I recently covered the importance of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) in Step 6 “Essential Supplements.” Here is more detailed information explaining the value of EFA’s in the diet for people of all ages.
Low fat is commonly the standard for selecting food for a healthy diet. But the general public is often confused or misinformed about the effects—positive and negative – of fats and oils (collectively referred to as lipids).
Despite sometimes conflicting data, the evidence is mounting showing a direct relationship between the typical high-fat Standard American Diet (the SAD diet) and the major degenerative diseases of our time such as cancer and heart disease.
There is now direct evidence that excessive dietary fat may well function as a carcinogen.1 However, fats (lipids) are needed in our diet. They serve as the most efficient source of calories (9 per gram) and are essential to many body functions, particularly the production of hormones.
The real question is how much fat (lipids) and what kind of fat do we need?
Dietary studies suggest that the most likely protective benefit of a low fat diet does not begin to appear until the fat content of the diet dips below 25% of total calories.2 Other studies indicate that it is not just the amount of fat, but the type of fat that we consume that is linked to cancer and heart disease. Fats are classified as saturated, mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated.
The human body cannot function properly without two polyunsaturated fats: Linoleic (Omega 6) and Alpha-Linolenic Acid (Omega 3).
Collectively these are called Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) because they are essential to normal cell structure and body function. An essential nutrient is one that must come from the diet because the body cannot manufacture it. (Nutrients like cholesterol are nonessential because the body can make them from other nutrients.)
Both Linoleic (Omega 6) and Alpha Linolenic Acid (Omega 3) function as components of nerve cells, cell membranes and hormone like substances known as prostaglandins. But each of these EFAs has some basic differences which, in part, explains why we need to consume both in our daily diet. Although both are 18 carbon length fatty acids, Alpha-Linolenic Acid has three unsaturated bonds, while Linoleic Acid only has two. The different location of the first unsaturated bond gives them the more common names by which they are frequently called: Alpha-Linolenic Acid’s first unsaturated bond occurs at the third carbon and is known as an Omega 3 oil while Linoleic Acid’s first double bond is at the sixth carbon. Thus, it is referred to as an Omega 6 oil.
Due to these distinct differences, Linoleic Acid and Alpha-Linolenic Acid form entirely different prostaglandins. A deficiency in either Essential Fatty Acid is associated with decreased synthesis of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. Many of the beneficial effects of choosing a diet rich in plant foods are the result of the low levels of saturated fat and the relatively higher levels of essential fatty acids.
Now there is increasing evidence that the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 in the diet can play a crucial role in the development of many degenerative diseases.
Most diets have become unbalanced due to the extensive processing of our food supply. Many food processors go to great lengths to remove the Omega 3 in order to increase the shelf life of foods.
Milling and refining grains to produce white flour eliminates Omega 3. Also, the refining and hydrogenation processes effectively remove Omega 3 from commercially available vegetable oils.
Another problem exists in the way our animals are currently raised. In “the good old days”, animals wandered around eating a varied diet. Today, most animals raised for food are kept in feed lots where they are fed a processed grain diet from which most of the Omega 3 has been removed. Animals are like humans. They cannot manufacture Omega 3 and Omega 6. As a result, those who consume high amounts of animal meat are likely to have an unbalanced ratio of essential fatty acids, particularly the Omega 3.
In our body Omega 3 and Omega 6 go through a number of changes and are converted into other, more familiar families of fatty acids. Several steps down the line in the Omega 3 family, fats called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are produced from Alpha-Linolenic Acid.
On the Omega 6 side, fats like Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) are produced if all of the components are available, including arachidonic fatty acids.
We need a balance and proper ratio of Omega 3 and Omega 6
The most compelling reason we need this balance is because these essential fatty acids are precursors for prostaglandin production in the body. The prostaglandins are a very important group of hormone like chemicals that regulate virtually every major body function, including blood pressure, fluid retention, blood cell stickiness, inflammation, allergies, fever, and the immune system, just to name a few!
Over fifty different prostaglandins have been discovered so far and scientists speculate that hundreds will eventually be found. Sometimes we refer to these prostaglandins as “good” and “bad ” because they can have both negative and positive effects However, this is not technically correct because we often need both effects, but at different times.
For example, too much platelet stickiness produces blood clots that can cause strokes and heart attacks. Consequently, the prostaglandin that causes platelet stickiness is often labeled a “bad” prostaglandin. But what if you cut your finger? Now you need some platelet stickiness to form a scab so that you don’t bleed to death. Now we refer to it as a “good” prostaglandin. We need both reactions. We need different prostaglandins and, as such, we need the Essential Fatty Acid balance and ratio that provides the right response from the right prostaglandin.
Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) frequently produces too much prostaglandin (an imbalance) which leads to platelet stickiness and blood clots. This is a major problem, as this is a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, strokes and countless other problems.
Therefore, it is necessary for us to consume oils that have the proper ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3.
What are the food sources of these omega-3 fatty acids?
ALA – Flaxseed, soybean oils, and walnuts
EPA and DHA – Fatty fishes such as mackerel, herring, salmon, tuna, and trout
Note: You will see canola oil listed as a source of omega 3, but it is a GMO product and not recommended.
The best plant sources for supplements of Omega 3 and Omega 6.
There are several plant oils available that provide some essential fatty acids: Borage, Primrose, Safflower, and Flaxseed. Some oils, such as Flax and Safflower, lack GLA. Oils like Borage and Primrose do not contain Alpha-Linolenic Acid. All of these oils can be great if taken in the proper ratio and balance but the unique oil, Blackcurrant Seed Oil, appears to provide a complete balanced profile of Linoleic, Linolenic, Alpha Linolenic (ALA) and Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) all on its own.
Typical fatty acid profile of various oils that contain EFAs Oil:
Blackcurrant Flax Primrose Borage Safflower
Palmitic ……………………….5-6% …………4-6% ……….5-7% ………….9-12% ………….5-8%
Stearic ……………….. …….1-2% …………3-5% ……….1-2% …………..2-5% …………..1-3%
Arachidonic………………….. 0 ……………… 0……….. 0.5-1% …………… 0……………….. 0
Palmitoleic ………………….. 0 ……………… 0 ……………. 0 ……………..1-2% ……………. 0
Oleic ………………………..10-12% ……..16-22% ……10-12% ………. 4-19% ……….10-11%
Poly (Omega 6 &3)
Linoleic ……………………45-50% ……..12-19% ……68-22% ……….36-40% ……….71-76%
Linolenic ………………….26-30% ……..50-60% …….9-10% ………..22-28% ………… 0.4%
Alpha Linolenic ………..10-12% ……..50-60% ……….. 0 ……………….. 0 ………………. 0
Gamma Linolenic ……16-18% …………. 0 …………9-10% ………..22-28% ………….. 0
(GLA) Omega 6
Source: Traco Labs Product Bulletin 1996
Why we need Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA)
Not all sources of Essential Fatty Acids contain Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA). In fact, in nature, there are only a few sources. One is mother’s milk, which scientists have determined helps the baby develop a strong immune system. Additional plant sources include Borage, Evening Primrose and Blackcurrant Seed Oil. In essence, GLA is the form Linoleic Acid takes when it is broken down properly in the body. However, research shows that individuals with diabetes and people who cannot form GLA from Linoleic Acid should be sure that they have an adequate source of GLA in the diet. GLA supplementation in diabetes has been shown to improve nerve functions and help prevent diabetic nerve disease.3
Omega 9 Fatty Acids
What are they?
Omega 9 fatty acids are non-essential fatty acids but are usually found in conjunction with omega 3 and omega 6 high quality products. So most good omega oil products will read: containing Omega 3, 6, & 9 omega oils.
Omega-9 fatty acids are from a family of unsaturated fats that commonly are found in vegetable and animal fats. This monounsaturated fat is described as omega-9 because the double bond is in the ninth position from the omega end. These fatty acids also are known as oleic acids or monounsaturated fats and can often be found in sunflower, olive and nut oils. Unlike omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, omega-9 fatty acids are produced by the body, but also are beneficial when they are obtained in food.
What are the types of omega-9 fatty acids?
Oleic acid – Oleic acid is a main component of sunflower oil, olive oil, and other monounsaturated fats, many of which are used as a solution for reducing bad fats in cooking oils.
What are the sources of omega-9 fatty acids?
Oleic acid – Olive oil, sunflower oil, peanuts, pistachios, almonds, and avocados.
Note: You will see canola oil listed as a source of omega 9, but it is a GMO product and not recommended.
Specially developed oils for foodservice, such as Omega-9 Olive Oils and Sunflower Oils, are uniquely high in monounsaturated fats (>70%) and reduces key factors that contribute to heart disease and diabetes. Omega-9 fatty acids are found in various animal and plant sources. Sunflower, olive, and nut oils have significant levels of omega-9 fatty acids, which are also known as high-oleic acids, or monounsaturated fats. Oils produced from these sources have emerged as healthier, highly functional replacements for partially hydrogenated cooking oils, which are often laden with unhealthy trans and saturated fats.
What are the health benefits of omega-9 fatty acids?
Research has shown that omega-9 fatty acids, commonly referred to as monounsaturated fatty acids, can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Because omega-9 fatty acids have been shown to increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol and decrease LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, they help eliminate plaque buildup in the arteries, which may cause heart attack or stroke. Omega-9 Olive and Sunflower Oils are uniquely high in monounsaturated (omega-9) fat, as well as low in saturated fat and zero trans fat.
How do they add up?
Although omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids all serve different functions within the body, the evidence is clear that incorporating balanced proportions of both essential and non-essential fatty acids are necessary for maintaining overall heart health and general wellness. According to a joint position paper between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Dietitians of Canada , adults should receive 20 to 35 percent of energy from dietary fats, avoiding saturated and trans (“bad”) fats, and increasing omega-3 fatty acids. The Association also found that incorporating more omega 9 oils in one’s diet to replace other fats aligns with dietary recommendations by lowering saturated fat and increasing heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.
More on EPA/DHA
EPA and DHA are n-3 fatty acids which stand for docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid. These n-3 fatty acids are Omega 3 fat, which are found in the highest percentage in cold water fish. EPA and DHA are highly unsaturated fat because they contain 6 and 5 double bonds on their long structural chain. These polyunsaturated fats play a very important role with the function of our bodies.
EPA and DHA are vital nutrients and may be taken to maintain healthy function of the brain and retina. DHA is a building block of tissue in the brain and retina of the eye. It helps with forming neural transmitters, such as phosphatidylserine, which is important for brain function. DHA is found in the retina of the eye and taking DHA may be necessary for maintaining healthy levels of DHA for normal eye function.
EPA and DHA can be produced from Alpha-Linolenic Acid from plant sources but at a much lower percentage. This will work fine for vegetarians or for people who do not desire fish oil, but for maximum percentage and benefits from these two fatty acids, it is best for children and adults to take fish oil to obtain EPA/DHA.
Human Growth and Intellectual Development
DHA plays a very important role during fetal development, early infancy, and old age. High concentrations of DHA are found in the brain and increases 300-500% in an infant’s brain during the last trimester of pregnancy. Adding DHA to a pregnant mother’s diet may be beneficial for the fetus’ brain development. Elderly people should also take EPA DHA, because as we get older, our bodies form less DHA and EPA, which may cause less mental focus and cognitive function. Taking EPA DHA may also help with mental abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia. So everyone can benefit from taking EPA and DHA.
Benefits of EPA and DHA
EPA and DHA are converted into hormone like substances called prostaglandins, which help regulate cell activity and healthy cardiovascular function.
EPA and DHA have also been shown to be great sources of energy, and to help insulate the body against heat loss, prevent skin from drying and flaking, and cushion tissues and organs.
Scientific evidence suggests that, when regularly consumed, supplements from deep cold water fish dramatically reduce harmful fats and triglyceride levels.
It is important to obtain a fish oil with premium quality, purity, stability, good tasting, usually lemon flavored and is molecularly distilled to remove dioxins, PCBs and other possible toxic material, to ensure its purity and quality.
Recommendations to achieve a balanced ratio of EFA, ALA & GLA
(Below is information to purchase quality EFA products at your local health food store. If you are unable to find these or would like to purchase the supplements I recommend and provide to my clients, I have included links to these products.
1. Select a good source of cholesterol free marine lipids, liquid or softgel (derived from deep cold water fish) providing a minimum daily dosage of: 360 mg of EPA* / 240 mg of DHA http://www.drbo.com/omega-pro, http://www.drbo.com/kids-omega-oils, http://www.drbo.com/daily-efa
Fish oil is a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly EPA (eicosapentaenoic) and DHA (docosahexaenoic). Biochemically EPA and DHA actually compete with, displace and inhibit arachidonic acid (a sometimes bad fatty acid) metabolism.4 Recent evidence suggests that chemicals derived from Arachidonic Acid can produce a variety of metabolites that can initiate and promote tumor function and vascularization, cell proliferation, tissue invasiveness, metastasis and suppression of the immune surveillance system.5
The fish oil can be in a liquid form (be sure it is molecularly distilled) or softgel combination of fish oil, flaxseed oil, borage oil in proper ratio and molecularly distilled or other plant sources. Pure fish oil always has a complete profile and ratio.
2. Consume a high quality plant source of Blackcurrant Seed Oil providing a minimum daily dosage of: 560 mg of pure Blackcurrant Seed Oil ** and 80 mg of GLA. http://www.drbo.com/kids-efa-pearls
For those on a strict vegetarian diet, the consumption of additional Blackcurrant Seed Oil (a total of at least 1000 mg of Blackcurrant Seed Oil and at least 120 mg of GLA) or a variety of plant oils is recommended to achieve an adequate and balanced profile of EFAs and GLA. Individuals with diabetes and people who cannot form GLA from Linoleic Acid should be sure that they have an adequate source of GLA in their diet. GLA supplements in diabetics have been shown to improve nerve function and prevent diabetic nerve disease.6
3. Consume a high quality flaxseed meal for an alternate vegan source providing a minimum daily dosage of 2560 mg of Omega 3 and 1000 mg of Omega 6.*** http://www.drbo.com/vegan-efa
Flaxseed is not only a great source of fiber; it is the riches source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the few plant sources of Omega-3 super unsaturated fatty acids, considered the most beneficial of the essential fatty acids. ALA is converted in the body into two more biologically active Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic), the same fatty acid found in fish.
Flax also contains linolenic acid (LA), a polyunsaturated fatty acid known as Omega-6, the second most beneficial fatty acid. It is said that, ideally, body tissue should contain a ratio of 3:1 to 4:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3. However, substantial evidence suggests that, because of the consumption of large amounts of fried and processed foods, the ratio of the average person is 20:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3. Flaxseed oil contains approximately 60% Omega-3 to approximately 15% Omega-6 (4:1 Ratio) making it the perfect fast food to correct this ratio.
Flaxseed is also the richest plant source of lignans. Precisely, flax is a source of concentrated lignan precursors. Lignans are strong antioxidants and phytoestrogens (hormone-like chemicals). Flaxseed contains high levels of the plant lignan, secoisolariciresinol diglycoside (SDG) and provides 75-800 times more plant lignans than other plant sources.
Modern scientific research has concluded that many health challenges are a direct result of the substitution of hydrogenated fats and the lack of essential fatty acids in our diet. Flaxseed meal is an important natural food for both adults and children that will enhance their body’s repair mechanisms, reduce inflammation, help arrest allergies, improve our memory and raise their spirits! Flax is great for vegetarians but also wonderful in combination with other plant oils and fish oil.
4. Take a minimum of 400 IUs of Natural Vitamin E daily. http://www.drbo.com/vit-e
The best supplement is one that contains a mixed source of Vitamin E, Wheat germ Oil & Lecithin. Vitamin E is essential to help prevent lipid peroxidation.
* Most marine lipids will contain 120 mg of EPA & 80 mg of DHA per capsule. Therefore, it is necessary to take a minimum of 3 capsules.
** It usually requires two capsules to achieve this level. The oil should be cold processed, without solvents.
*** This will usually require 2 tablespoons.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are essential lipids, often referred to as Vitamin F, the “good fats” or the “fats that heal,” that are not manufactured by the body and are vital for optimum health, well-being and 90% of your energy. As integral components of all cells, they maintain the fluidity and stability of cell membranes and protect the body from harmful substances such as bacteria and viruses. They must be obtained through diet or supplementation with EFA-rich food oils.
Without EFAs, deficiency symptoms will develop. Signs of EFA deficiency can include eczema and other skin disorders, hair loss, organ damage, impaired reproductive function, increased triglyceride and cholesterol levels, increased blood pressure and neurological dysfunction.
EFAs are the most important of all the fats and I feel should be an integral member of everyone’s daily health program.
To Your Good Health,
About the Author:
Dr. Bo Wagner holds a Doctor of Natural Medicine, a Doctor of Naturopathy, a Ph.D. & Diplomate in Clinical Nutrition, is Board Certified in Integrative Medicine, a Fellow of the American Association of Integrative Medicine and a former Dean of Internal Wellness & Professor of Functional Medicine and currently serves as an Adjunct Faculty member at the University of Natural Medicine. Visit: www.drbo.com for more information and resources, and connect with Dr. Bo on Facebook and Twitter.
1Wynder, E.L., “Amount and Type of Fat/Fiber in Nutritional Carcinogenesis”,
Preventive Medicine 16:451(1987)
2Richard A. Passwater PhD., Cancer Prevention and Nutritional Therapies.
Keats Publishing, 1993. p.139.
3Whitaker, Julian, M.D., Dr. Whitaker’s Guide to Natural Healing, Prima
Publishing, Rocklin, Ca. 1995. p.505 Moss, Ralph W.
PHD, Cancer Therapy, The Independent Consumer’s Guide to Non-Toxic
Treatment and Prevention, Equinox Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1996.
4Ross Pelton, R.P.., PH.D. and Lee Overholser, PH.D., Alternatives in Cancer
Therapy, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994. p.92.
5 Ibid. p.92
6Horrobin, DF: Fatty acid Metabolism in Health and Disease: The Role of
Delta-6-desaturase. Am J. Clin Nutrition 57:732s, 1993.
*These statements in this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Consult your physician if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication or have a medical condition before beginning supplementation. Information contained in this bulletin is for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for advice from your physician.