EFA (Essential Fatty
Acid) Requirement

EFA (Essential Fatty Acid) Requirement: Overview

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.

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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  This outdated information is only partially correct: arachidonic acid is only essential if there is insufficient linoleic acid or the body cannot convert linoleic acid to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.)

Incidence; Causes and Development; Contributing Risk Factors

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.

Signs and Symptoms

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:

    • Dry eyes
    • Poor night vision
    • Increased sensitivity to bright lights
    • Vision disturbances
  • Excessive ear wax
  • EFAs help maintain healthy skin and cell membranes, so a deficiency can cause skin and hair problems:

    • Dry skin, oily skin, or a combination
    • Flaky or scaly skin
    • Dandruff or cradle cap
    • Patchy dull, lackluster, or different-colored skin
    • Thick and/or cracking skin/calluses
    • Peeling skin
    • Small bumps on the backs of the upper arms ("Chicken skin")
    • Irregular 'quilted' skin ("Alligator skin")
    • Soft, splitting, peeling or brittle nails
    • Dull, not shiny nails
    • Slow-growing nails
    • Dry, lackluster hair
    • Brittle hair
    • Unmanageable hair
  • Allergies

  • Stiff or painful joints
  • Fatty foods craving
  • EFA deficiency causes various issues specific to women:

Diagnosis and Tests

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.

Treatment and Prevention

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.

Prognosis

An untreated deficiency will lead to deficiency symptoms and overall inefficient functioning of the body.

Signs, symptoms & indicators of EFA (Essential Fatty Acid) Requirement:

Supplements, Medications, Drugs

Symptoms - Head - Ears

Symptoms - Metabolic

Symptoms - Muscular

Symptoms - Skin - Conditions

Symptoms - Skin - General

Conditions that suggest EFA (Essential Fatty Acid) Requirement:

Autoimmune

Diet

Fat/Oil Craving

Our bodies instinctively seek out the nutrients our bodies are lacking.

Female-Specific

Fibrocystic Breast Disease

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]

Infections

Inflammation

Chronic Inflammation

In order to maintain proper balance of the antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory prostaglandins (PGE1 and PGE3) with the pro-spasmodic and pro-inflammatory prostaglandins (PGE2), it is critical to have the proper balance of essential fatty acids.  Without adequate amounts of both Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils in the diet, prostaglandin production will be reduced and problems may result.

Lab Values

Nutrients

Skin-Hair-Nails

Dandruff

A diet low in essential fatty acids can result in skin problems, such as dandruff.

Male Hair Loss

Essential fatty acid deficiency can results in dry, brittle hair and hair thinning or loss.

Female Hair Loss

Essential fatty acid deficiency can results in dry, brittle hair and hair thinning or loss.

Symptoms - Female

Risk factors for EFA (Essential Fatty Acid) Requirement:

Symptoms - Female

Symptoms - Food - Intake

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EFA (Essential Fatty Acid) Requirement suggests the following may be present:

Nutrients

EFA (Essential Fatty Acid) Requirement can lead to:

Circulation

Poor/Slow Wound Healing

Failure to provide either omega-6 or omega-3 fatty acids in the diet results in poor wound healing.

Recommendations for EFA (Essential Fatty Acid) Requirement:

Digestive Aids

Supplements

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