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What Is So Essential About Essential Fatty Acids?
What Is So Essential About Essential Fatty Acids?
July 12, 2008
Scott Berliner R.Ph.
It seems like everyone, including very traditional people are talking about this group of nutrients called essential fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fats are also known as PUFA’s and are made up of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. The two main fatty acids are called ALA or alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, and LA or linolenic acid, an Omega-6 fatty acid. The longer chain fatty acids like EPA and DHA can be synthesized from ALA and the long chain fatty acid AA or arachidonic acid can be synthesized from LA. The problem is that EPA/DHA synthesis may not be sufficient under many circumstances leading to deficiencies with severe health consequences.
Western diets appear to be much richer in Omega-6 fatty acids. Some think that the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 in American diets is as much as 20:1. It is usually thought that an equal ratio of the Omega-3’s to the Omega-6’s is more ideal so restoring the balance is the reason that it is so essential to consume these healthy fats. A large body of research indicates that higher dietary Omega-3 fatty acid intakes are associated with reductions in cardiovascular disease risk prompting the American Heart Association to recommend that all adults eat fish, particularly the oily fish, at least twice a week. Randomized controlled trials show that higher Omega-3 consumption can decrease the risk of myocardial infarction or heart attack and even reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death.
Increasing the consumption of EPA-DHA can help diabetics, especially those with elevated triglyceride levels.
It appears that increasing the intake of DHA can help with neurological development and even baby-formula companies are adding DHA to formula to aid in brain, eye, and neurological development in infants.
These same EPA-DHA fatty acids appear to reduce inflammation in the joints and reduce the need for anti-inflammatory medication in rheumatoid arthritis patients.
There is some preliminary studies indicating that increased supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial in the treatment of depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Other studies have shown benefit to people suffering with inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
Though we can make the EPA and DHA from its precursor’s lots of evidence indicates that we may not be able to make sufficient quantities under certain conditions and therefore EPA and DHA may also be considered essential meaning that we need to consume them. EPA and DHA are found in high concentration in the cell membranes, and in ALL cell membranes. DHA is more concentrated in the retina of the eye and animal studies indicate that it is necessary for the development of the retina. It is also important for the development of the phospholipids of brain gray matter. Animal studies have shown that depletion of DHA can result in learning deficits. Eicosanoids like EPA are powerful chemical messengers that play critical roles in immune and inflammatory responses. During an inflammatory response EPA can be used to synthesize prostaglandins and leukotrenes. These help with inflammation and the prevention of the release of excess histamine. Herein lays the reasons for the effectiveness of fish oil consumption in arthritic conditions as well as asthma.
While it is true that the oily fish, like salmon, halibut, tuna, and cod are rich in these fatty acids, eating them more than twice a week for the average individual may present other problems like excess consumption of heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, cadmium and lead. The waters are polluted and therefore the fish are polluted. Some people believe that pregnant women should not consume these fish at all yet we know that they are essential for the development of the brain, eyes and nervous system of the developing fetus. I believe that the lack of these nutrients is a contributing factor to the high number of cases of ADD, ADHD and even autism. It is with these facts in mind that I tend to recommend eating fish, if you like it, but supplementing with good quality fish oil for the Omega-3 content.
When purchasing good quality fish oil it is important to remember why we are buying the supplement instead of eating the fish and read labels carefully to make sure they indicate that the oil is pure and has been tested for contaminants like mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lead, PCB’s, and dioxins. The PCB’s and dioxins are a particular problem with farm-raised fish as the farms are often in polluted waters. Companies like Metagenics, Xymogen, and Nordic Naturals all have statements on their labels as to the purity and testing, often by a third party.
For those people that have tried fish oil with bad experience try it again and take good quality oil that has been purified and take it at the beginning of a meal. If it is the “fish burps” that is the problem than enteric coated oil like Metagenics’
EPA-DHA Extra Stength
will usually solve the problem as it is designed to bypass the stomach and open in the intestine. If this is not satisfactory than trying storing your oils in the freezer and taking the capsules frozen.
It appears from the numerous studies that consumption of 2 to 3 grams of EPA and DHA is ideal for many situations though less is certainly beneficial. When trying to calculate this dose remember that many of the supplements come in 1000mg capsules but this number only represents the weight of the oil within the capsule and not the amount of EPA and DHA. For example, Metagenics’
capsules each weigh 1.3 grams or 1300mg but contain 430mg of EPA and 290mg of DHA. These are quite potent but for optimal benefit this may require 4 to 6 capsules a day. Xymogen makes
Omega Pure 780
, an enteric coated capsule containing 1400mg of the oil which has 450mg of EPA and 330mg of DHA. With these concentrated sources as little as 2 capsules twice a day can offer multiple benefits in risk reduction from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and even asthma. Most of these benefits take at least 12 weeks to become apparent but the enormous number of benefits should be motivating enough to stay with the supplementation. Along with a multiple vitamin containing mineral, EPA-DHA supplementation is considered a “core” nutrient meaning that every individual whether old or young will benefit from the supplementation of these broad acting essential fats. When buying fish oil remember that oils can turn rancid so the better companies will add anti-oxidants like rosemary oil or vitamin E, also known as tocopherols to prevent this from happening. Again, quality companies add these anti-oxidants automatically to prevent the rancidity that comes from age or heat, light or oxygen exposure. The soft gelatin filled capsules are less likely to have this problem as the oil is within the capsule and not exposed to the air like liquid fish oil is. If you intend on keeping large supplies than it is advisable to refrigerate the bottle.
There are few supplements that have as much clinical documentation on effectiveness and safety as Omega-3 rich fish oils. I encourage every individual to take a good, rich EPA-DHA supplement before trying less proven approaches to any of the conditions I have mentioned. With today’s advances in distillation of these oils it is now possible to supplement without the fishy taste or nausea experienced in the past. For those individuals living in a cold climate it may be advisable to use cod liver oil in the winter and switch to plain fish oil in the summer. Cod liver oil not only contains EPA and DHA but also contains natural sources of vitamin A and D which can help you resist infections in the cold winter months.
both make pure, flavored cod liver oil concentrated through molecular distillation and flavored with natural oils of lemon, orange, and even peach.
Supplementation of these oils is important for all adults as well as children. Pregnant women should strongly consider supplementation for themselves and the developing fetus. All in all, there are few supplements in the world that have the capacity to bring as much benefit to a human being as the group of supplements that we have come to call “fish oil”.
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