Do You Know Nutrition: Essential fatty acids explained

By Phylis Canion
July 16, 2013 at 2:16 a.m.

Can you please explain what essential fatty acids are? Is that the same thing as Omega 3, 6 and 9s?

Essential fatty acids are fats that are necessary in the body. They are so vital to life that humans cannot live without them. Essential fatty acids are part of the cell membranes and are needed for the cells to carry out their normal functions.

Two types of fatty acids are considered essential: alpha linolenic acid of the Omega-3 family and linoleic acid from the Omega-6 family. Not much is known about Omega-9, the third fatty acid, thought it is just as important but has less research support as the other two.

Other fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, gamma linoleic acid and arachidonic acid.

The roles that fatty acids play in the human body are essential, such as brain and retina development, balanced mood, hormone synthesis, regulation of pain and inflammation, immune function, proper circulation, kidney function, nerve transmission, energy production and skin, nail and hair health.

Physical signs of essential fatty acid deficiency or imbalance include: dry, cracked skin, dandruff, irritability, soft nails, dry hair, excessive thirst, dry eyes, poor wound healing, frequent urination and chicken skin on the back of the arms.

Conditions associated with fatty acid deficiency include, arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, dry skin, diabetes, eczema, fatigue, hair loss, hypertension, lupus, memory problems and schizophrenia, according to James F. Balch, M.D.

Unfortunately, the body cannot manufacture essential fatty acids, therefore they must be obtained through the diet. Excellent sources of Omega-3, 6 and 9's are fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, eggs, chicken, pistachios, olive oil, spinach, avocados, green leafy vegetables, sunflower seeds and oil, safflower, corn (not genetically modified) and sesame seeds.

Other important oils are borage oil, evening primrose oil and black current seed oil. Imbalances of fatty acids occur when there is increased sugar intake, increased intake of trans fatty acids, increased consumption of hydrogenated oils, increased use of drugs and decreased consumption of foods rich in omegas as listed above and digestive problems.

Thought for the week: When people say "I'm so tired, it's not even funny," or "My heads hurts so bad, it's not even funny," I wonder why it would even be funny in the first place?

Phylis B. Canion is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and is a certified nutritional consultant, email her at This column is for nutritional information only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure.



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