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Essential fatty acids

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Important essential fatty acids facts

The human body needs essential fatty acids for normal growth, maintenance of cell membranes, to ensure the immune system is working well and to balance the body's hormone levels to a normal level.

Essential fatty acids (EFA's) are vital for the synthesis of fat stores in the body, they play an important role in the regulation of cholesterol levels, and are precursors of prostaglandins, which are hormone-like substances that produce various metabolic effects in the body, such as inflammation, pain and swelling as well as controlling blood pressure, heart, kidneys and digestive system. Prostaglandins are important for allergic reactions, blood clothing and making other hormones.

Essential fatty acids help the skin to stay youthful and supple and are also required to utilise the energy contained in the fat stores in the body.

EFA's also seem important in the manufacture of sex and adrenal hormones. Fatty acids also stimulate the growth of the beneficial intestinal bacteria.

Essential Fatty Acids are divided into 4 types:

Why Omega 6 fatty acids are needed: The main functions of omega 6 fatty acids are as an anti-inflammatory and to reduce insulin resistance.

Why Omega 3 fatty acids are needed : The main functions of omega 3 fatty acids are to decrease LDL cholesterol levels, regulating inflammatory prostaglandin formation, decrease fibrinogen and thrombin levels and reduce platelet aggregation and blood viscosity.

The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be between:

  • 1:1 - 4:1

Due to the modern diet, the ratio can be up as high as 30:1 which is really unhealthy.

  • The body is not capable of manufacturing the essential fatty acids
  • The (non-essential) fatty acid arachidonic acid can be synthesized in the body from the essential fatty acid, linoleic acid
  • Light, air, excessive storage times and processing destroy essential fatty acids

Essential fatty acids and health

  • Omega-3 helps the heart - several studies show that men who eat fish several times a week have less heart disease than men who don't eat fish regularly. Other studies show that fish oil supplements can help prevent sudden death from heart rhythm problems. Fish oil supplements may also prevent blood clots from blocking the arteries leading to the heart
  • Fish oils and fat levels - taking fish oil supplements can lower triglycerides level if they are too high, but conversely it may increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels
  • Calming Crohn's disease - several studies have shown that fish oil supplements can be very helpful for keeping Crohn's disease under control
  • Helping rheumatoid arthritis - in some studies, it has been shown that some patients find relief from taking Omega-3 oils for this painful condition.
  • Helping women with PMS - GLA in evening primrose oil may be helpful in relieving PMS symptoms, especially breast tenderness and swelling. GLA seems to work best if taken every day of the month together with Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
  • Helping people with depression - people with a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids or who have an imbalance of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids have been shown to be at a higher risk for depression. Studies have shown omega-3 fatty acid supplementation helps to improve brain activity and reduce symptoms of depression

People who wish to take an acidophilus supplement should talk to a medical professional BEFORE taking it.

Groups at risk of essential fatty acid deficiency

  • People over 65 years – absorb less of some of the EFA as you age, and many older people may not eat properly
  • Women with PMS - research shows that EFA helps to lower prostaglandins (the hormones that seem to be higher in women that suffer PMS)
  • People with dry, chapped skin and eyes, cold hands and feet and bruise easily - EFA are useful for the skin, help to moisturise the body inside and out, as well as to help the extremities reach normal levels of temperature
  • People with brittle nails and dry hair - research has shown that EFA can help alleviate these symptoms

Symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency

A major deficiency of essential fatty acids may cause damage to the heart, the kidneys and the liver. Behaviour disturbances may also result from a deficiency in the diet.

  • Some symptoms of essential fatty acids deficiency include hair loss and skin eczema, as well as excessive sweating.
  • Blood pressure may be elevated and the formation of blood clots may be an increased risk. Deficiency may have an influence on infertility in men and miscarriages in women.
  • An immune system that is not functioning as well as it should may result from a shortage of the essential fatty acids, which in turn may result in slow healing wounds, and susceptibility to infections. Stiffness in joints may happen, and an under secretion of tear and saliva may be indicative of too little essential fatty acids in the diet.

Essential fatty acids recommended intake

Dosage of essential fatty acids depends on the condition that is being treated. A medical doctor and/or alternative health care provider can advise on individual cases - this information is provided as a guide only:

RDA 2-8% of total calorie intake
TOLERABLE UPPER LIMIT No information available
CHILDREN >20% of total calorie intake


Essential fatty acids in foods

Omega 3 in fsh

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FOOD AMOUNT Omega-3 (mg)
Salmon, canned Chinook 1 Can 3000
Sardines 1 Can 2900
Mackerel 1 Fillet 2200-2600
Tuna, canned 1 Can 1500-1700
Salmon, sockeye 1 Fillet 1300
Bluefish 1 Fillet 1200
Trout 1 Fillet 1100-2000
Herring 1 Fillet 1100-1700
Mullet 1 Fillet 1100
Salmon, pink 1 Fillet 1000-1900
Bass 1 Fillet 600
Catfish 1 Fillet 600
Crab, Alaska King 1 Fillet 600
Shrimp 1 Fillet 300-400
Flounder 1 Fillet 300
Swordfish 1 Fillet 200

Omega 3 in vegetable oils

FOOD AMOUNT Omega-3 (mg)
Flaxseed Oil 1 Tbsp 533
Canola Oil 1 Tbsp 111
Walnut Oil 1 Tbsp 104
Wheatgerm Oil 1 Tbsp 69
Soybean Oil 1 Tbsp 68

Types of essential fatty acids supplements

Essential fatty acids supplementation is available in the following ways:

  • Liquid - essential fatty acids are available in the pure oil form, but is usually flavoured as it is not very pleasant tasting
  • Soft gel capsules - liquid essential fatty acids are added to the capsules

Essential fatty acids supplementation checklist

  • Check expiration date
  • Look for a supplement that has both EPA and DHA in it
  • Light, air, excessive storage times and processing destroy essential fatty acids - store in the refrigerator

Essential fatty acids works best with

Overdosage, toxicity and cautions for essential fatty acids

No toxicity has been reported in healthy individuals but people with health problems should be careful with taking any supplements.

If EFA's are consumed in high dosage, ie they consist of more than 20% of calorie intake, there is an increased demand for Vitamin E and other antioxidant nutrients.


People with any of the medical conditions listed below should discuss supplementation with a medical profession BEFORE taking essential fatty acids, as they could interact adversely with their medication:

  • People with schizophrenia - should avoid taking any supplements with GLA as it could worsen their condition
  • People taking blood thinning medications - such as Coumadin or Warfarin should seek medical advice before taking a chondroitin supplement, as there may be bleeding complications - talk to a medical professional
  • People on anti-convulsant medication for epilepsy- are not recommended to take essential fatty acid supplements as EFA can induce seizures- talk to a medical professional
  • People with diabetes - should be cautious using fish oil supplements as they can raise blood glucose levels and lower insulin production - talk to a medical professional

Large amounts of fish oil supplements (over 5gm/day) can cause blood= to become =dangerously thin= and make bleeding happen more often.



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  • Harper CR, Jacobson TA. The fats of life: the role of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of coronary heart disease. Arch Intern Med. 2001;161(18):2185-2192
  • Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and in growth and development. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991;54(3):438-463
  • Tsujikawa T, Satoh J, Uda K, Ihara T, Okamoto T, Araki Y, et al. Clinical importance of n-3 fatty acid-rich diet and nutritional education for the maintenance of remission in Crohn's disease. J Gastroenterol. 2000;35(2):99-104

Last reviewed 21 April 2019