What Are "Essential Fatty Acids" and Why Are They So Essential?


Understanding nutritional advice can be challenging. We hear all the time that we should reduce the amount of fat in our diet, and then we hear that this is not quite true, and that there are "good fats" and "bad fats", and it's only the latter that we should cut down on. And on top of this comes advice about a type of fat that's not only good, it's referred to as "essential"? What's this all about? The answer is that our bodies are remarkable "chemistry sets", and can synthesize many of the nutrients we need from other sources, putting the component parts together in our organs to produce the final nutrients that our bodies actually need to develop, grow, and remain healthy.

Vitamin D, produced by our skin after exposure to sunlight, and Vitamin B12, which can be synthesized in the intestines, are both great examples of this kind of process. But when a nutrient has been deemed necessary for healthy life and cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities from other sources, it is deemed "essential." This means that we have to ingest this nutrient in the foods we eat or in the form of nutritional supplements. This is the case with a class of nutrients known as essential fatty acids, or EFAs. At least two are known to be essential for human life - alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid).

These nutrients were first identified in 1923, and initially classified as a vitamin ("Vitamin F"), but later research revealed that they were better classified as fats than vitamins. In the human body, these EFAs serve many functions and are used as "building blocks" that are combined with other elements to produce other more complex nutrients that have specific purposes. For example, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are modified to create eicosanoids (which control cellular functions and inflammation), endocannabinoids (which control our moods and emotional behaviors), and lipoxins (again, used to control inflammation). Without sufficient intake of these two EFAs, the body simply cannot produce enough of these "building blocks" to stay healthy; thus nutritionists refer to them as "essential". A lack of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to memory problems, blood clots, irregular heartbeat, vision problems, and an impaired immune system. A lack of omega-6 fatty acids (or the depletion of them as the result of eating too much sugar and "bad" trans fats) can increase your risk of developing cancer, skin diseases, and arthritis.

While scientists and nutritionists disagree on the proper ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids (most people get far too much omega-6 in relation to omega-3), all agree that they are, in fact, essential, and that our diets should be rich in them to remain healthy. The most well-known source of EFAs is oily fishes such as salmon, herring, and mackerel (or fish oil taken as a supplement). EFAs are also found in abundance in whole grains and in foods such as hemp, flax, almonds, walnuts, eggs, olive oil, and dark-green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach.

Your body actually requires fairly small quantities of these EFAs to remain healthy, so if you eat a healthy, balanced diet containing many of these sources, the "essential" nutrients you need should be covered. If your diet doesn't contain enough essential fatty acids, or if you are pregnant or lactating, you can also consider taking them in the form of dietary supplements. Talk to your doctor, chiropractor, or nutritionist about which types of supplements they recommend, and follow their advice.

If you are interested in living a healthier life, give us a call at (303) 776-6767 and find out how chiropractic care can help!