Today we are going to tackle the subject of Essential Fatty Acids. It’s everywhere; you’ve heard about them, you know that for some reason they are supposed to be good for you, but secretly you may not understand these well-publicized nutrients and what makes them such a big deal.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids are necessary for human health, cannot be made by our bodies, and must be consumed from food or supplements. Together the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids play a critical role in brain function, hair growth, skin health, bone mass, metabolism, growth and development.
This article will start to clear up some of the mystery of these very important nutrients.
First, some terminology defined:
ESSENTIAL: Whenever you hear the term “essential” in reference to a fatty acid, it simply means that your body requires this fatty acid for normal functioning and cannot manufacture it within the body. These are fats that must be obtained through your diet or supplementation. They are often classified into two categories: omega-3 and omega-6.
OMEGA-3 and OMEGA-6: This is another term that is used by biochemists to define the location of certain chemical bonds in the fatty acid chemical structure. The location of these bonds (at position “3” or position “6”) affects how your body utilizes them and their function in the body.
Now, on to some real-world uses:
Essential fatty acids are necessary for human health, cannot be made by our bodies, and must be consumed from food or supplements. Together the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids play a critical role in brain function, hair growth, skin health, bone mass, metabolism, growth and development. A deficiency of essential fatty acids can result in:
- Chronic disease
- Slowed growth
- Skin rashes
- Trouble fighting infections and healing wounds
- Many more symptoms and conditions
OMEGA-3 fatty acids:
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are probably the most talked about and the ones most often deficient in our American diets. They come in 3 forms: ALA, EPA, and DHA, but you may be more familiar with the 2 most popular sources: Fish oil and Flaxseed oil. Other dietary sources of these highly-benefical fatty acids includes green leafy vegetables, nuts, and soy.
Some of the benefits to getting optimal levels of Omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Reducing risk factors for heart disease: This use is so well known that the FDA has made the following statement: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” Other studies show that omega-3 taken consistently can lower blood triglyceride levels, reduce risk for blood clots, and lower blood pressure.
- Anti-inflammatory: Studies and clinical experience show that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce joint tenderness and inflammation seen in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and general muscle aches and pains.
- Skin health: Many patients who start supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids notice an almost immediate change in their skin—they report softer skin that is no longer dry and less prone to breakouts.
- Depression: Omega-3 fatty acids are critical in brain development and function, and a deficiency can often contribute to depression.
There are a few risks to supplementation with Omega-3 oils:
- These oils may have blood-thinning effects which is potentially one of the reasons they seem to help prevent heart disease. If you are currently taking a blood-thinning medication such as coumadin, or are scheduled to have surgery, it is important to contact us or another doctor before starting to supplement with Omega-3 oils.
- Many inexpensive, poor-quality fish oils that you find at stores or over the internet may have toxic levels of mercury and PCBs in them. When it comes to concentrated fish oil, it is VERY important that you only consume high quality, third-party tested, purity guaranteed fish oil. For recommendations on trust-worthy brands and sources, please contact us.
OMEGA-6 Fatty Acids:
Not all Omega-6 fatty acids are created equal, and just like with cholesterol, there are “good” and “bad” forms.
In general, Americans tend to get plenty of the “bad” type of Omega-6 fatty acids in our everyday diet, through animal products and the vegetable oils in processed foods and restaurant fare. Too much of one type of Omega-6 fatty acids can lead to the creation of arachadonic acid, a pro-inflammatory substance associated with long-term inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and depression.
There are some “good” Omega-6 fatty acids, however, that can help reduce inflammation and have similar health-promoting effects as the Omega-3 fatty acids listed above. They are found in foods such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, and in supplements including Evening Primrose Oil, Borage Oil, and Black Currant Oil.
In general, most people do not need to supplement with Omega-6 oils unless there is specific condition that would benefit from extra support. Please contact us if you have additional questions.
Sources of Essential Fatty Acids: Fish oil, Flax Oil, Flaxseeds, Oh my!
Fish vs. Flax vs. Oil vs. Seeds vs. Ground vs. Whole
What is the difference between Fish oil and Flaxseed oil? And, while we’re at it, what’s the difference between Flaxseed oil and Ground Flaxseeds, and Ground and Whole flaxseeds?
Fish and flax are both excellent sources of these important essential fatty acids, in particular Omega 3 Fatty Acids.
Omega 3’s are important in heart health, skin health, depression, inflammation, and a myriad of other health benefits. These fatty acids are “essential” meaning our body requires them for survival. It is because of these many health benefits that your doctor might tell you to eat more cold-water fish, or that your cereal now advertises “with flax!”
Issue #1: Fish oil vs. Flaxseed oil
Fish oil and Flaxseed oil are both excellent sources of Omega 3 fatty acids. They both come in liquid or capsules, and are easy to take. The difference between fish oil and eating a piece of fish is that the oil is highly-concentrated, allowing you to get your daily dose of Omega-3s in a few capsules or a teaspoon of oil versus eating a lot of fish.
Which one is best? We often recommend Fish oil above Flaxseed oil as a daily supplement for a biochemical reason. Both fish and flaxseed oils are converted in the body to the same end product, an anti-inflammatory molecule that is thought to explain all the health benefits. However, to get to the final molecule and be used by the body, flaxseed oil has to go through several more steps than fish oil does, increasing the chances that an enzyme system or nutrient cofactor might not be functioning optimally. Fish oil is very close to the end goal, and works beautifully in most people.
There are some obvious populations, however, where flaxseed oil would be preferred. Vegetarians or vegans should elect for flaxseed oil and should know that it’s a perfectly fine option for getting those Omegas. And if you have an allergy to fish, obviously stay away from the highly-concentrated fish oil.
In the real world, what we most often recommend is taking Fish oil for a daily supplement, but then using flaxseed oil with your salad dressings or as a condiment. There is no problem with having a little of each!
With both these products, because they are concentrated oils, it is very important to take high quality products. Many inexpensive, poor-quality fish oils that you find at stores or over the internet may have toxic levels of mercury and PCBs in them. When it comes to concentrated fish oil, it is VERY important that you only consume high quality, third-party tested, purity guaranteed fish oil. Flaxseed oil has it’s own issues–it’s very easy for it to become rancid and should be stored in a cool, dark place.
Issue #2: Flaxseed oil vs. Ground flaxseeds
Think of this like the difference between eating an orange versus drinking orange juice. They both use “orange” in the name, but you know they are clearly different foods. The whole fruit has some juice as well as a lot of the fibrous pulp. The juice (for the sake of this comparison, lets use “without pulp” juice) is just the juice, but it’s made from the juice of quite a number of whole oranges.
Likewise, when you have flaxseeds, you have having the whole orange. When you use the flaxseed oil, you are taking the squeezed out “juice” (i.e. omega-rich oil) of a bunch of flaxseeds, minus the fiber. Both have benefits, but you take the different forms for different reasons.
Flaxseed oil: This is your high-potency Omega-3 fatty acid source.
Ground flaxseeds: You do get some oil with the whole seed, but not much. This is why flaxseeds alone are not recommended as a source of Omega-3s; the oil or fish oil are much better ways to get the oil. Ground flaxseeds have different benefits: they are an excellent source of fiber, it will bind to excess cholesterol that your body is trying to clear which may result in lowered cholesterol levels, and may help to balance female hormones.
Issue #3: Ground flaxseeds vs. Whole flaxseeds
When you eat a muffin with a few un-ground flaxseeds sprinkled throughout, you may think you’re doing something good for your body, but in actuality you are not getting any of the benefit from flax. There is a lot of misleading marketing in many of those “Now With Flax!” products.
If you look in your bread, cereal, etc. that advertises “with flax” and see an actual whole seed, you are most likely not getting any of the benefits we’ve talked about. It’s like swallowing a whole walnut; you need to crack open the shell first to get to the good stuff inside. The best way to grind flaxseed is with a coffee grinder, although you can sometimes find it pre-ground at health food stores. We recommend grinding it yourself to ensure that it’s still fresh (due to the oil content, ground flaxseeds will eventually turn rancid) but if you prefer the convenience of pre-ground, then store in the fridge.