Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are extremely important to human health, and a deficiency over time can lead to a host of modern day illnesses and disease.
But we don’t necessarily hear about this at the doctor’s office.
Recently I received some great feedback from Carol, a dry eye sufferer, suggesting that high-dose fish oil capsules cured her dry eye issues after many years of struggling with the symptoms.
An excellent result for Carol and it is not uncommon to hear stories and anecdotal evidence like this.
EFAs are ‘essential’ for a reason
Dietary fat and EFAs are essential to life. The body simply can not make certain fatty acids, therefore you need them in your diet .The key EFAs, are
Linoleic Acid (Omega 6 family) and Linolenic Acid (Omega 3 family).
These polyunsaturated acids come mainly from algae, plants, nuts, seeds and green vegetables. When wild animals and fish forage on these food sources they have flesh that is rich in EFAs.
Putting direct plant sources to one side, when you consume wild fish, chicken, beef et al, these become plentiful sources of fatty acids in your diet. This is the natural food chain that most of us are familiar with.
In recent years, the news about Omega 3s and 6s is that, as a population, we are getting far too much of the 6s and not enough of the 3s – that’s too much vegetable oil \ trans fats in processed food products and too little of the good oils from the whole foods just mentioned.
To add to this, an overload of Omega 6 in your diet leads to having too much of a pro-inflammatory substance called Arachidonic Acid (AA). Inflammation is widely understood to be at the root of most chronic diseases. The good news is that healthy levels of the Omega 3s help to counteract the negative effects of AA in your body. Hence some balance is maintained.
How Do You Get An Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency?
There are of course multiple factors for why you may be EFA deficient. Top of the list is a dietary deficiency of the raw materials needed that come from eating a variety of whole foods. This would seem obvious. However, modern-day diets have changed – in some cases dramatically.
It’s a little more complicated though….
Important to consider is that, several decades ago animals and fish that made their way on to our plates were often wild, (organic) grazing in lush pastures and swimming in the ocean. If you were so inclined you caught your own fish for dinner – and of course many of us still do!
These days due to large population growth, agriculture and farming has become so intensive that livestock and fish are in many cases factory-farmed. Their feed is quite different to that of a wild animal as you can well imagine.
In other words, what are these animals eating? And how much fatty acid content are you really getting from intensively-farmed animals even if you are eating them regularly.
According to some research, the omega 3 content of grass-fed beef is 2 – 4 times that of grain-fed beef. The simple reason being that omega 3 is formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves and algae. The same applies to chickens and other farm animals.
Grazing in fields on a variety of food sources keeps animals well nourished.
It has been estimated that only 40 percent of Americans consume an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids. But also that twenty percent have blood levels so low that they cannot be detected.
If one of the largest sources of omega 3s in the human diet is ocean fish, what are we to make of a recent report that the ocean’s plankton has fallen by 70% in the last 50 years. What happens to the food chain, to us, when change as profound as this occurs?
Fatty Acid Metabolism Disorders
You may not have heard of prostaglandins, but in essence these are lipid substances made with the help of fatty acid inputs.
For example, DHA, an omega 3 acid, is used to form a prostaglandin known as PG3. Why is this significant you ask. Well, healthy cells in virtually all of your tissues are constantly making prostaglandins to deal with injury and illness within your body.
Prostaglandins are understood to influence and regulate inflammatory processes, blood flow, muscle function and even the reproductive system in women.
In many ways they are similar to your hormones, in that prostaglandins work within the cells and tissues influencing a myriad of processes and bodily functions. Without them, critical repair processes and chemcial reactions do not function and begin to break down, just like a car running low on oil eventually breaks down and ends up with expensive repairs at the mechanics.
Without healthy levels of fatty acids in your body, the production of prostaglandins is disturbed.
An absolute or relative deficiency of prostaglandins has now been demonstrated in many diseases or clinical conditions. These include ‘natural’ disorders such as peptic ulcer disease and diabetes mellitus.
We believe that the diversity of the disorders associated with prostaglandin deficiency may be wider and of greater pathogenetic importance than is currently recognized. We propose: 1) that prostaglandin deficiency will be demonstrated in many abnormalities which are now described as of uncertain etiology (unknown causes)
Lacking An Enzyme…
Due to genetics, some of us lack a specific enzyme (delta-6) that is key to the desaturation (use) of both Linoleic and Linolenic acids. Both these fatty acids are the precursors or building blocks for downstream fatty acids such as EPA and DHA. ( You may be familiar with EPA and DHA as the main fatty acids in fish oils and omega 3 supplements.)
It is easy to underestimate just how critical fatty acids are to human health. Every cell in the body is dependant on EFAs for renewal and many other chemical reactions too numerous to mention here. These processes are only as strong as their weakest link and unfortunately this enzyme just happens to do its work at the very top of the process.
Without the delta 6 enzyme, the whole process of fatty acid conversion is impaired and supplementation becomes essential.
What About Carol?
Is it possible to that Carol needed omega 3 fatty acid supplementation due to an impaired fatty acid metabolism over a long period of time? It’s possible. I’m not a medical professional so I could not say for sure. Only a fatty acid blood test panel would be able to prove it to be true in her case.
The list of illnesses and symptoms associated with chronic fatty acid deficiency and \ or defective processing of fatty acids and subsequent prostaglandin deficiency is as long as your arm:
To mention but a few…..
Acne, Asthma,Dandruff, Depression, Fatigue, Autoimmune diseases, Schizophrenia, high cholesterol, Eczema, Dry Skin, Hypertension, PMS, Diabetes.
It is clear that fatty acids, and for the most part, dietary fats, play key role in keeping you healthy. The health of your eyes and almost all other body tissues included.
Not only are we possibly losing valuable sources of fatty acids from the food chain due to modern-day farming practices and environmental changes, but we are also not eating like our ancestors once did either, often preferring a diet rich in omega 6 oils, processed and fast foods and easy meals. It’s a double whammy.
Essential fatty acid deficiency can be detrimental to your health.
If you are feeling fatigued and run down, moody or depressed, you could do well to have an honest look at your fatty acid intake.
Are you getting enough? Food for thought….
“The science is loud and clear: the correct balance of fatty acids is essential if you want to be the healthiest you can be”
The Endpocrine Soceity
Good Health in The 21st Century. Dr C Hungerford. 2008