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Questions & Answers On Essential Fats

9 ‘FAQs’ on Essential Fatty Acids & their Benefits!

Basically, there are two essential fatty acids, Omega-6 and Omega-3. These two fats are termed “essential” because they cannot be produced by the body, and must therefore be obtained from the diet or from a supplemental source if you want to stay healthy.

Unlike other non-essential fats, the body uses essential fatty acids to maintain proper growth, cell formation and optimising functional needs, rather than for fuel. This means they do not get stored as fat in your fat cells.

Once we get into nutrient deficiency, it does not take long for the body to protest, reminding us to slow down, get more rest, eat right and supplement. In order to remain robust, energetic and healthy, we need a variety of nutrients. These include amino acids, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, lipids and fatty acids. Essential fatty acids work best in the presence of ample amounts of vitamins A, B3, B6, C and E and the minerals magnesium and zinc.

Many assert that a perfect balance of nutrients can be achieved by following a diet in which protein, carbohydrate and fat are maintained in certain strict proportions. The Western Price Foundation in ‘Tripping Lightly Down the Prostaglandin Pathways’ says this is a highly simplistic view of the complex interactions of the body, one which does not take into account individual requirements for macro and micro nutrients, nor of imbalances that may be caused by nutritional deficiencies, environmental stress or genetic defects.

Because our modern lifestyle leaves almost everyone with some sort of nutrient deficiency everyone could benefit with and increase of healthy fats. What we do know, is that they are “essential”.

Here are nine frequently asked questions on essential fatty acids … and the answers.

  1. What are essential fats?
  2. Why are essential fatty acids so important in todays lifestyle?
  3. What role do essential fats play in the body?
  4. Are we getting enough essential fats today?
  5. What are the symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency?
  6. What is the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 required for optimal health?
  7. How do I restore an optimal ratio of essential fats in my body?
  8. What are the best foods to restore the optimal balance of Omega 6 to Omega 3?
  9. What are krill & why is krill oil the recommended source of Omega 3?

A quick search for other articles in this blog will find articles and research suggesting a diet high in good fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can assist in ADD/ADHDprostate health, weight loss or gaineye health, testosterone and sex drive, a healthier heartbone development and repair, blood sugar levels, fertility. You will see that the answer to questions #3 and #5 show an even wider range of problems that arise from essential fatty acid deficiency.

What are the ‘essential’ fats?

Udo Erasmus, who spent his life researching fats and oils, says increasing essential fat consumption increases your metabolism, helps you burning of more calories, reduces swelling, inflammation, clotting and dilation in blood vessels, just to name a few of it’s benefits. But the above questions give rise to the need for a better understanding of why this is so. Let’s start back at the beginning . . . .

Although most omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are generally referred to as “essential” fatty acids, only linoleic acid (LA) of the omega-6 family and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) of the omega-3 family are truly “essential”. Once we have either LA or ALA, our body has enzymes that can convert these fatty acids into all the other different types of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Essential fatty acids – and in particular krill oil – provide the perfect material for building and repairing cell walls, and they allow the cell membranes to be more flexible. This is vitally important for cell function and their ability to communicate with each other. Chemicals are released by way of cells communicating with each other, a vital function for human health. The cell membrane is mostly composed of lipids, which are liquid fats, or fats that stay liquid at room temperature. Cell walls perform many vital functions, including creating a barrier for toxins while absorbing optimal nutrition and expelling waste.

In addition, good fats produce prostaglandins within the cells which the body uses to regulate vital functions like heart rate, blood pressure, blood clotting, conception and fertility. Prostaglandins are produced in the cells by the action of enzymes on essential fatty acids. There are two prostaglandin pathways, and in the simplest terms, one of these prostaglandin pathways seem to be involved in swelling, inflammation, clotting and dilation, while those of the other group have the opposite effect. Prostaglandins also play a role in the immune system by regulating inflammation and assisting the body to fight against infection as well as  increasing metabolism and discouraging increased fat storage.

While we mostly get ample Omega-6 in our modern diet, Omega-3 is in short supply yet is just as essential fat for human health. Balancing fatty acids is all about decreasing intake of the “inflammatory” omega-6 fatty acids versus “anti-inflammatory”omega-3 fatty acids in order to have a better omega-6:omega-3 ratio.

Why are essential fatty acids so important in todays lifestyle?

Essential fatty acids control every cell of the body on a second-by-second basis, providing everything from energy, red blood cells, antioxidant activity and cardiovascular protection to soft and healthy skin, anti-microbial action and tumour inhibition. The brain simply does not function without EFAs.

To reduce whole body inflammation, a key strategy is to consume a premium EFA combination supplement to increase omega 3 consumption while reducing high omega-6 foods in your diet and choosing fewer  of the high omega 6 sources of inflammatory foods. Check out the Eat Savvy Diet for more on this. This strategy will increase your omega-3s and reduce your omega-6 to omega-3 Ratio.

Those two fats (Omega-6 and Omega-3) are essential nutrients for your health.  You need them when you cook because with our current lifestyle, not every food can be cooked the way we want it, without fat. So now we know that those fats should be added in our diet.

The important question is how they should be consumed, and what kind of fats are the proper choice? The good news is that in the western diet you generally get enough Omega-6 in your everyday living. Omega-6 fatty acids are everywhere: vegetable, walnut, grapeseed, corn oil, safflower, sunflower oil and soybean oil all contain them.

We know the body manufactures most of the fats it needs from other nutrients, but the western world’s food supply has changed dramatically in recent generations. Today, typical Australian diets contain far too many rich omega-6 sources from high omega-6 foods, and not enough omega-3. This omega-6 to omega-3 imbalance increases whole body inflammation, since omega-6s tend to be pro-inflammatory while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory.

What role do essential fats play in the body?

You may have heard that painful symptoms of arthritis can be reduced by taking in foods high in essential fatty acids. Many can attest that when their back pain and muscle spasms become a problem it is always a result of not taking in enough essential fatty acid-rich foods, the result of eating too many fast or processed foods, or forgetting to take their essential fatty acid supplements. Research shows that essential fats, also referred to as essential fatty acids, have the following functions in the body:

  • Increase energy, performance, and stamina. Essential fatty acids enhance thermogenesis, help build muscle, prevent muscle break down, and speed recovery from fatigue.
  • Improve joint function. One study published in the American Journal of Nutrition showed were noticeable in just the first 7 to 14 days, indicating that krill oil helps joint lubrication and agility.
  • Strengthen the immune system. Essential fatty acids make hormone-like eicosanoids that regulate immune and inflammatory responses. Omega 3s have anti-inflammatory effects and can slow autoimmune damage.
  • Lower most risk factors for all heart and cardiovascular disease. Essential fatty acids (especially omega 3s) lower abnormally high levels of blood pressure, triglycerides, fibrinogen, tendency to clot formation, and inflammation.
  • Improve brain and neurological function: mood, intelligence, behavior, and vision. Our brain is over 60% fat. Essential fatty acids are important components of the entire nervous system. They are necessary to make the neurotransmitter serotonin. Depression and other brain diseases show decreased levels of omega 3.
  • Aid in weight reduction. Essential fatty acids help keep mood and energy up and suppress appetite, thereby aiding in weight loss. More recently, they have been found to block the genes that produce fat in the body (saturated and Trans Fat do not have this same effect) and increase thermogenesis.
  • Regulates organs and glands. Liver and kidneys, adrenal and thyroid glands, and the production of male and female hormones need essential fatty acids.
  • Speed recovery and healing. Essential fatty acids are necessary for cell growth and division. They form all cell membranes and regulate vital cell activity.
  • Support healthy child development. For nervous system development, a growing fetus needs optimum essential fatty acids from the mother’s body. Mothers become depleted of essential fatty acids during pregnancy, and need optimal essential fatty acid intake for their health and their children’s optimum development.
  • Improve digestion. Poorly digested foods tie up the immune system and can cause gut inflammation, leaky gut, and allergies. Omega 3s help to improve gut integrity while decreasing inflammation and “leaky gut”.
  • Decrease infection. Essential fatty acids have anti-fungal, anti-yeast, and anti-microbial properties, helping to protect against infections.
  • Keep bones strong. Essential fatty acids aid in the transport of minerals that keep bones and teeth strong, helping to prevent osteoporosis.
  • Protect genetic material. Essential fatty acids regulate gene expression, and omega 3s inhibit tumor growth.
  • Ease Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), Elevate Mood. Studies indicate that omega 6 intake was voted, by women, among the top three most effective premenstrual syndrome treatments. Omega 3s may be even more effective.
  • Produce beautiful hair, skin, and nails. Some of the first signs of essential fatty acid deficiency are dry, flaky skin, dull hair, and brittle nails. Omega 3s can help skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and acne.
  • Builds muscle mass. The essential fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid) may be especially important to supplement while bodybuilding.

Are We Getting Enough Essential Fatty Acids?

I am often asked how do essential fatty acids help and why are they essential? There is some fascinating information available on the relationship between a cell’s health and the types of fats you eat. The 3 and 6 essential fatty acids refer to the first carbon double bond position on the fatty acid chain.

To support your body and to avoid the problems associated with all the following listed very common health challenges, supplementation is the simplest and easiest solution to increase omega-3, as well of course as adapting your diet.

Most of us don’t get enough omega-3s for optimal health (only 40 per cent do while 20 percent of us have undetectably low levels). To date, the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences has not yet issued any actual Dietary Reference Intakes for omega-3 fats.

It’s generally recommended that people consume at least 5% of their total daily calories as omega-3 fats. To meet this recommendation, a person consuming 2000 calories per day would have to eat at least 2 grams of omega-3 fats. Many nutrition experts believe that this recommendation is not high enough, and would suggest, instead, that people consume at least 4% of their total calories (approximately 4 grams) as omega-3 fats. Unfortunately most people do not know what foods contain these essential ingredients for wellbeing or that they even need to up their intake of them. But there are telltale signs that we might be deficient, before such problems even occur.

What are the symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency?

Many people are deficient in essential fats particularly omega 3, usually due to the western diet. Deficiencies in essential fats cause a number of physical issues, including:

  • growth retardation
  • vision and learning problems; behavioral changes; mental deterioration
  • weakness; motor uncoordination
  • tingling sensations in arms and legs.

In addition, omega 3s have been shown to reverse the following conditions:

  • high triglycerides; high blood pressure; sticky platelets
  • sub-optimal skin condition; inflammatory skin diseases
  • water retention (edema); inflammation in any tissue in the body
  • auto-immune conditions
  • low metabolic rate; weight gain

A proper essential fatty acid balance may help prevent and treat:

  • Cardiovascular disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, poor blood circulation, abnormal cholesterol, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, hypertension, coagulation disorders
  • Diabetes, kidney disease
  • Arthritis, cystic fibrosis, allergies and asthma
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, impaired wound healing
  • Neurological and psychological abnormalities such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, reduced brain function associated with aging, impaired vision;
  • Abnormalities in children fed diets or breast milk low in EFAs, such as hyperactivity, slow growth, attention deficit disorder, poor concentration, poor brain development (proper EFA intake can help children to grow better brains)
  • Premenstrual syndrome, pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia and prematurity
  • Malnutrition, wasting states
  • Seborrheoic dermatitis, dry skin
  • AIDS and other immune deficiencies

What is the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 required for optimal health?

Over millions of years, humans have consumed a diet that contained approximately equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids. In Western societies over the past 150 years, there has been a huge increase in the proportion of omega-6s consumed in vegetable oils (both as cooking oils and in processed foods) from the seeds of corn, sunflower, safflower and soybeans. Current estimates of Western diets suggest a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the order of 10-20:1.

Current thinking is that these two fats (omega-6 and omega-3) need to be balanced in the diet at a ratio like 1-to-1 or 2-to-1, rather than the normal 20-to-1 ratio seen in most Western diets. About the only way to do that  we are often told, is to supplement your diet with omega-3 vegetable oils or to start eating fish in a big way (meaning two or three times a week), but there is nowadays a problem with eating too much fish, (read what Dr Mercola has to say about this).

By altering the kinds of fatty acids that you eat to more Alpha Linolenic Acid (omega-3) and less Linoleic Acid (omega-6), it may be possible to effectively produce more anti-inflammatory prostaglandins than inflammatory prostaglandins – thus for instance decreasing some of the pain caused by PMS, arthritis, allergies and all of the myriad of other inflammatory issues. Hundreds of research studies have demonstrated that many current health problems are associated with an inflated amount of omega 6 relative to omega 3, including increased risk of heart disease, still the leading killer in our society, after iatrogenic death.

How do I restore an optimal ratio of essential fats in my body?

Best results for health have been seen ingesting foods with an omega-3 : omega-6 ratio of 2:1 to restore a healthy ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in the body. You will most likely also need to supplement with a high quality essential fatty acid.

  • Too high a ratio of omega 3 to omega 6, such as 3.5 or 4 to 1 found in plain flax and flax oil, can lead to omega 6 deficiency, with symptoms of deterioration that can harm all cells, tissues, glands, and organs.
  • Too low a ratio, such as 1 to 10 (the average found in Western diets) can lead to symptoms of omega 3 deficiency, because excess omega 6 blocks the production of omega 3.

Unlike saturated fats that are considered to be unhealthy fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are alternatives that don’t negatively affect your body. Saturated fats typically come from animal-derived foods like meats and dairy products, while polyunsaturated fats like omega-3s and monounsaturated fats come from plant, fish and other seafood sources.

As we have already said, omega 3 deficiencies increase the risk of increasing cardiovascular, immune, autoimmune, diabetic, and inflammatory disease, weight gain and long term deficiencies lead to sub-optimal intelligence, poor concentration, erratic mood, and lowered performance.

What are the best foods to restore the optimal balance of Omega 6 to Omega 3?

Ok, so what are the best foods to increase omega-3? Omega-3 fatty acids are harder to find, but our recommendation is to take a supplementary form of krill oil. Things like flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, as are salmon, trout and tuna. In fact all seeds and nuts, including avocado’s are great natural sources that we all would do well to use more on a daily basis.

Some nutritionists point to the fact that oily fish contains the long chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA in a pre-formed state, and that these have heart protective properties. However, promoting fish for this reason alone ignores the fact that the body can convert plant sources of omega-3 into EPA and DHA.

There are certain fatty fish that contain high levels of omega-3 fat, including salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, yellow tail, and trout. There are many benefits from eating fish, but the FDA and EPA have put out health advisory warnings against certain fish and shellfish consumption for young children, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, and nursing mothers. So we all might do well to be cautious.

Avocados are high in omega-3, which reduces the risk of heart disease, and high in lecithin, a type of fatty acid crucial for healthy nervous tissue. The says avocados are a great source of monounsaturated fat, are a source of antioxidants, and are very low in cholesterol and sodium. They also a good source of dietary fibre, vitamin K and folate.

You can also find omega-3 fatty acids in flax seed, and to a lesser extent in canola and walnut oils. It has been shown by a number of studies which have demonstrated that while plant omega-3-rich oils significantly elevate tissue levels of EPA/DHA, and that certain fish oils contains EPA and DHA, the latest kid on the block, krill oil, out-performs them all.

Other foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, beans, fish, olive oil and winter squash constitute part of the cornucopia of foods that will provide you with concentrated sources of omega-3 fats, but we’d like to introduce you to an unknown tiny giant – the krill!

What are Krill & why is Krill oil the recommended source of Omega 3?

Firstly, what are krill? Krill are shrimp-like crustaceans that measure one to five centimeters in length. They are commonly found in cold regions, mainly in the Antarctic and North Pacific Oceans.

Krill is a great source of omega-3 fats, docosahexanoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and also a rich source of high-quality protein, with the advantage over other animal proteins of being low in fat and a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, the antioxidant levels in krill are higher than in fish, suggesting extra benefits against oxidative damage that have been proven in heart disease and arthritis.

Perhaps this is because of their phospholipid structure, EPA and DHA in krill oil are more absorbable. They can easily pass through the mitochondria and the cellular nucleus. Other bioactive components of krill oil are vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and canthaxanthin, a potent antioxidant. Based on ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorptance Capacity) values, the antioxidant potency of krill oil is 48 times higher than that of fish oil. The Astaxanthin in krill oil fights the harmful effects of ultraviolet light on skin. Scientific data prove that krill oil is very effective in:

  • lowering LDL-cholesterol
  • raising HDL-cholesterol (as high as 44% in some cases)
  • reducing blood sugar
  • an effective treatment for pain and inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis
  • and pain in general.

It has also been proven that krill oil helps in alleviating symptoms in PMS and dysmenorrhea – and on the other spectrum is considered an effective treatment for adult ADHD. The above claims were based on clinical trials that compared krill oil with fish oil rather than a placebo. One last note about essential fatty acids concerns their relationship with vitamin E. Some studies have reported that there is a significant correlation between vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation.

Other Resources:

Maki KC, Reeves MS, Farmer M, Griinari M, Berge K, Vik H, Hubacher R, Rains TM. (2009) Krill oil supplementation increases plasma concentrations of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids in overweight and obese men and women. Nutr Res. 29:609-615.

Calder PC. (2006) n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, inflammation, and inflammatory diseases. Am J Clin Nutr. 83 Suppl 6:1505S-1519S

Lee JH, O’Keefe JH, Lavie CJ, Marchioli R, Harris WS. (2008) Omega-3 fatty acids for cardioprotection. Mayo Clin Proc. 83:324-332.

Reiffel JA, McDonald A. (2006) Antiarrhythmic effects of omega-3 fatty acids. Am J Cardiol. 98:50i-60i.

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