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00680 (1)Did you know that fatty acids were originally considered Vitamin F when they were first discovered in 1923?

Later, they were classified as fats.  Now, finally, they are getting their due respect as therapeutic nutrients for the body. 

Our bodies don’t manufacture fatty acids naturally, so we need to obtain them from healthy foods, which is why they are called essential fatty acids. Every single cell in our bodies is made from this source of fat.  There are 20 different types of fatty acids, but they are all derived from two basic fatty acids called alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) and alpha-linoleic acid (omega-6).

So what do these fats do for us?  A better question might be: what don’t they do for us?

As previously mentioned, every single cell in your body needs these fats to function.  For example, fatty acids in your nerve cells maintain the nervous system, which is the communication center for your entire body.  In your eye cells they are found abundantly in the retina, which is vital for sight.

Have you ever heard of the term “fat head?” There’s a reason for it. Our human brain is made up of about 60% fat, so it needs essential fatty acids to function effectively. In fact, these fats promote the connection of brain cells to each other, ensuring the transmission of brain signals.

Proper amounts of essential fatty acids assist the immune system and act as an immune shield from germs and microbes. Your body also needs fat to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A and D, both invaluable to the immune system.

Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids are also important for making prostaglandins in your body. Prostaglandins are hormones that regulate activities in your body including inflammation, pain and swelling.  They contain natural anti-inflammatory compounds that may even relieve the symptoms of arthritis and autoimmune diseases.

Fatty acids have amazing cardiovascular benefits as well – they regulate blood pressure and are natural blood thinners that prevent blood clots that can lead to heart attack and stroke.

Fatty acids play a crucial role in the digestive tract. They influence the structure of the cells lining the intestinal tract, as well as the “villi” in the gut, through which the absorption of nutrients takes place by increasing the thickness and surface area of the digestive-absorptive cells that make up the insides of our intestines. This results in improved digestion, better absorption of nutrients, less absorption of allergens, and overall better health.

Continuing  studies are finding that compounds in essential fatty acids can block tumor formation in animals, and test-tube studies have documented that omega-3 fatty acids can inhibit the growth of human breast cancer cells.

Fatty acids are the most abundant fat in breast milk vital to infants because of their ability to nourish a child’s growing brain and eye development.  Omega-3 fat is important for connecting brain cells to each other and making sure brain signals transmission gets through adequately.

Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to an increase in dementia, mood changes, memory loss, and visual problems. In a Swedish study, elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease were found to have lower levels of the omegas than healthy older people. Studies done at Purdue University showed that children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder had lower levels of these essential fatty acids.

A diet low in essential fatty acids could result in skin problems such as dandruff, eczema, splitting nails, and dull, brittle hair.

In fact, according to Michael Murray, ND and Joseph Pizzorno, ND well-known and respected Doctors of Naturopathic Medicine, related that research indicates that over 60 health conditions may benefit from EFA supplementation.

Also worthy of note is how biological effects of the omegas are mediated by their mutual interactions, particularly when they are imbalanced. A fatty acid imbalance can cause many hormonal and chemical problems. It is estimated that about 90% of the American population is lacking omega-3 because we consume so many processed foods and grains that are grown with omega-6’ sources. Some authorities suggest approximately 10%-20% of our total caloric diet should consist of these essential fatty acids particularly the omega-3’s. Other researchers say we should have at least a 1:1 balance and still others suggest a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio (the 3’s having the predominant ratio.).

Exactly how much a person needs depends on numerous factors. Even the RDA’s, as outdated as they are, have not established any requirement on the 3’s and 6’s whatsoever (shame on them). In my own studies at Bauman College, it was suggested to consume 1,000-2,000 milligrams daily of omega-3’s for maintenance levels. Individuals with severe heart problems or other major health issues may need more, but this should be monitored by doctors. We do know men need more, and certainly stress and disease affect how much we need.  Consuming too many bad fats increases the need for the omega 3’s as well.

Eating 3-4 ounces of wild (not farm raised) salmon two times a week would constitute a sufficient amount of omega-3’s, unless one was eating an overabundance of omega-6’s from processed foods and/or consuming more grain fed animals, which would contain higher levels of omega-6.

So where else can you get your essential fatty acids in your food? Wild fatty cold water fish is the best source. Salmon is the best, followed by herring, sardines, mackerel, tuna, bluefish, cod, flounder, shrimp, or krill (a shrimp-like fish usually found in supplemental form). You certainly can supplement with quality fish oil (tested for purity and Mercury levels) like Nordic Naturals or Spectrum if you can’t tolerate fish. High quality flax oil is high in fatty acids (the seeds are mostly fiber so it is not recommended as the best way to obtain sufficient amounts of the oil). Make sure you keep it refrigerated, oil and/or seeds, as it renders it rancid and useless and maybe even harmful).

Other good sources include walnuts, almonds and other nuts, dark green leafy vegetables and greens, lean meats (preferably grass fed), and eggs (preferably farm raised). Hemp is also gaining popularity as a good source of the 3’s.

For those who complain about “burping the oils up” after consumption, try freezing the capsules or get a formula that contains lipase (a fat enzyme for its digestion) to help you digest it better.

Written by Elaine Murphy, certified nutritionist and GreenLite educator.

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