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ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS

The body is typically able to derive its fat requirements with its ability to convert dietary fat intake from plants and animals into specific forms. Fats provide us with insulation to keep us warm. They are an excellent source for energy production. Skin integrity and cell membrane function rely heavily on balanced fatty acid content. All our sexual hormones and Vitamin D are fat-based.

The essential fatty acids are a group of necessary fats that cannot be manufactured from other fat forms and can only be attained through diet. However, these fats can be used to synthesize other forms of fatty acids necessary for cell function.

All fats are classified by three criteria

1) Length: This is based on the number of carbon atoms in the fat. Carbon atoms make up the skeleton of all fats

2) The number of saturated bonds: Carbon atoms attach to other carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms to make up the structure of the different fats. Each carbon atom has 4 different sites for attachment by other atoms. For a carbon atom to be considered saturated all 4 sites must be occupied by a different atom. If all the carbons in a fat molecule are occupied individually, it is considered a saturated fat. These fats are found in foods such as meats and butter.

Unsaturated describes a carbon atom with two or more of its sites bonded with only one other atom. If this occurs with only one carbon atom in the entire fat structure, it is called monounsaturated i.e. olive oil. If this happens to 2 or more carbons in a molecule of fat it is considered an polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) i.e. flax seed oil

3) Specific families of PUFA. The essential fatty acids (EFA) belong to this class of fats and are divided into 2 groups:the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats. The omega 3 and Omega 6 EFA serve three functions.

A) In a minor role they are utilized for energy production.

B) EFA are vitally important to cell membrane integrity and flexibility. Each cell membrane of the body is composed of proteins and fatty acids. Their relative amounts in each cell vary depending on the nature of the cell’s tissue i.e. membrane of a nerve cell has more fats than that of muscle tissue. In each cell the fatty acids are specially arranged to carry out the functions of that cell. When the ratio of the different fatty acids becomes skewed, the membrane becomes de-stabilized and the cellular dynamics are compromised. These ratios are heavily influenced by diet and stress. Some symptoms that indicate an EFA imbalance are:

  • Dry flaky skin
  • Skin lesions
  • Fatigue
  • Low sperm count
  • Malabsorption
  • Aching and sore joints
  • Pre-menstrual syndrome
  • Depression

C) The third function of EFA is the production of eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are a group of 20-carbon faty acids responsible for regulating pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses.

There are 3 groups of eicosanoids and they are derived from the two EFA: Alpha linolenic acid (ALA-Omega 3) promotes group 3 production. Linoleic acid (LA-Omega 6) is responsible for the production of group 1 and 2 eicosanoids.

Group 1 and 3 have similar physiological affects:

  • Reduce inflammation
  • Inhibit platelet aggregation
  • Dilate blood vessels which improves blood flow

Group 2 has the opposite affect by constricting blood vessels, enhancing inflammation and increasing platelet aggregation. Together with groups 1 and 3, these eicosanoids are very important in the regulation of:

  • Blood pressure
  • Clotting
  • Heart function
  • Inflammation
  • Nerve function
  • Steroid function
  • Hormone synthesis
  • Intestinal function
  • Hydration
  • Free radical production

Group 1 is derived from LA. LA is predominantly found in grains, seeds, vegetables and their oils. LA is converted to another fat called GLA (gamma linolenic acid) which leads to group 1 production. This conversion process can be interrupted, diminish group 1 production and lead to group 2 (pro-inflammatory chemicals) synthesis. Factors responsible for this shift are:

  • Diets high in saturated fats, red meat, eggs, dairy and shellfish
  • Trans (hydrogenated) fats i.e. margarine, vegetable oils
  • Smoking
  • Fevers
  • High-carbohydrate, low-protein diet; hyperinsulinemia
  • High stress-elevated cortisol
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Steroids, corticosteroids

Group 3 eicosanoids are produced from LA found in flaxseed and walnut oils. As this fat gets converted to group 3 eicosanoids it must first be catalyzed to the fats EPA and DHA. These fats are found in cold water fish i.e. salmon, herring, mackerel etc. In certain situations, i.e. insulin resistance, the ALA can not be converted properly to EPA and DHA. This becomes critical to know when choosing to use supplements. Factors involved with the suppression group 3 synthesis are the same as group 1. Also, lack of omega 3 fat intake contributes to this problem.

When there is an imbalnce in goup 1 and group 3 eicosanoids relative to group 2, conditions for many inflammatory conditions become possible. Dysfunctions involved with elevated group 2 eicosanoids are:

  • Asthma and allergies
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cancer metastasis
  • Coronary heart disease: Arteriosclerosis, hypertension, thrombosis
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Diabetes
  • Depression, reduced mental acuity
  • Alzheimers disease
  • Tendonitis

Caveat: If aspirin is required to feel better, it is a good indicator the body’s production of eicosanoids is out of proportion and there is too much group 2 in ratio to groups 1 and 3.

Most research reveals a healthy balance of omega fats in one’s diet should approximate 1:1 and go no higher than 4:1 of omega 6 to omega 3. Unfortunately the American diet has demonstrated a range of minimally 12:1 and as high as 50:1 ratios. This is one of the major reasons for the rapid increases in cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, hormonal dysfunctions, learning disorders and other dysfunctions related to a diet in refined foods.

Necessary diet changes to re-balance these fatty acids begin the elimination of processed foods, refined grains, hydrogenated oils and trans-fats. A decreased intake of dairy, animal meats and saturated fats will diminish group 2 eicosanoid production. Increasing cold water fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, trout ), nuts, leafy greens and vegetables will increase group 1 and 3 synthesis.

If you choose to use supplemental forms, ALA and GLA are obtained in black currant seed oil, evening primrose oil and borage oil.

LA is found in flax seed oil. As previously stated, if there are any problems with insulin resistance or blood sugar dysregulation, EPA and DHA supplementation derived from fish oil, may be more beneficial.