Alternative names: Essential Fatty Acids, EFAs
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are important for optimal health and deemed 'essential' because, unlike other fats, the human body cannot make them from other fats or raw materials. Essential fatty acids must be obtained from food or supplements.
The two fatty acids that are essential to good health in humans are the omega-3 EFA called alpha-linolenic acid (α-linolenic acid or LNA) and the omega-6 EFA called linoleic acid (LA). LNA and LA are just two of many fatty acids, but these are the only ones that the body cannot produce on its own. For example, DHA and EPA are also very important but they can be synthesized within the body.
Many standard texts on nutrition refer to three EFAs: linoleic acid, linolenic acid, and arachidonic acid – often referred to collectively as "Vitamin F" in older literature. This outdated information is only partially correct: arachidonic acid is only essential if there is insufficient linoleic acid or the body cannot convert linoleic acid to arachidonic acid. (Fish require only one fatty acid and plants require neither – they make their own.)
Essential Fatty Acid deficiency is rare among healthy individuals who consume a varied diet, usually occurring in infants on poor diets deficient in EFAs, those with malabsorption disorders, or those on highly fat-restrictive diets.
An EFA deficiency can develop when dietary intakes are too low. This can occur in babies that are drinking formulas low in linoleic acid. It can also be caused by a carnitine deficiency, pancreatic insufficiency, cystic fibrosis, or an extremely restricted diet.
A person with a condition that results in fat malabsorption, such as having had a bowel resection, is at higher risk of an EFA deficiency. Those with sudden increased metabolic needs (from trauma, surgery, or burns) are also at higher risk, as are those who are fed intravenously for long periods with limited or no intravenous fat emulsion.
EFA deficiency results in a gradual deterioration of cells and tissues and affects many aspects of our health.
EFA deficiency affects the eyes and vision in several ways:
EFAs help maintain healthy skin and cell membranes, so a deficiency can cause skin and hair problems:
EFA deficiency causes various issues specific to women:
Laboratory tests such as the Red Blood Cell Fatty Acid Analysis or the Fatty Acid Profile will help confirm EFA deficiency. A home test called 'Opti-O-3' is a small finger prick test that provides a full fatty acid profile.
Increasing EFA intake to adequate levels reverses the signs brought about by deficiency. In cases of serious deficiency, treatment with intravenous Intralipid® (a 10% intravenous fat emulsion made from soybean oil and other ingredients) can rapidly reverse an abnormal plasma fatty acid pattern.
An untreated deficiency will lead to deficiency symptoms and overall inefficient functioning of the body.
Our bodies instinctively seek out the nutrients our bodies are lacking.
Fatty acid profiles may be abnormal in women with fibrocystic breast disease. Treatment with essential fatty acids may help to normalize this. [Plasma fatty acid profiles in benign breast disorders. Br J Surg, 1992 May, 79:5, pp.407-9]
Essential fatty acid deficiency can results in dry, brittle hair and hair thinning or loss.
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