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Essential Fatty Acids: Do You Need Them?

What are the essential fatty acids? What do essential fatty acids do? What happens if you do not get enough essential fatty acids?

By: Derek Charlebois

As you probably know, consuming dietary fat is an important part of a fitness orientated lifestyle, and more importantly, overall health. Fats can be broken down into two basic groups, saturated and unsaturated. More importantly, fats can be labeled as essential and nonessential. Essential fats must be consumed through ones diet because the body cannot synthesis them. In this article, we will answer:

What are the essential fatty acids?
What do essential fatty acids do?
What happens if you do not get enough essential fatty acids?
Sources of essential fatty acids?

So let's get started!

The Essential Fatty Acids

Alpha linolenic acid (LNA) (omega-3) which can be converted into:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) (omega-3)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (omega-3)

Linoleic acid (LA) (omega-6) which can be converted into:

  • Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) (omega-6)
  • Dihomogamma linolenic acid (DGLA) (omega-6)
  • Arachidonic acid (AA) (omega-6)

What Do They Do?

  • Energy Production
  • Diffusion of oxygen into the bloodstream
  • Hemoglobin production
  • Vital for the transportation and metabolism of triglycerides and cholesterol
  • Brain and nerve tissue development
  • Control cell membrane fluids
  • Lower high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Stabilize insulin and blood sugar levels
  • Treat arthritis
  • Anti-inflammatory effect
  • Helpful in inflammatory conditions
  • Relieve asthma.
  • Ease PMS symptoms
  • Decrease allergy response
  • Strengthen immune system
  • Reduce water retention, by assisting in sodium and water removal.
  • Aids in skin texture
  • Alleviate psoriasis
  • Calming effect and regulates mood [2]

No doubt, essential fatty acids are of extreme importance. There is more to them though.

Prostaglandins

LNA and LA are metabolized into eicosanoids. Eicosanoids can be further classified as Leukotrienes, Prostaglandins, Thromboxanes. For the purpose of this article, we will only examine prostaglandins.

Prostagladins are hormone like chemicals that regulate cellular activity. Prostagadins (PGs) are categorized into one of three groups, depending on which fatty acid they were metabolized from. The groups are, Series 1 PG's, Series 2 PG's, and Series 3 PG's.

Series 1 PG's

Series 1 PG's are formed from Gamma linolenic acid (GLA), (Which is converted from LA). Series 1 PG's are labeled as "Good" prostagladins. This is because they improve blood circulation, lower blood pressure, decrease inflammation, among other cellular functions [3]. Perhaps the most crucial effect is preventing arachidonic acid (AA) from being released by cells. The reason why this is so important is because AA is what makes Series 2 PG's.

Some of the main reasons why Series 1 PG's are so important to bodybuilders and those concerned with their health are:

  • Muscle cell protein synthesis is increased
  • Insulin Sensitivity is enhanced (Meaning less insulin is needed to deliver glucose)
  • Elevates Growth Hormone secretion [4]

Series 2 PG's

Series 2 PG's are labeled as "Bad" prostagladins. As said eariler, Series 2 PG's are made from arachidonic acid. They facilitate sodium retention, inflammation, and the formation of blood clots [3]. Series 2 PG's also increase cortisol release, a very catabolic hormone. Anyone interesting in building muscle does not want this to happen.

Series 3 PG's

Series 3 PG's are made from EPA (Which is converted from LNA). Series 3 PG's are "Good" PG's because they also prevent the formation of Series 2 PG's.

Series 2 PG's are not totally bad though. They are needed to ensure a proper testosterone level. I wouldn't stress too much on this. Your body is constantly working to keep everything balanced. Trying to get overly technical and predict the exact amount of fat needed to get the best of both worlds is impossible. As long as you a getting the needed essential fatty acids, you shouldn't be too concerned with this.

EFA Deficiency Syndromes

LA Deficiency Syndromes:

  • Eczema-like skin eruptions
  • Loss of hair
  • Liver degeneration
  • Behavioral disturbances
  • Kidney degeneration
  • Excessive sweating accompanied by thirst
  • Drying up of glands
  • Susceptibility to infections
  • Failure of wound healing
  • Sterility in males
  • Miscarriage in females
  • Arthritis-like conditions
  • Heart and circulatory problems
  • Growth retardation[1]

LNA Deficiency Syndromes:

  • Growth retardation
  • Weakness Impairment of vision and learning ability
  • Motor incoordination
  • Tingling sensations in arms and legs
  • Behavioral changes[1]

How Much Should You Be Getting?

We see the importance of essential fatty acids. Now how much do we need. The general recommendation is a ratio of LA to LNA of 4:1 or 3:1. The reason for this ratio is the fact that LNA is metabolized four times quicker than LA. So for every one gram of LNA, you should consume three to four grams of LA. Also, most diets get ample amounts of LA, but very low amounts of LNA. There is not an established RDA for essential fatty acids.

Choosing The Right "Supplement" For You

As you begin to look at essential fatty acids supplements, oils, or foods you will notice that just about all of them have more LNA than LA. You remember that you should be getting a ratio of LA to LNA of 3-4:1, but do not be alarmed. As mentioned, you get a good amount of LA in your diet already. But because you need LNA in your diet, most companies' supplements contain more LNA than LA.

Capsules Vs. Oil

One of the first things people look at when buying anything is the price. It is much more economical to buy an oil, such as flax seed, than to buy capsules. You get more EFAs this way. But, one thing you will notice is the oil's taste. I for one actually like the way flax seed oil taste. It makes other people want to puke though. If you feel you do not want to taste your EFAs, I recommend buying capsules.

Capsules are also more convenient. Just throw one in your mouth and wash it down with water. You can also easily take capsules with you one the go. You have to figure out how much money you have to spend, the need for convenience, and you personal preference for taste.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you can get all your EFA needs through food. Here is a short list of some foods that contain EFAs.

Where They Are Naturally Found

Omega 3:

  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Trout
  • Walnuts
  • Flax Seeds
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Flax Seed Oil
  • Hemp Seed Oil
  • Soy Bean Oil

Omega 6:

  • Corn Oil
  • Soy Bean Oil
  • Sunflower Oil
  • Safflower Oil
  • Walnuts
  • Pumpkin Seeds

You can sprinkle flax seeds in your cereal or salads, eat fish, or grab a handful of walnuts to get your EFAs.

So what it comes down to is choosing what is best for you. The important thing is that you get those essential fatty acids and live a healthy life.

References

1. Al Durtschi. Walton Foods. 8 May 1996. http://waltonfeed.com/omega/ess_fat.html
2. Ecology Health Center. Home Page. http://www.crohns.net/Miva/education/aboutEFAs.htm
3. Luoma, TC. Some Fats Help Build Muscle. Some Don't: How to Tell the "Good" from the "Bad". Muscle Media Dec. 1997.
4. The WeighTrainer. Home Page. 2001. http://weightrainer.virtualave.net/nutrition/fats.html

Later,

Essential Fatty Acids: Do You Need Them?
dspikehead@hotmail.com

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