I talk a lot about essential fatty acids (EFAs) and I have been asked recently what they are and what they do. These are great questions!! This post will look at the most common EFAs and fill you in on the latest research into what they do and how you can consume optimal amounts of them to improve your health.
What are EFAs?
EFAs (essential fatty acids) are polyunsaturated oils – the ‘good’ fats. They are ‘essential’ because our body does not manufacture them, and they must be obtained through our diet on a daily basis for optimal health and well-being. EFAs produce beneficial hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids that affect the function of virtually every system in the body. The most important EFAs are EPA and DHA (Omega-3s) and GLA (Omega-6).
Where are EFAs Found?
The richest and most beneficial EFAs for most people are EPA and DHA found in cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and herring. Flaxseed is a vegetarian source of EFAs, although the conversion of flaxseed oil into EPA and DHA is often slow and can be inhibited by many factors; research shows that only about 5% of the oils in flaxseed oil are converted into EPA and it may not convert to DHA at all. Borage and evening primrose oils are rich sources of GLA.
What are the major functions of EFAs?
As stated before, the EFAs are converted in the body into numerous substances that help control most of the body’s functions. However, research has shown specific EFAs to be particularly beneficial in several areas.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is a long-chain Omega-3 EFA found in fish. EPA has shown to be particularly beneficial for cardiovascular health and reducing inflammation; as such, it is believed to be beneficial for many autoimmune and inflammatory conditions including arthritis, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, systemic lupus erythematosus and psoriasis. It has also shown promise in cases of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Docosahexanoic acid (DHA) is another long-chain Omega-3 EFA from fish. The brain is particularly very rich in DHA, where it increases membrane fluidity and supports functions such as learning, memory and cognitive development. It also appears to protect us against the harmful effects of stress and has shown to be very important for expectant mothers and the development of infants.
Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is an Omega-6 EFA found in borage oil and evening primrose oil. It has anti-inflammatory effects similar to those of EPA and has been shown to be particularly beneficial for those with arthritis, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), inflammatory bowel disease, breast pain, skin disorders (such as eczema) and other conditions.
When Diet Isn’t Enough
For most people, taking EPA and DHA may be the most effective way to achieve proper EFA balance. Foods traditionally thought to be high in EFAs, such as fish, may also contain harmful heavy metals. Once more, much of the salmon on the market today is farm-raised and fed a grain diet instead of fish meal; this can dramatically alter the EFA content and increase contamination. A good fish oil supplement (or flaxseed oil if you are vegetarian) can eliminate these concerns and provide all the benefits of EFAs. We recommend EPA-DHA Complex or Orthomega to our clients as a viable alternative.
We need a constant supply of essential fatty acids on a daily basis for optimal health. Achieving this by incorporating deep sea fatty fish and/or EFA supplements sets the stage for vibrant health!