our consumption of refined oils like corn oil, biscuits, margarine and cakes. An excess of omega-6 is linked to cognitive decline, weight gain and heart disease. 

Which omega-3 supplements should one take?

Fish oil and fish oil supplements have a long history of use for healthy heart and joints. Historical use of cod liver oil as a source of omega-3 fats is now out of favour since our oceans are more polluted than they were a few decades ago with the possibility of toxins passing into supplements from fish liver oils like cod liver oil and halibut liver oil. 

There are many liquid fish oils and fish oil supplements available in the market. Bare Biology market some of the best omega-3 supplements on the market with Life and Soul Omega-3 fish oil supplements being their top seller containing high strengths of EPA and DHA. Fish oil supplements tend to work very effectively at the larger processes within the body such as 'oiling' the joints, cleansing the colon, ensuring healthy blood flow and alleviating dry skin conditions to name a few.

Krill Oil provides another source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Krill oil contains much lower amounts of omega-3s however krill oil benefits the body at a cellular level since it provides omega-3 fats in a form that resemble the cell membrane and so these omega-3's can enter the cells readily to perform some of their other roles of repairing cell membranes as well as strengthening the immune cells. One of the best krill oil supplements that I recommend is Neubria Krill Oil which is a high quality krill oil omega 3 supplement. 

Finally, if you are a vegan then what can you take? We know that flaxseed oils and other seed oils may be inflammatory at worse or at best the essential fatty acids within these are poorly converted into EPA and DHA with one exception. Echium seed oil contains a fatty acid termed SDA and in tests this has been shown to be one of the best vegetarian sources since SDA readily converts into EPA and DHA which are the good fats the body requires. The supplement is called Echiomega and is a great plant-derived alternative to fish oils.

In general terms you can take up to 6000 mg of fish oils per day, but this dosage is usually reserved for mood elevation. The recommendation for daily use is 1000 – 2000 mg daily. Please consult your GP if you are taking blood thinning medication.


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