What are EFAs (Essential Fatty Acids)? Should I be taking them?

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) serve important metabolic roles in providing the necessary building blocks for the body’s normal growth, repair and normal function. Essential fatty acids are essential to life, yet they cannot be manufactured by the body and need to be obtained through foods or supplementation.

Essential fatty acid supplementation has been found in studies to help ease arthritis and psoriasis, lower cholesterol, and even aid weight loss. Sources of essential fatty acids include fish, nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables as well as supplementation of borage, flax seed, evening primrose, and hemp seed oil. It’s important to know that saturated fat’s bad rap as an artery-clogging precursor to heart disease and stroke does not apply to essential fatty acids (EFAs).

This collection of “good” polyunsaturated fats are actually vital to body function. “Without EFAs, our bodies run out of the building blocks our cells require to maintain peak function,” says Michael Schmidt, a research scientist at the Functional Medicine Research Center in Gig Harbor, Wash., and author of Smart Fats: How Dietary Fats and Oils Affect Mental, Physical and Emotional Intelligence (Frog Ltd., 1997).

EFAs include both omega-6 (linoleic) and omega-3 (alpha-linolenic) fatty acids. Together they’re used to create prostaglandins, the hormone-like chemical messengers responsible for regulating blood pressure, oxygen transport and pain and inflammation. But EFAs primary function is to maintain the liquid barrier surrounding each cell, known as the cell membrane, and to transport waste and nutrients (amino acids, hormones, minerals, vitamins and water) in and out of cells.

If you want the benefits of eating fish but don’t like the taste, you can try other sources of omega-3 fatty acids. You won’t find anything more potent than flaxseed, available at health food stores. You can sprinkle flaxseed over cereal, baked potatoes, salads, or popcorn. If you don’t like the idea of using flaxseed, try cooking with canola or soybean oil, both of which contain the building blocks of omega-3s. Researchers say, though, that nothing compares to the real thing. For example, only two tuna sandwiches a week give you all the omega-3 you need. To help mask the fishy taste, sprinkle with lemon juice or toss in some raisins, nuts, or apples.

Given their role in cell activity, EFAs may have an influence on brain function as well as the cardiovascular, inflammatory and immune systems. A host of additional ailments-skin problems, depression, learning disabilities and even diabetes are being associated with low levels of EFAs. There has been at least one study showing an association between EFAs and fat loss. Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) was given to a group of overweight men. 3.4 grams of CLA per day appeared optimal for fat loss. Those at the highest dose (6.8 gm/day) also gained more than 2 pounds of muscle in the 12 weeks of the study (J of Nutrition. 2000. 130(12)2943). The body naturally makes dozens of fatty acids, but it can’t manufacture the EFAs. These must come from food sources.

Unfortunately, about 80 percent of Americans aren’t meeting their EFA requirements, according to Murray and Beutler. The reason? The standard Western diet, which is loaded with processed foods and delivers many more omega-6s than omega-3s. A balance between the two (generally, a 1:1 ratio) is absolutely critical for efficient prostaglandin production.

To get a proper mix of omega-6s and omega-3s, start by trading processed foods for whole foods. Good vegetarian sources that deliver the right amounts of both fatty acids include legumes, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens and flaxseed oil, considered a mother lode of EFAs. Simply add one to three teaspoons of flax seed oil a day to your meals. For instance, Susan M. Lark, M.D., author of Women’s Health Companion: Self-Help Nutrition Guide and Cookbook (Celestial Arts, 1995), uses flaxseed oil in place of butter on mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables and bread.

The essential fatty acid content of linoleic acid (LA) and linolenic acid (LNA) can be increased on a ketogenic diet by using protein, vegetables, and fruit. Olive oil is not a particularily good source (0% LNA and 7-8% LA) while canola is a fair source of LA (30%) and for LNA (7%). Safflower, sunflower, corn, grapeseed are the highest sources of LA (60-75%). Flax is the best source of LNA at 58%.

There is some evidence that EFAs can help minimize at least one type of hair loss, alopeica areata. A study conducted at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary in Scotland treated patients who have alopeica for seven months with essential oils topically, and 44% showed significant improvement; those using only carrier oils of jojoba and grapeseed had a 15% improvement.

Another study suggests one fatty acid, Omega 3, may be helpful in treating bipolar disorder. A four-month, double-blind controlled study compared omega 3 fatty acids derived from flax, perilla, and fish to an olive oil placebo in 30 patients. The group given omega 3 fatty acids had significant remission in bipolar disorder in nearly every outcome compared to the placebo. Omega-3 fatty acids appear to improve bipolar depression.