Essential Fatty Acids

Why They Are Called “Essential”

Smoked Salmon
Smoked Salmon with lemons

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are fundamental to your body's development especially your cardiovascular system and your central nervous system (brain, spinal chord, and retina).

Recent research highlights the importance of EFAs to the development, functioning, and repairing of the human brain. At a time when people have been scared away from all dietary fat, we now know that having the right balance of EFAs in your diet may be one of the best ways to keep your brain functioning optimally.

In addition to supporting brain health, here's a short list of some of the other things EFAs do:

  • Support the maturation and development of the retina in fetuses and children, which points to the need for expectant and nursing mothers to have an adequate supply of EFAs in their diet
  • Lower the amount of lipids (fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides) circulating in the blood stream
  • Help control inflammatory response
  • Improve the body's ability to respond to insulin, which helps reduce the risk of becoming obese
  • Inhibit the growth of cancer cells, viruses, and bacteria (including yeast)
  • Keep the blood from clotting excessively.

In fact, EFAs are so important that you can’t survive without them, but your body cannot make them. As a result, it’s essential that you get these fatty acids from food, so they are called Essential Fatty Acids.

OK. So we’ve said that you can’t survive without EFAs, and we’ve said you have to get them from food. Obviously, if you’re surfin’ the web, you’re alive, so you must be getting EFAs from somewhere—so what’s the big deal?

Well, you may be surviving enough to surf the web, but are you thriving? How’s your performance at school or at work? How about on the football field? Can your relationships with people at work or at home stand some improvement? How about your sex life? More importantly, how’s your ability to heal? What about that chronic illness or those persistent aches and pains that just won’t go away?

You're probably getting the idea that deficiency of EFAs can show up as any number of symptoms. If so, you're right. EFA deficiency can cause a whole swack of vague symptoms that often are hard for doctors to pinpoint, and deficiency also can ascerbate the symptoms of some full blown medical conditions:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Asthma
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipoloar disorder
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Eczema
  • High blood pressure
  • Huntington's disease
  • Lupus
  • Migraine headaches
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Obesity
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Psoriasis

Unfortunately, EFAs alone cannot cure these medical conditions, but proper supplementation with EFAs and complementary nutrients can make symptom management easier.

Sources of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)

Blue Flax Flowers
Blue Flax Flowers

Sadly, sometimes tragically, people don't get enough EFAs in their diets—especially one extremely important group of EFAs known as Omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in various plants, such as flax seed, hemp hearts, chia, and walnuts. However, plant sources of EFAs are short-chain fatty acids, which your body must convert to long-chain fatty acids before the EFAs can be utilized. In many cases, our bodies do not make that conversion efficiently.

Therefore the best source of EFAs is oily, cold water fish—which is why people are encouraged to eat fish or take fish oil supplements.

When it comes to eating fish or taking fish oil supplements, well—some problems crop up:

FIRST, many North Americans don’t eat anywhere near enough fish.

SECOND, it turns out raw fish is the best source of Omega-3s because cooking can damage or destroy these delicate fatty acids. Sushi lovers won’t balk at eating raw fish, but many people do. Lightly cooked fish will provide Omega-3s, too, but raw fish is the best source. As a result, fish oil supplements are often your best choice—good news for anyone who doesn't like fish but still wants all the benefits of EFAs.

THIRD, even if you enjoy raw fish, you can’t just run off to the market and buy any old fish. Your best bet for Omega-3 fatty acids will be those fish caught in the upper regions of deep, cold ocean waters. These fish include wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and a few others. Albacore tuna was once a good bet, too, but toxicity due to heavy metals has become a headline-grabbing problem that savvy nutritionists have known about for years.

Oh! Oh! This situation brings us to the FOURTH problem that arises when you try to get enough Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet: heavy metals toxicity and microbial pollutants. Fish caught or farmed in shallow waters such as lakes or streams or ocean shorelines, predatory fish such as tuna that eat smaller fish, and bottom-feeding fish are NOT good choices because they are too polluted with toxins. Shellfish (such as shrimp, crab, and lobster) are NOT a good choice, because they are not a good source of EFAs in the first place, and they are too exposed to pollutants that settle on ocean floors.

As you might expect, fish oil supplements made from contaminated sources are, themselves, contaminated. You have to make sure the fish used for your fish oil supplements comes from the cold, deep ocean and that the final product is assayed for heavy metals contamination before it's bottled, put on store shelves, and sold to you. Not sure? Ask your supplements manufacturer—and get it in writing.

There is so much to learn about EFAs, and we just can’t put it all in this webpage, so check out our book EAT TO SAVE YOUR LIFE for more—at lot more—important information.

Freaky Fact

Your brain is made of 60% fat, and science has determined it can go rancid.

Schmidt, Michael A. Brain-Building Nutrition, Frog Books, Berkeley, California. 2007.

Related Supplements

Take EFAs that have not gone rancid because rancid oils produce free radicals, which may contribute to the development of cancer and other degenerative diseases.

Take a complete vitamin E containing all of the tocopherols and tocotrinols as protection against free radicals.

Eat to Save Your Life BookEat to Save Your Life answers the hard nutrition questions.

Buy it now!