Essential Fatty Acids

Essential Fatty Acids: Overview

"Killer" fats are what we hear so much about recently, with large numbers of people turning to low fat diets.  Little do they know, they are also decreasing their intake of the healing fats that are required for life.  Improper low fat diets, useful for atherosclerosis, can kill you over the long term.  Children are especially vulnerable to damage from low fat diets.  To balance the one-sided view on fats, we must talk about essential fatty acids (EFAs): an adequate supply of healing fats is even more important to health than the avoidance of killer fats.

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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.

Like vitamins, EFAs are essential to health.  Older literature, in fact, refers to them as vitamin F. Vitamins and EFAs are essential for the following reasons:

  • We must have them to live and to be healthy
  • Our bodies cannot make Omega-6 and Omega-3 from other substances
  • We must obtain an adequate supply from external sources – from food or from supplements
  • Deficiency results in gradual deterioration of cells and tissues, and ultimately, in death
  • Increasing the intake to adequate levels reverses the signs brought about by deficiency.

This definition of essentiality reflects the fact that essential nutrients perform key functions in our cells and tissues that the body cannot live without.  While EFAs are like vitamins in their essentiality, they differ in other respects.  For example, vitamins are required in very small amounts (a few mg per day) whereas EFAs are macronutrients, necessary in grams per day.


In nature's package, EFA-rich oils keep for years without spoiling.  Once processed and out of that package, light, air, and heat attack EFAs.  Like perishable produce, EFA-rich oils should be made with care and obtained fresh.  They cannot be dried, powdered and stored for several years.  Frying and deep-frying destroy EFAs by the combined effects of light, oxygen and heat, producing toxic substances that can lead to atherosclerosis and cancer.

EFA-rich oils should be made and packaged carefully in the absence of light, oxygen and heat.  Frozen solid, oils remain unspoiled for a long time because freezing does not damage them.  Manufacturers should ship them directly to retailers or consumers without stops along the way.

Function; Why it is Recommended

The benefits of LA (Omega-6) and LNA (Omega-3) to health come from their chemical properties.  EFAs react with oxygen: EFA-rich oils such as flax, hemp and safflower were traditionally used in paints because they oxidize, dry and harden quickly when exposed to air.  When fresh, these oils are valuable human foods.  EFAs absorb sunlight, increasing their ability to react with oxygen by about 1,000-fold and making them very active chemically.

EFA molecules carry slight negative charges that cause them to repel one another.  They spread out in all directions.  This property enables EFAs to carry oil-soluble toxins from deep within the body to the skin surface for eliminations.  EFAs form associations with the sulfhydryl group (cysteine) in proteins, important in reactions that make possible the one-way movement of electrons and energy on which life depends.  EFAs store electric charges that produce bioelectric currents important for muscle, cell membrane and nerve functions, including the transmission of messages.

EFAs play their essential roles by:

  • Helping to form the membrane barrier that surrounds our cells and intracellular factories (organelles)
  • Determining fluidity and chemical reactivity of membranes
  • Increasing oxidation rate, metabolic rate, and energy levels
  • Serving as starting material for hormone-like regulating molecules (prostaglandins) that govern cell activities on a moment-to-moment basis

As structural components of membranes, EFAs help form a barrier that keeps foreign molecules, viruses, yeasts, fungi and bacteria outside of cells, and keeps the cells' proteins, enzymes, genetic material and organelles (small organs) inside.  They also help regulate the traffic of substances in and out of our cells via protein channels, pumps and other mechanisms.

They perform similar functions in membranes that surround organelles within our cells.  EFAs fulfill many functions:

  • Regulate oxygen use, electron transport, and energy production – our cells' most important moment-to-moment processes
  • Help form red blood pigment (hemoglobin) from simpler substances
  • Keep juice-producing (exocrine) and hormone-producing (endocrine) glands active
  • Help make joint lubricants
  • Are precursors of prostaglandins (PGs), three families of short-lived, hormone-like substances that regulate blood pressure, platelet stickiness and kidney function.  A delicate balance between PGs with opposing functions, in part determined by omega-6 and omega-3 intake, determines the health of our cardiovascular system.
  • Help transport cholesterol
  • Help generate the electrical currents that make our heart beat in an orderly sequence
  • Are precursors of derivatives such as DHA, which are needed by the most active tissues – brain, retina, adrenal glands and testes
  • Help our immune system fight infections by enhancing peroxide production
  • Help prevent the development of allergies.

EFAs play a role in every life process in our body and life without them is impossible.  When consuming an EFA-poor diet, expect a diversity of health problems.


Of approximately fifty known essential nutrients, LA (Omega-6) has the highest daily requirement.  The amount needed varies with season, latitude, levels of activity and stress, nutritional state, and individual differences.  Just 1-2% of calories (1 teaspoon per day) prevent signs of deficiency in most healthy adults.  LA optimums are around 3-6% of calories (1 tablespoon per day), requiring about 30 IU of vitamin E to help prevent rancidity.  Obese people and those eating hard fats, sugar and trans-fatty acids require more.

Nutrients essential for LA functions include magnesium, selenium, zinc, and vitamins A, carotene, B3, B6, C and E.

An adult carries about 10 kilograms of body fat, of which approximately 1 kilogram is LA.  Vegetarians' bodies carry up to 25% of their body fat as LA.  People with degenerative disease average only about 8% of their body fat as LA.

LNA (Omega-3, Alpha-linolenic acid) optimums range between 1-2 tsp per day, averaging 2% of daily calories.  Body content in healthy people is around 2% of fat, or half a pound of LNA.  LNA requires the same antioxidants, minerals and vitamins necessary for LA functions.

Omega-6 To Omega-3 Ratio
Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratios in healthy populations range from 1:2.5 (Inuit diets) to 6:1 (other traditional diets).  Since 1850, Omega-3 consumption has decreased to one-sixth its traditional level, resulting in an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of 20:1 (contemporary polyunsaturated oil diets), which is associated with degenerative conditions.

Long-term exclusion of Omega-6 oils and excessive use of flax oil can result in a reverse imbalance of the one commonly seen, i.e. too much Omega-3. They should remain in balance.  If a person has cancer, inflammatory conditions, or needs to lose weight, Omega-3 should be favored.  Otherwise, an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of between 2:1 and 3:1 is recommended.

Flax, our richest source of Omega-3, quickly replenishes a long-standing Omega-3 deficiency.  1-2 tbsp per day of good quality flax oil for a few months should suffice.  Cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring) are a good source of the metabolites EPA and DHA.  There is now an algae-derived oil that has both DHA and EPA, suitable for vegans and vegetarians.  Fish obtain their DHA and EPA ultimately from the consumption of algae.

Hemp seed oil has a remarkable fatty acid profile, being high in the desirable omega-3s and also delivering some GLA, which is absent from the fats we normally eat.  Hemp oil contains 57% linoleic and 19% linolenic acids, in the 3:1 ratio that matches our nutritional needs.  Once difficult to find, many health food stores now routinely make hemp seed oil available as the demand for it has increased.

Mary Enig, PhD is a respected researcher in the field of fats and oils, especially the hydrogenated, partially-hydrogenated and trans fats.  The latest findings appear to implicate all seed oils in the promotion of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, allergies, adrenal failure and stroke.  The list of implicated oils includes canola, soy, corn, safflower, sunflower and all hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated fats and oils.  If this turns out to be true, then limiting the intake of the Omega-6 EFAs becomes increasingly important.

A tablespoon of flax seed has about 7.5gm of the short chain Omega-3 which would be converted by the body to about 750mg of the long chained EPA and DHA.  A tablespoon of hemp oil has about 2.5gm ALA (or 250mg of EPA and DHA).  A tablespoon of fish oil, on the other hand, has about 12,000mg of EPA and DHA.  Since the informal NIH recommendations are for 660mg of the long chained Omega-3s, the recommended daily intake would be the equivalent of about:

  • 1 tablespoon of flax oil OR
  • 3 tablespoons of flax seed OR
  • 3 tablespoons of hemp oil OR
  • 4 tablespoons of canola oil OR
  • ¼ teaspoon of fish oil

On This Page

Essential Fatty Acids:

Essential Fatty Acids can help with the following:


Indoor Allergies

Replenishing a deficiency of Omega-3 type fatty acids in the diet has resulted in fewer allergic and inflammatory reactions.


Multiple Sclerosis

The Swank diet includes a blend of 40-50gm per day of essential fatty acids as well as at least 1 teaspoon of cod liver oil per day.

Myasthenia Gravis

Essential fatty acids have been shown to suppress autoimmune attacks in general and to help protect myelin sheaths.  A blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may provide supportive benefit in the treatment of myasthenia gravis

Lupus, SLE (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus)

Flax seed oil and/or fish oil have been shown to reduce the severity of the disease in animal studies.  One tablespoon flax seed oil bid is recommended.


Coronary Disease / Heart Attack

Many studies have shown that higher omega-3 fatty acid intake, through fish consumption or through supplementation, can cut the rate of sudden cardiac death by nearly 50% in both apparently healthy patients and those who have suffered a previous heart attack.

To better understand this protective effect, Danish researchers examined the dietary patterns and individual fatty acid status of nearly 300 patients with ischemic heart disease, comparing them with specific parameters of cardiac function.  They found that the patients who ate more fish had higher levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats in their blood cell membranes and in their fat cells.  A higher level of two specific fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – especially within the cell membrane – was associated with higher heart rate variability in the patients.  An increased heart rate variability indicates healthier pulse regulation, and appears to significantly reduce the risk of arrhythmia and cardiac death.

Anti-inflammatory agents such as the omega-3 oils are especially useful when inflammation is present. [Circulation 2001;104(19): pp.2269-2272]


An essential fatty acid Omega-6/Omega-3 imbalance or deficiency can contribute to inflammation, which is part of the problem in vasculitis.


Omega 3 fatty acids may reduce the incidence of arrhythmias during a heart attack. [Japanese Circulation Journal Dec, 1994;58: pp.903-12]

Dental / Oral



Crohn's Disease

A study by Japanese researcher Kuroki found that, compared with control subjects, Crohn's patients had lower concentrations of Omega-3 essential fats and higher concentrations of the monounsaturated fatty acids Omega-7 and Omega-9. These results indicate EFA deficiency.  Among the fatty acids that correlated with the Crohn's disease activity index, EPA and total Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids showed the most significant negative correlations.  The less of these fatty acids present, the worse the disease. [Digestive Diseases and Sciences; 1997; 42(6): pp.1137-41, Fatty Acid Patterns in Patients with Chronic Intestinal Disease, Metabolism 1996; 45(1): pp.12-23]

Fish oil, the only current means of getting EPA without equal amounts of DHA, may delay relapses in Crohn's disease due to its anti-inflammatory effect.  Dr Belluzzi, MD tried a new way of delivering the fish oil to the intestine by putting it in a capsule that would not dissolve in the stomach for at least 30 minutes.  As a result, the overall dose of fish oil could be reduced by a third and the unpleasant taste of the oil was avoided.  78 Crohn's patients took part in a trial for one year; 39 were given the fish oil and the other 39 were given a placebo in an identical capsule.

At the end of the year the doctors checked which patients were still in remission and which had experienced a flare-up of symptoms.  59% of the patients who took the fish oil were still in remission, compared with only 26% of those who were given the placebo.

About 10% of the patients who were given the fish oil dropped out of the trial because of increased diarrhea, but Dr Belluzzi believes that the coated fish oil capsules could offer an effective way to prolong remission for Crohn's patients.  The patients involved in the trial had some evidence of mild inflammation before starting the trial and that the fish oil may have helped by treating this rather than by preventing inflammation from actually starting.  He estimates that about 30-40% of Crohn's patients are likely to have a mild level of inflammation similar to those people involved in the trial.

Environment / Toxicity


Pregnancy-Related Issues

Adequate and balanced essential fatty acid intake is important for the optimal neurologic development of the baby.

Painful Menstruation (Dysmenorrhea)

Long-term improvement may be gained by promoting the build up of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins with Omega-3 fatty acids or fish oil.  Six grams of fish oil per day (or about 1,000mg of eicosapentanoic acid, 700mg of docosahexaenoic acid) can be taken every day for 2 or 3 cycles and then reduced, or taken for a total of 14 days starting 10 days before your period.

Menorrhagia (Heavy Periods)

Omega 3 EFAs may reduce bleeding in adolescent girls and improve other menstrual symptoms generally in women.



Lyme Disease

May reduce inflammation and joint stiffness.

Helicobacter Pylori Infection

Essential fatty acids have the ability to inhibit the growth of Helicobacter pylori and suppress acid production.


Chronic Inflammation

A tendency towards chronic repeated inflammations may be resolved through prostaglandin balancing.  The levels of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory prostaglandins are primarily determined by the intake of essential fatty acids.  A dietary deficiency of Omega-3 type fatty acids has been associated with a tendency toward chronic inflammation, which regular consumption of these oils can reduce.

Omega-3 fatty acids such as flax oil or fish oil and the digestive aid bromelain make a useful anti-inflammatory combination.  Their use can be considered together in trying to resolve any chronic inflammatory condition.  While oils should be taken with food because they may cause irritation or indigestion by themselves, bromelain is best taken separately from food.  If a person can not tolerate these oils on an empty stomach, then these two products should be rotated; oils with a meal, bromelain between meals.  Typical doses are 1T flax oil per day or 3,000-5,000mg fish oil per day along with 125-500mg tid bromelain (3,000 mcu or 2,000 GDU/gm potency).


Enlarged Prostate

The administration of an essential fatty acid (EFA) complex containing linoleic, linolenic and arachidonic acids has resulted in significant improvement for many patients.  All 19 subjects in an uncontrolled study showed diminution of residual urine, with 12 of the 19 having no residual urine by the end of several weeks of treatment.  These effects appear to be due to the correction of an underlying EFA deficiency, since these patients' prostatic and seminal lipid levels and ratios are often abnormal.  Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is derived from evening primrose oil and borage oil, appears to be a powerful 5-alpha reductase inhibitor.


Migraine/Tension Headaches

Omega 3 fatty acids can reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines.  Two small double blind studies (using fish oil) demonstrated a high percentage of effectiveness.  Supplementation should continue for longer than 3 weeks, which is the time it takes to change cell membrane composition with the new fatty acids.


Rheumatoid Arthritis

Both Omega-6 and Omega-3 EFAs and their metabolites Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) and EPA have shown effectiveness against Rheumatoid Arthritis.  One study showed that use for 12 months produced meaningful improvement in 76% of subjects.  The oil from cold water fish falls into the Omega-3 category, and has shown positive results in reducing inflammation.  Some researchers believe that if you regularly eat small amounts of cold-water fish over many years, you may be able to avoid rheumatoid arthritis.


Organ Health

Chronic Renal Insufficiency

There have been a variety of trials of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in patients with a variety of renal disorders.  These trials suggest that such therapy may be of use in the treatment of IgA nephropathy and chronic renal failure.  Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acid manipulation results in an anti-inflammatory. [Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Renal Disease, Proceedings of the Society For Experimental Biology and Medicine, 1996;213: pp.13-23]

Fish oil supplementation is promising and does not produce the risks associated with corticosteroid and immunosuppressive drug use.


COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

A high intake of omega-3 fatty acids may protect cigarette smokers against chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may interfere with the inflammatory mediators triggered by cigarette smoking.  Even small increments of omega-3 fatty acids may have a cumulative beneficial effect. [Dietary N-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Smoking-Related Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, The New England Journal of Medicine, July 28, 1994;331(4): pp.228-33].


Dry skin

Dry skin is often related to a deficiency of essential fatty acids.


In published studies, a mixture EFAs from safflower, sunflower and flax oil provided benefit.  This is a condition where delta-6-desaturase is often impaired.  It may be wiser to start with oil that contains GLA and, if improvement occurs, switch to a cheaper oil.  GLA can be used in doses up to 1gm (of actual GLA) per day in more serious cases.  Add vitamin E at the same time any EFAs are used.


Restless Leg Syndrome

If not caused by circulatory blockage, simply get more calcium and oxygen to your leg muscles by taking extra essential fatty acids, a specific form of vitamin E called Vitamin E2 (from Standard Process Labs, for example), and Calcium Lactate.

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Essential Fatty Acids can help prevent the following:



High doses of Omega-3 oils reduce platelet aggregation and thus reduce the abnormal clotting tendency which is seen in 75% of strokes.

Tumors, Malignant

Breast Cancer

Lignans are particularly abundant in raw ground flax seed and are also found in whole grains and legumes.  Diets that are rich in these foods seem to be a factor in preventing the development of breast cancer in women.

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