The Essentials of Essential Fatty Acids



Increasingly over the past few decades research is showing that supplementing your diet with essential fatty acids (EFAs) can keep you out of harms way, help deal with certain diseases, provide a foundation for optimal health, and improve body composition, and mental and physical performance.[i],[ii],[iii],[iv],[v],[vi],[vii],[viii],[ix],[x]


As well, some other fatty acids and companion compounds have also been shown to have significant effects on health and body composition and can work additively or even synergistically with the essential fatty acids.


Dietary Fats


Dietary fats are essential for normal metabolism and good health. Not only are they necessary for the proper absorption, transportation and function of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, fats are used by the body to produce cellular components, hormones and other compounds that are essential to the proper functioning of the body. As well, a moderate intake of fat is essential for maximizing body composition and decreasing body fat. 


But while all fats, including saturated fatty acids, have an important role in energy metabolism and body functions, the most important fats are the essential fatty acids (EFAs) since the body needs them to survive.



While the human body can manufacture most of the fats it needs from other fats, carbohydrates and protein, including cholesterol, saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids, there are two groups of fatty acids, called essential fatty acids, based on linoleic acid (omega 6 group – which includes gamma linolenic acid or GLA) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3 group which includes eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA, and later into docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, which cannot be manufactured in the body.


The body cannot make an omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acid because human metabolism cannot add a double-bond to a fatty acid that is more than 9 carbons away from the delta end. For the same reason, the body cannot interconvert omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. 


Unfortunately, for various reasons, many people are EFA challenged.


EFA Deficiency


There are documented reasons for essential fatty acid deficiency under special circumstances.[i] For example a recent study found that children with food allergy managed with restricted intake of foods such as milk, egg, fish and vegetables are at risk of developing a deficiency in EFA and particularly in omega3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.[ii] As well, intake of essential fatty acids, as well as other nutrients, can be a concern for vegetarians.[iii]


However, it seems that a deficiency may exist in a good part of the general population that is eating normally. So the question is why are EFAs, especially the omega-3s, deficient in modern diets? The answer may be as simple as the diet itself, which may not include enough EFA containing foods, especially fish.[i],[ii],[iii],[iv],[v],[vi]


But there is more to it than that. Modern large scale methods of growing food is also at fault as it has decreased the n-3 fatty acid content in many foods: green leafy vegetables, animal meats, eggs, and cultured fish.[i]


Part of the problem is the food that’s given to livestock and poultry. It’s a lot different from the natural food that these animals would normally consume in the wild or even in the past.



For example, while both omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) and omega-6 (linoleic acid) are plentiful in the leafy plants consumed by roaming animals, providing nearly equal ratios of these EFAs, that’s no longer the case when they’re switched from grass to grains.[i] The result is that the fat in wild game and grazing ruminant contains roughly seven times more omega-3 fatty acids than animals raised for commercial meat.


Another reason is that processing or cooking can decrease plasma levels of essential fatty acids and can also change healthy EFAs into unhealthy trans-fatty acids.[ii] So the meat, fish, and eggs that we consume today that’s already low in omega-3s is even more depleted once it reaches our tables.


As well, we consume a lot of vegetable oils most of which are rich in omega-6 fatty acids and poor in the omega-3s. Increasing levels of omega-6 fatty acids also decreases the conversion of alpha linolenic acid to the longer chain omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA.[iii]



The increased omega-6/omega-3 ratio common to our modern diets, but not to man during most of his existence,[i],[ii] can give rise to disturbances in cellular structure and function, and an increase in systemic inflammation, which can lead to dysfunction and disease.


The realization of decreasing levels of omega-3s and increasing levels of omega-6s in our diets has led to recent attempts to modify existing foods to help correct this imbalance.[iii],[iv],[v],[vi],[vii],[viii],[ix],[x]


So although you can get the EFAs you need from food, you have to know what you’re doing and what you’re eating (and perhaps more importantly what you’re eating was eating), and even then, although you’re trying to eat right, you likely will still need to supplement your diet with some of the essential fatty acids.


The Secrets of EFAs: How the Omegas Work



Alpha linolenic acid is the principal essential fatty acid in the omega-3 family and linoleic acid takes the lead in the omega-6 series. In a healthy body with sound nutrition, various metabolic conversions take place transferring the raw dietary materials into usable, biologically potent EFAs and other compounds.


Alpha linolenic acid can be transformed into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and EPA can be converted into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), although the rate of conversion of  alpha-linolenic acid into EPA is relatively inefficient, at 5–10% and is inhibited by linoleic acid.[i],[ii] The series three prostaglandins are formed from EPA. As well, EPA reduces the production of the bad prostaglandins from arachidonic acid.[iii]


The omega-6 linoleic acid converts to gamma linolenic acid (GLA). Both the EPA and the GLA synthesized from dietary sources undergo another conversion, resulting in hormone-like biochemical compounds know as eicosanoids. These substances aid in virtually every body activity, from vital organ functioning down to intracellular processes, including helping to regulate inflammation and blood pressure as well as heart, gastrointestinal, and kidney functions.


As such, their use can be preventative and therapeutic for various conditions including some types of cancer, and cardiovascular, neurological and musculoskeletal diseases. Because of their anti-inflammatory properties they are effective anti-aging nutrients. As well, they can be used as an aid for weight loss and for improving body composition.


Omega 3 Fatty Acids



Omega-3 fatty acids are long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that have biological functions because they are converted to a number of active substances in the body such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes and are involved in a number of metabolic events. Linolenic acid is an essential fatty acid since it cannot be synthesized in the body. Other omega-3 fatty acids can, however, be synthesized from linolenic acid.


Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are precursors for hormones and determine the composition of our cell membranes, influencing the production of pro- and anti-inflammatory substances.[i]


Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oils (mainly EPA and DHA) and flaxseed oil, are useful in a wide variety of conditions:[ii],[iii] They have been shown to:



  1. Reduce oxidant stress[i] (oxidative stress or free radical damage is a factor of importance in the development of inflammatory events).
  2. Suppress the production of pro-inflammatory compounds in the body and therefore influence inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, and aging.[ii],[iii],[iv],[v],[vi],[vii],[viii],[ix],[x],[xi],[xii],[xiii],[xiv][xv],[xvi],[xvii],[xviii]
  3. Improve serum lipids and provide cardiovascular protection,[xix],[xx],[xxi],[xxii],[xxiii]
  4. Provide protection against stress,[xxiv] cognitive aging[xxv],[xxvi] and depression.[xxvii]
  5. Blood pressure, clotting, immune response, insulin resistance, and triglyceride levels are all positively affected by the omega-3s in EFA+.[xxviii]
  6. May be effective in the prevention of coronary heart disease,[xxix],[xxx] and headaches.[xxxi]
  7. Aid in weight and fat loss,[xxxii] especially when combined with CLA (see below).
  8. Be positively associated with peak bone density in young men.[xxxiii]



While it’s generally known that EFAs are good for the cardiovascular system and for arthritis, it’s not as well known the EFAs can affect mental health. In fact, a deficiency in EFAs or too little omega 3 fatty acids can lead to decreased mental health, depression and even aggressive tendencies.


EFAs have been shown to assist in treating depression and other mental health conditions. Low levels of omega-3 EFAs are common in depression. In one 2002 study, researchers found that treatment with EPA improved outcomes in patients with persistent depression.[i] Another study found that EPA may prove an effective add-on treatment in schizophrenia.[ii] Several studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may be useful in the management of Alzheimer’s disease.[iii]


There is even some evidence that the decrease in omega 3 consumption may be responsible for increasing homicide rates.[iv],[v]


Part of omega-3's effectiveness in treating brain disorders and the reason why lack of omega 3’s results in some mental aberrations may be linked to its role in neurotransmission and brain development. DHA in particular is crucial for proper brain function, and pregnant women are advised to consume adequate levels for fetal brain development.


There is no doubt that cerebral lipids, and EFA-derived LC-PUFAsin particular, have significant direct and indirect actionson cerebral function and mental health.[vi],[vii]Not only does the lipid composition ofneural membranes affect the function of their embedded proteins,but also many LC-PUFAs are converted to neurally active substances.


There is good evidence that psychiatric illness is associatedwith depletion of EFAs and, crucially, that supplementationcan result in clinical amelioration.[viii],[ix] As well as challengingtraditional views of aetiology and therapeutics in psychiatry,the clinical trial data may herald a simple, safe and effectiveadjunct to our standard treatments for many disabling conditions.[x],[xi],[xii],[xiii],[xiv]


EFAs and Body Composition and Exercise Performance



Besides all the health benefits above, the EFAs may also be useful in improving body composition and exercise performance as they have been shown to affect insulin sensitivity, and testosterone and growth hormone secretion, have anti-catabolic effects, and both increase lipolysis and decrease lipogenesis.[i],[ii],[iii],[iv]


Although several studies have found that a high fat, low fiber diet increases serum testosterone levels (the fat content of the diet is important as a higher saturated fat intake versus monounsaturated and polyunsaturated had the greatest effects),[v],[vi] one study found that the most important factor in increasing testosterone are the essential omega-3 fatty acids rather than saturated or unsaturated fats in the diet. [vii]


Fish oil may, through perhaps more than one mechanism, have anti-catabolic properties. By extrapolating from burn injury studies, there is the possibility of modifying the catabolic processes secondary to training through the use of fish oil.[viii],[ix]There is the possibility that fish oil may modulate PGE sub 2-mediated muscle proteolysis.


Studies have shown that the mechanism of interleukin-1 (IL-1)-induced muscle proteolysis involves PGE sub 2 synthesis.[x]Thus it is likely that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil competitively inhibit the PGE sub 2 synthesis,[xi],[xii]resulting in less muscle proteolysis. Furthermore, it has been shown that fish oil feeding in healthy volunteers can reduce the in vitro production of IL-1 and tumor necrosis factor by macrophages.[xiii]Thus, the reduction of IL-1 level may represent another mechanism by which fish oil moderates muscle proteolysis.


Omega-3 fatty acids may increase growth hormone secretion since they are involved in the formation of prostaglandin E1, which in turn is involved in GH release.[xiv]As well, to add to the possible benefits in improving exercise performance and body composition,


Several studies have shown that fish oil increases insulin sensitivity, the breakdown of body fat and the use of fat as a primary energy source.[xv],[xvi] As such, besides decreasing inflammation and increasing cardiovascular health, they also provide substantial weight and fat loss benefits.


LNA, EPA, and DHA can enhance lipolysis (body fat breakdown)[xvii],[xviii] and decrease lipogenesis (body fat formation).[xix],[xx] The combined breakdown of stored body fat and decrease in additional body fat can have very positive results for the dieter. You actually end up making less and breaking down more body fat when using these oils.


As well, a recent study found that GLA reduced weight regain in humans following major weight loss, suggesting a role for essential fatty acids in fuel partitioning in humans prone to obesity.[xxi] GLA combined with DHA and EPA are even more useful for weight/body fat loss.[xxii]


A study[xxiii] in horses found that n-3 fatty acids laced vitamin supplement induced changes in membrane composition, which modulated the decrease in erythrocyte membrane fluidity seen during exercise, and therefore found to be potentially beneficial in exercising horses.


Another study found that DHA + EPA-induced increases in stroke volume and cardiac output imply that dietary supplementation with these fatty acids can increase oxygen delivery during exercise.[xxiv]


And a recent study found that fish oil may act within the healthy heart and skeletal muscle to reduce both whole-body and myocardial oxygen demand during exercise, without a decrement in performance.[xxv]


Gamma Linolenic Acid



Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is important for health and has suppressive effects on both acute and chronic inflammation, and effects on decreasing the response to anxiety and stress.[i],[ii],[iii],[iv],[v],[vi],[vii] It also works synergistically with some of the essential fatty acids to decrease inflammation and stress responses.[viii],[ix],[x]


GLA is needed by the body for the manufacture of certain hormone-like substances called Prostaglandins. These substances have beneficial regulatory effects on the immune system, circulation and the menstrual cycle. Their purpose is to help control and regulate cell growth and to maintain hormonal balance. Also helps to maintain healthy skin.


The use of EPA with GLA decreases some of the possible inflammatory effects of using GLA supplements. That’s because GLA can be a precursor for arachidonic acid (AA, a “bad” type of prostaglandin that increases platelet aggregation and inflammation) and the addition of EPA reduces AA accumulation in some cells and tissues secondary to GLA supplementation.[xi]


A recent study found that GLA reduced weight regain in humans following major weight loss, suggesting a role for essential fatty acids in fuel partitioning in humans prone to obesity.[xii]


Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)


Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), while not an essential fatty acid, has significant effects on body composition. It’s a mixture of isomers of linoleic acid, which is found preferentially in dairy products, meat, and in cheese, milks and yogurt that have undergone heat treatment.



CLA has been shown to have properties above and beyond those of linoleic acid. And has a wide range of biological effects.[i] It has shown potential as a powerful anticarcinogen[ii],[iii]and exhibits potent antioxidant activity.[iv]Studies have suggested that CLA may be cytotoxic to human cancer cells in vivo.[v]


CLA has been shown to have significant anti-inflammatory properties[vi] and to inhibit inflammatory mediators such as PGE2, IL-6, and TNF-alpha,[vii],[viii] and also acts as a COX-2 inhibitor.[ix],[x]


Studies in animals and humans indicate that CLA supplementation decreases body fat and increases lean muscle mass. The increase in lean muscle mass is most pronounced in individuals who are exercising regularly.


CLA appears to reduce the ability of fat cells to take up fats from the bloodstream; it also inhibits the formation of new fat cells.[xi] CLA also helps cells burn fat at a higher rate, while fueling and preserving muscle, leading to a reduction in fat and an increase in lean muscle mass.


Numerous physiological effects in relation to body-weight control have been attributed to CLA in animals. In different animal models, CLA has been shown to reduce body fat and to increase lean body mass.[xii],[xiii],[xiv] But CLA has marked effects in humans as well and has been found to decrease body fat mass and support muscle mass in overweight humans.[xv],[xvi],[xvii],[xviii]


For example, a study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that those who were given CLA for a four week period had significant decreases in abdominal fat.[xix]


As well, a recent study concluded that long term CLA supplementation not only helps to decrease body fat but also helps to maintain weight loss in the long term. A recent long term study found that a mixture of the two CLA isomers significantly lowered body fat mass in overweight humans at both 1 and 2 years.[xx][xxi] It likely does this by affecting various enzymes involved in lipid formation and to a lesser extent enhancing fat breakdown.[xxii], [xxiii], [xxiv]


As well, CLA seems to have significant effects on weight regain, as it reduces fat uptake into adipocytes by decreasing the formation of fat and but not affecting fat breakdown. It likely does this by affecting various enzymes involved in lipid formation rather than enhancing fat breakdown, known as lipolysis.[xxv],[xxvi],[xxvii],[xxviii]


Thus there is an overall increase in fat breakdown since the two processes are usually in dynamic equilibrium with as much fat being produced as is broken down. Decreasing fat formation changes the dynamics to one of overall increased fat breakdown and subsequently a decrease in overall body fat.


Of equal importance, for those wishing to maximize lean body mass, is the possible anti-catabolic effects of CLA.[xxix],[xxx]


The most recent study in a series of studies of the effects of CLA confirmed and expanded on the findings of the previous studies: CLA reduces body fat mass in specific regions of the body, especially the abdominal area in both men and women, and maintains or increases lean body mass.[xxxi]


Adding to CLA’s effects on body composition, another recent study found that CLA supplementation even increased fat oxidation and energy expenditure during sleep.[xxxii]




The bottom line is that the essential fatty acids, and some non essential fatty acids such as CLA, have significant effects on body composition, training, recovery, and can also increase overall health and well being.


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