Essential fatty acids are a term that you have probably heard thrown around quite a bit, because they are extremely important to the human body. If you are looking to give your health, as well as your skin, a bit of a boost, learning more about essential fatty acids could be exactly what you need.
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
As you can tell from the name, essential fatty acids, also known as EFAs, are fats that the body needs, but cannot produce itself.
Your body actually needs a number of different types of fatty acids, to do everything from create cell membranes to absorb nutrients, but it is able to produce these acids from other fats.
There are two EFAs in particular that are vital to your health:
- Alpha-linolenic acid, which is an omega-3 fatty acid
- Linoleic acid, which is an omega-6 fatty acid
So, how does your body obtain these?
Essential fatty acids would need to come from your diet, and, fortunately, there are a number of food sources that contain them.
Sources of Alpha-Linolenic Acid
Once you consume alpha-linolenic acid, this is then converted into DHA and EPA, both of which are active forms of omega-3 fatty acids.
These are some of the foods that are richest in alpha-linolenic acid:
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- Chia seeds
- Brussel sprouts
- Perilla oil
- Mungo beans
- Soybeans and tofu
- Mustard oil
Sources of Linoleic Acid
Linoleic acid is just as important as alpha-linolenic acid, so you need to ensure that you are consuming adequate quantities of the following foods too:
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hempseed and hempseed oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Pine nuts
- Brazil nuts
- Sesame oil
Wondering how to go about incorporating these foods into your diet?
There are a number of ways:
- Use flaxseed oil in a salad dressing
- Sprinkle pumpkin, chia or hemp seeds onto yogurts, salads and smoothies for some added texture
- Use walnuts as a crust when cooking meat or fish
- Experiment with different Brussel sprout recipes, such as baking and pan-frying
What About Fish?
Fish is often recommended as one of the best sources of essential fatty acids, but this advice is not strictly true…
While oily fish does contain these essential fatty acids, fish is also high in other types of fats and cholesterol, as well as mercury and other toxins from the environment, all of which can detract from the goodness that the essential fatty acids bring.
Fish oils are also quite over-hyped, as these contain unstable molecules that can trigger free radicals, and can end up doing more harm than good.
This is why all of the above-mentioned sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are plant-based, as these are far more beneficial to your health.
However, if you do still want to use fish as an EFA source in your diet, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Stick to just 2-3 servings a week
- Choose fish that are lower in mercury, such as salmon, tilapia, tuna, shrimp
- Avoid fish that are high in mercury, such as king mackerel, shark, swordfish and white tuna
Now that you know what essential fatty acids are, as well as the best foods that contain them, you are probably wondering…
“Why does my body need these EFAs?”
Well, there are actually several different reasons…
A Strong and Healthy Heart
Studies have shown that a higher intake of EFAs is linked to a lowered risk of heart disease, making EFAs so important when it comes to keeping your heart healthy.
Wondering how exactly this works?
Firstly, the omega-3 fatty acids reduce triglycerides, which are the fats that are contained in your blood, and lead to an increased risk of heart disease. The omega-3s also cut down on blood pressure, while preventing plaque from building up in the arteries of your heart.
The omega-6 fatty acids are not quite as important when it comes to heart health, but they still help to regulate blood pressure and cholesterol, both of which can lower the risk of heart disease.
Joint Pain and Arthritis
Arthritis affects so many people, with around 50% of adults over the age of 65 in the USA experiencing at least one form of it. However, research has shown that EFAs can actually help to reduce and treat the pain caused by this.
Well, arthritis is primarily caused by inflammation, and omega-3 fatty acids in particular are extremely effective at reducing inflammation.
In fact, one study discovered that the effects that an omega-3 fatty acid supplement can have are actually comparable to that of ibuprofen, a popular anti-inflammatory drug.
There have been quite a few connections found between essential fatty acids and the brain, showing that an increase in EFA intake could actually have quite a few benefits when it comes to brain health:
- Improved cognition
- Prevention of certain neurological disorders
- A reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease
- A larger amount of gray matter in the brain, which is the brain tissue that is key when it comes to forming memories and making decisions
Mental Health Issues
In addition to aiding with the physical health of your brain, EFAs can also have quite an influence when it comes to mental health.
From depression to bipolar disorder to anxiety, when EFAs are taken alongside standard treatments, they can really help to improve symptoms.
What about taking EFAs on their own?
Well, the debate and research on whether EFAs alone can help with mental health issues is still ongoing, but research strongly backs up the fact that EFAs can really boost the effectiveness of conventional treatments.
When it comes to building healthy skin cell membranes, essential fatty acids are the foundation of this and are absolutely vital. They do so much for the skin, including:
- Strengthening the skin’s natural protective barrier, therefore reducing moisture loss and keeping it hydrated
- Significantly helping to treat eczema, to the point where antibiotics and steroids can be reduced
- Having a direct impact on skin function and appearance
- Helping with visible signs of aging, as well as UV-induced photodamage
- Reducing skin sensitivity
- Treating inflammatory skin disorders
Eye Health and Vision
Within the cell membranes of the retina, there are high concentrations of EFAs, with the retina conserving and recycling this at times when EFA intake has been low.
Currently, studies have only been carried out on animals, but these have so far indicated that EFAs are vital when it comes to normal development and function of the retina.
While this is true throughout your life, it is especially important for children, while the retina is still developing.
A deficiency of EFAs at this time could lead to permanent problems with the way in which the retina works.
Pregnancy and Lactation
While it is important to ensure that you are always consuming an adequate amount of EFAs, this becomes even more necessary during pregnancy and lactation.
There has been so much research carried out that points to how important EFAs are when it comes to fetal growth and fetal brain development.
Once you have given birth, upping your EFA intake will mean that your child is receiving enough EFAs through breast milk, which will lead to improved cognitive outcomes. After your child has been weaned, make sure that you continue to monitor his or her EFA intake, as this is important for growth and development in infants.
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Researchers have only recently begun to look at the link between ADHD and EFAs, so while there may not be that much information out there on the topic just yet, the studies that have been carried out are definitely looking promising.
So far, clinical studies have shown that children who have ADHD, or similar symptoms, also had lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies.
However, while there are a couple of studies that show that omega-3 supplements can help with this, they have not been concrete enough, and more research is still needed.
Nevertheless, it could still prove to be extremely beneficial to those with ADHD to increase their intake of EFAs.
Other Potential Benefits That EFAs Can Have
As you can see, EFAs have an impact on so many different functions within the body, so it is hardly surprising that there is still so much ongoing research taking place with EFAs as the focus.
These are a few of the other areas in which EFAs could help, all of which are currently being studied in more detail:
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Multiple Sclerosis
When it comes to cancer, there are three types in particular that EFAs could potentially help with:
- Colon cancer – omega-3 fatty acids in particular can help to prevent colon cancer, as well as slow its progression when the disease is in its early stages
- Breast cancer – scientists have theorized that women who consume sufficient quantities of EFAs over a long period of time may have a reduced risk of developing breast cancer
- Prostate cancer – it has been suggested that a low fat diet that contains plenty of EFAs can help to prevent prostate cancer
Symptoms of EFA Deficiencies
While you may think that you are already obtaining enough EFAs from your diet, you may be suffering from an EFA deficiency without knowing it.
Take a look at some of these symptoms…
If you have an omega-3 deficiency, you may experience:
- Hair loss
- Excessive sweating, followed by thirst
- Slow wound healing
- Joint pain
- Skin flare-ups that look similar to eczema
- Liver and kidney degeneration
If you have an omega-6 deficiency, you may experience:
- Vision impairment
- Tingling in arms and legs
- Behavioural changes
- Growth retardation
- Chronically dry skin
Balancing Your Omega-3:Omega-6 Ratio
While both alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid are important in order to obtain all of the above-mentioned benefits, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be 2:1.
However, for the majority of people who consume a standard, modern diet, this ratio is closer to 20:1 in reality.
Well, processed foods, which have become extremely common in the average modern diet, often actually contain quite a significant quantity of omega-6 fatty acids, which can really throw the ratio off.
Wondering what the results of this imbalance are?
- Heart disease
The best way to ensure that your omega-3:omega-6 ratio is balanced is by consuming a diet that is high in whole foods, as these will contain the right levels of the essential fatty acids.
Essential Fatty Acid Supplements
Of course, another way to ensure that you are obtaining a good ratio of omega:3s to omega-6s is by taking an EFA supplement.
Does this compare to a healthy, whole foods-based diet?
No, not at all, but, if you need some help ensuring that you are meeting your daily requirements, then this could be the way to go.
When it comes to choosing a supplement, you will usually have the option of capsules or an oil, and there are pros and cons to both…
Capsules are much more convenient to take than an oil, especially if you are a frequent traveller, and they also do not taste of anything, which can be a bonus if you do not like the taste of the oil supplements.
However, oils tend to work out much more cost-effective, especially if taking them on a long-term basis, and are also easier to mix into other foods, such as protein shakes.
Side Effects of EFA Supplements
As convenient as supplements may be, they do come with occasional side effects:
- Upset stomach
But, don’t worry, these side effects are easy to minimize.
By taking your supplements along with food, and reducing the dose that you are taking.
Nevertheless, the best way to obtain EFAs is from a healthy, wholesome diet, so try to reassess the foods that you eat. After all, the benefits are more than worth it!