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Essential Fatty Acids: Benefits and Sources

by Cindy Gray

With an enthusiasm for better health on the rise in America, many people are making quality nutrition a top priority.  Essential fatty acids (EFAs) play a key role.  They are called "essential" because they are not made naturally by the body, but must be obtained through food or supplements.  Learning more about these important nutrients can help to ensure a nutritious diet and a healthy body.

The only way to obtain essential fatty acids is through foods or supplements.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Essential omega 3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).  The body converts ALA to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two more essential fatty acids; however, the process isn't very efficient.  Therefore, EPA and DHA are considered "conditionally essential."

Sources of omega 3 fatty acids include green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, flaxseeds, citrus fruits, melons, and cherries which contain ALA.  Omega 3 sources of EPA and DHA include fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel, and other marine life, such as algae and krill.  Flax oil (ALA) and fish oil (EPA and DHA) supplements also make good sources of omega 3 fatty acids.

Omega 6 Fatty Acids

Linoleic acid (LA) is an essential fatty acid present in many leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, and grains.  Oils like sunflower, safflower, corn, peanut, and canola oil also offer linoleic acid.  LA breaks down to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) within the body or arachidonic acid (AA), two other essential fatty acids.  Natural sources of GLA include oils like black currant, borage, evening primrose, and hemp oils.  You can also obtain AA through consumption of eggs, fish and meat.

Related:  Three Surprising Seafood Sources of EFA’s

Health Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids help promote a variety of functions in the human body including:

  • Cell development
  • Absorption of vitamins and minerals
  • Nourishment of skin, hair, and nails
  • Proper nerve function
  • Hormone production

EFAs and Disease

EFA deficiency has been linked to a number of diseases and disorders including:

  • Atherosclerosis
  • Diabetes
  • Eczema
  • Hypertension
  • Certain mental disorders like depression and bipolar disorder
  • Learning disorders
  • PMS
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

Studies show the consumption of EFAs can help improve these conditions.  For instance, it has been found that diets high in ALA, EPA and DHA can help protect against heart disease by lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, and providing anticoagulant properties.  Research shows that supplementation with GLA can relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and subjects with eczema are able to reduce their use of antibiotics and steroids for treatment of the disease.

People can consume large amounts of essential fatty acids with few side effects.  Occasionally some experience stomach upset, gas, or diarrhea, but these effects typically diminish over time.  Individuals on anticoagulant or blood thinning medications should check with their doctor before taking fish oil supplements as they can thin the blood.

While scientists continue to study how EFAs affect the health, it is clear they offer many benefits.  Whether consumed through a meal or taken as a supplement, EFAs are safe and well tolerated by the body. 

 

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