Which Omega fatty acids are essential?
Physiologically speaking, there are two fatty acids that are truly “essential”. These are Linoleic Acid (LA) Omega-6 fatty acid and Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) Omega-3 fatty acid. The body cannot manufacture these fats itself, yet they are essential for health. A healthy body uses LA and ALA to produce other fatty acids, but in an inefficient way, due to which the amounts of the other fatty acids are low and supplementation is needed. There are also derivative fatty acids which each play specific roles in the maintenance of good health, and we generally include them when we talk about essential fatty acids: Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). There is one other derivative fatty acid that isn’t always a good in large quantities, but it, too, is necessary in small amounts: Arachidonic Acid (AA).
Omega-6 Fatty Acids:
Linoleic Acid (LA)
LA is found in eggs, nuts, poultry, avocado, soy and vegetable oils. LA helps improve skin conditions. It may also be partially converted to GLA in the body (see more on GLA below). It is plentiful in the typical North American diet and supplementation is generally not necessary.
Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA)
The richest natural source of GLA is borage oil. GLA is also found in black currant and evening primrose oils. Many people are deficient in GLA so supplementation is necessary. One of the most important properties of GLA is its anti-inflammatory effect. GLA has been clinically indicated to have therapeutic benefits in health conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetic neuropathy, and skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. The body needs GLA and most North Americans are likely not getting enough of it.
Arachidonic Acid (AA)
AA is found in meats, eggs and some shellfish. It is necessary for the infant brain development and small amounts are required for overall fetal development. This is why it is often added to infant formula. When growing up it is also necessary, for the proper functioning of the brain and nervous system. However, it is not generally deemed a “good” fat, because, in excess, AA may be linked to chronic inflammatory conditions in adults. Diets in industrialized countries are high in AA, so supplementation is not required.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
ALA is found primarily in flax seed oil and is found in echium and blackcurrant oil. The positive effects of supplementation with ALA have been documented in a number of areas including: regulating blood cholesterol, blood pressure and immune system function. The body also converts a portion of ALA into two other fatty acids, EPA and DHA.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) & Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
These two difficult-to-pronounce fatty acids are responsible for the health benefits from fish oils. The body produces eicosanoids from EPA that have many beneficial effects in the body. DHA is one the main building blocks of the brain. Research demonstrates that supplementation with fish oils containing EPA and DHA have therapeutic benefits in areas including regulating blood triglycerides and blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), infant brain and eye development, mental health and inflammation.