Americans tend to think of all fats and oils as substances that should be removed from the diet, but a great deal of recent research suggests otherwise. To understand why this might be so, at least in the case of certain fats and oils, we’ll take a brief look at the role essential fatty acids play in human nutrition.
As their name implies, essential fatty acids, or EFAs are required for proper growth and metabolism, and they are just as necessary for good health as any vitamin and mineral. Nutritional science currently recognizes two kinds of EFAs, omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.
What are food sources of omega-3?
The primary omega-3 is alpha linoleic acid (ALA), which can be found in plant foods ranging from walnuts to hemp to perilla to chia to flax. Although the human body cannot use ALA directly, it does convert it to more biologically active forms, eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), which then go on to perform a number of essential functions in the body. EPA and DHA can be found in animal flesh, especially cold water fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines.
What do omega-3 fatty acids do?
On the most basic level, omega-3 fatty acids help regulate cell membrane permeability. The cell membrane controls not only the flexibility of the cell (a red blood cell too stiff and brittle to swim through the blood stream isn’t good for very much) but also determines what enters and leaves the cell, the idea being that nutrients should come in and waste material should be expelled. If cell membrane permeability is poor, cellular health suffers, and so does the health of the organism (us) that is made up of those billions of cells.
Most scientists now believe that a reasonably high intake of omega-3 fatty acids offers significant protection against this country’s leading cause of death, cardiovascular disease. (In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that each week we eat two servings of oily, cold-water fish, such as mackerel or salmon, so as to obtain our omega-3 in the especially beneficial EPA and DHA forms.) The heart-protective properties of omega-3 apparently stem from its ability to do the following:
- Lower cholesterol
- Lower triglycerides
- Lower (to a modest degree) blood pressure
- Act as a blood thinner, much as aspirin does
- Reduce levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for dangerous inflammation
Omega-3 fatty acids comprise about 20% of human brain tissue. Studies at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere suggest the intriguing possibility that an increased intake of omega-3 may help to optimize, or at least improve, certain aspects of brain function, including:
- Bipolar disorder
- Attention deficit disorder and impulsivity
- Childrens’ IQ (if omega-3 is taken by pregnant and nursing mothers—but please consult with a knowledgeable physician before doing so)
Cod liver oil, an excellent source of omega-3, first became commercially available in Europe in the 18th century. Since that time it has developed a folk reputation as being very useful for various forms of joint inflammation and pain, especially rheumatism, and modern research now generally supports the idea that omega-3 can lessen the discomfort of arthritis.
It is interesting to note that a number of other diseases, including Alzheimer’s, seem to have an inflammatory component. Scientists are currently studying whether omega-3 may be helpful with these conditions.
Both anecdotal and clinical data suggest that omega-3 may be of considerable use in easing the symptoms of both eczema and psoriasis.
Additional research indicates that diets rich in omega-3 may act as a sort of “chemopreventive” agent that substantially lowers the risk of various cancers, including those of the breast and prostate. It is interesting to note that cancer cells cannot metabolize omega-3 fatty acids.
How is omega-3 taken?
Since the time of the American Civil War, the amount of omega-3 in our diets has decreased greatly, while the proportion of omega-6 has gone up by the same amount. Only now is awareness growing of the advisability of adding back to our diets at least some omega-3 fatty acids.
Many consumers take omega-3 as cold-pressed flax oil, often mixed with yogurt or made into a salad dressing. This form is especially favored by vegetarians, and is usually consumed in tablespoon amounts. Most people seem to like the nutty taste of flax oil, but for those who do not it can also be taken in the less economical softgel form.
Please note that flax oil must be kept refrigerated once it is opened.
Others take omega-3 in the more body-ready fish oil form. Most people usually take it in softgel form, preferably as a pharmaceutical-grade, mercury-free supplement, although some take it as liquid fish oil, especially the traditional cod liver form, which has the additional advantage of being rich in vitamins A and vitamin D. For general good health people usually consume one to three capsules per day, with meals.
Are omega-3 fatty acids safe?
For the great majority of people, yes, although those people currently on the prescription blood thinner coumadin (AKA Warfarin) must consult with their doctor before using flax oil or fish oil supplements. Pregnant women and nursing mothers, as in the case of any supplement or dietary change, should do likewise.
What are omega-6 fatty acids?
Omega-6 fatty acids such as linoleic acid are the source material that the body uses to make two essential substances, arachidonic acid (AA) and gamma linolenic acid (GLA). Although it is thought by many researchers that modern diets contain too much omega-6 for optimal health, AA and GLA do help to regulate growth and inflammation. AA is added to infant formula, but otherwise is seldom taken as a supplement. However, evidence suggests that GLA might sometimes be useful as a supplement.
What are food sources of omega-6?
As indicated above, omega-6 fatty acids can be easily obtained through standard diets, especially from grapeseed oil, sesame oil, and soybean oil. For purposes of supplementation the best forms are probably evening primrose oil and borage oil, both rich sources of GLA.
What does the GLA form of omega-6 do?
A survey of the research literature indicates that GLA, whether from evening primrose or from borage, might be beneficial in the following ways:
- help to alleviate pain and inflammation, especially related to PMS or menopause
- assist with diabetic neuropathy
- ease symptoms of multiple sclerosis
- reduce eczema-related itching
- bring down cholesterol levels
How is the GLA form of omega-6 taken?
Unfortunately, the clinical evidence for the benefits of GLA is generally weaker than for omega-3, although it remains a very popular supplement, particularly among women.
As far as dosage goes, it can vary widely, depending on the strength of the GLA supplement. If you wish to use GLA, follow the label directions.
Is the GLA form of omega-6 safe?
For most people, yes, although those with (or who have had) breast cancer, should avoid it, as should pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Take EFAs for your health!
As you now know, consuming essential fatty acids is an important part of a fitness orientated lifestyle, and more importantly, overall health. Shop A1Supplements.com for the largest selection and lowest prices of essential fatty acids and related healthy dietary oils.