Essential Fatty Acids: A Case of Balance

Wet-rendered lard from pork fatback

Wet-rendered lard from pork fatback

By Cat, Jan 2007; updated Dec 2007 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)

Note: I published an earlier version Nov ’13 as Essential Fatty Acids: A Case of Balance, but I updated its status to ‘draft’ until I can compare them.

Essential fats, like other fats, are all lipids (substances insoluble in water).  Refer to my article on lipids (on my old site) for more information, and drawings.

Just as certain vitamins, minerals and amino acids are considered “essential” for human health, so are certain fats considered essential.  These are fats needed for cellular function, that cannot be manufactured in the body from other substances.  (Non-essential fats, while required for cellular function, can be manufactured from other substances.  For example, most saturated fats are made from sugars; cholesterol and mono-unsaturated fats are made from saturated fats).  The following fats are considered essential:

The 4 Essential Fats

Essential fats, like other fats, are all lipids (substances insoluble in water).

  • Lauric Acid:  This saturated fat is made in mammary glands (for mother’s milk), but is not made in the liver as are other saturated fats, and so is considered ‘conditionally essential.’  Dietary sources include coconut oil and butterfat (1).
  • Linoleic Acid (LA, an Omega-6):  This polyunsaturated fat is present in almost all vegetables; most Americans get enough of this essential fat (1).
  • Linolenic Acid (an Omega-3):  This anti-inflammatory polyunsaturated fat is problematic in the typical modern American diet, as it is present only in foods not commonly included at the dinner table or on the run.  You can find this fat in nuts and seeds (such as flax seeds).  Deep-water fish (salmon, halibut, tuna) also provide Omega-3, not as linolenic acid, but as the linolenic derivatives EPA and DHA.
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) is a special form of Linoleic Acid that has a trans double bond (one of the few naturally occurring and healthful trans fats). It comes in many isomeric forms, some of which are Omega-6.  The human body cannot make this fat; it is known to be found only in the butterfat, organ meats, and meat of cows and other ruminants that are grass fed (pastured).  But because no essential purpose has yet been discovered for CLA, most sources do not consider it “essential” (1, 5).

What Makes These Fats ‘Essential?’

Essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and certain amino acids are considered essential if they are required for specific body or cellular function, and cannot be made by the body from other nutrients.  This is also true of certain fats.

Omega-3 and Omega-6

These polyunsaturated fats are found primarily in plant, marine and grass-fed animal sources.  While some can be made from other fats, others must be obtained from the diet, and are required for (1,5):

  • Strengthening the immune system;
  • Fighting certain cancers;
  • Proper brain and nerve function;
  • Support of inflammation process for healing, and protection from disease (most Omega-6 fats);
  • Promote blood clotting (Omega-6 fats); anti-clotting (Omega-3 fats);
  • Helping cells resist the herpes family of viruses, and other viruses (Omega-3 fats);
  • Production of hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins and have Pro- and anti-inflammatory function;
  • Pro-inflammatory function, such as for healing (most Omega-6 fats);
  • Anti-inflammatory function, such as for protecting blood vessels (most Omega-3 fats);
  • Improving heart and circulatory health:  Omega-3 fats help keep cholesterol levels low, stabilize irregular heart beat, and reduce blood pressure;
  • Improving auto-immune disease symptoms (Omega-3 fats);
  • Improving depression symptoms (Omega-3 fats);
  • Flexibility of cell membranes;
  • Restoration of proper cell membrane and mitochondrial function (energy production) for those who have consumed a diet high in trans fats (partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated)

Lauric acid  

While lauric acid is made in the mammary glands as a component of mother’s milk, it is not otherwise made by the human body, and must be obtained through the diet (primarily coconut and coconut oil).  It is required for:

  • support immune system by its anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial properties
  • support signaling processes across cell membranes
  • prevent dental plaque and cavities (9)

(see also my article on Tropical Oils, which contain lauric acid).

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA):

CLA is not made by the human body.  It used to be abundant in our diet, when we ate meat and dairy products from grass-fed (pastured) ruminants.  However, modern commercial dairy and ranching methods have taken these animals from pasture to feedlot, where they are fed a diet of grains, severely limiting the animals’ production of CLA.  It comes in several molecular forms, and is actually a family of fats, but the principal form is cis-9,trans-11 CLA, also known as rumenic acid. (5)

CLA is required for (6):

  • weight management: promotion of lean muscle development while reducing body fat;
  • improving immune response;
  • lowering cholesterol;
  • normalizing impaired glucose tolerance in tyype-2 diabetics, and lowering insulin resistance;
  • regulating metabolic rate;
  • preventing human platelet aggregation.

Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fats

The Omega number refers to the position of the last double bond in the fatty acid chain.

These are the polyunsaturated fats (having more than one double-bond in the hydrocarbon chain). [Omega-9 fats are monounsaturated.]  Polyunsaturates, as long as they are not partially hydrogenated, are required by the body for certain essential functions.  With few exceptions, these fats in their natural form have all cis-oriented double bonds that cause kinks in the carbon chain (these kinks are essential to their function).

Most of these fats can be made by the body from other fats, but a few are considered essential.  Refer to Omega-3 Fats and Omega-6 Fats for more (links go to old site).

Proper Balance

As a generalization, omega-3 fats tend to reduce inflammation (immune response to injury or infection) while most omega-6 fats tend to promote inflammation.  When in proper balance, they promote and enhance health; when in inappropriate balance they contribute to development of disease.

Just what is a proper balance?  The jury is still out on this. The dietary balance of traditional peoples is 1:1 (expressed as omega-6:omega-3). One current recommendation is as high as 5:1.  But one thing is clear:  The balance in the typical American diet, as high as 30:1, is dangerously heavy on the omega-6 side, which has far-reaching health implications.

How has our diet gotten so far to one side?

  • Most commercial oils (salad and cooking oils) are very high in omega-6, with very little, if any, omega-3.  For example:  corn, sunflower, soybean and cottonseed oils are over 50% omega-6; safflower oil is almost 80% omega-6.
  • The modern agricultural practice of feeding chickens, cattle and pigs a diet of grains and soybeans, which are high in omega-6; whereas their natural diet is grasses, which are high in omega-3.
  • Hens allowed to roam free-range (feeding on insects and green plants) lay eggs with a 1:1 omega-6:omega-3 ratio, while commercial eggs from hens fed mostly grain can have a ratio as high as 19:1.

Because of this, many health practitioners recommend supplementing our diet with omega-3 fats, such as those in fish oils and cod liver oils, as well as flax oil.  They also recommend increasing consumption of wild salmon and other cold water fish, which are high in omega-3 content.

Problems Associated with Omega-3 Deficiency

Nearly every metabolic function in our bodies is dependent on this delicate balance.  Yet in our society today, the balance is tipped way too far on the omega-6 side, as our diet is sadly lacking in the omega-3 fats.

Diets high on the omega-6 side stimulate inflammatory pathways which, if unchecked (such as when serum insulin levels are high) can lead to chronic inflammation, a weakening of the immune system,  and even degenerative and auto-immune diseases. (1) The chart below (from “The Benefits of Omega 3 Fatty Acids found in Seal Oil, as Opposed to Fish and Flaxseed Oils,” chapter 3 (10)) provides an impressive list of afflictions associated with an Omega-3 deficiency. (1)

Symptoms of Omega-3 Deficiency

Many of the afflictions in the above chart are related, and believed to have a common cause:  hyperinsulinemia (or insulin resistance), and are now classified as part of the metabolic syndrome, or ‘Syndrome-X.’

A disorder not included in the above chart is bipolar disorder (manic depressive disorder).  Several recent studies show that increasing consumption of omega-3 fats can alleviate the problems associated with this disorder.  For more on this subject, check out ‘McMans Depression and Bipolar Web’ (11).

Problems Associated with Too Much Omega-3

While not likely given the abundance of omega-6 fats in our diet, it is possible to tip the balance too far, and over-consume Omega-3 fats.  This can lead to:

  • Reduced inflammation response – and thus also immune response – because Omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory.
  • Slight increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke or excessive bleeding.
  • Similar symptoms as for not enough Omega-3.

Dr Mercola advises:

Large doses should be taken only under a doctor’s supervision.  The American Heart Association recommends 1000 mg/day and advises never to exceed 3000 mg/day.

The Problem of Trans Fats

NOTE:  A naturally occurring trans fat, known as CLA, is not known to cause the same problems as hydrogenated trans fats.

However, most trans fats are manufactured in an industrial setting by chemically altering  naturally occurring omega-6 and omega-3 fats in vegetable oils, to make them solid at room temperature (think margarine and crisco). This chemical process is known as partial hydrogenation, and is now known to have very bad effects on human health.

The remainder of this section has been moved to separate article: “Trans Fats: A Modern Problem”.

Sources

  1. The Skinny on Fats by Sally Fallon and Mary G, Enig, PhD
  2. umm.edu/altmed/ConsSupplements/Omega3FattyAcidscs.html
  3. newstarget.com/011666.html
  4. advance-health.com/efa.html
  5. scientificpsychic.com/fitness/fattyacids.html
  6. advance-health.com/cla.html
  7. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omega-6_fatty_acid
  8. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_omega-3_fatty_acids
  9. articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/06/15/fat-all-the-same-for-stopping-hunger-pangs.aspx
  10. The Benefits of Omega 3 Fatty Acids found in Seal Oil, as Opposed to Fish and Flaxseed Oils,’ chapter 3 (omega3sealoil.com/Chapter3_2.html)
  11. ‘McMans Depression and Bipolar Web’ (mcmanweb.com/article-15.htm)

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