The Health Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids

Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are also known as essential fatty acids.  They are ‘essential’ in the diet as our bodies cannot manufacture them out of other substances and hence they are an important nutrient for us to consume.  Essential fatty acids play a role in many metabolic processes in the human body.  Consider for instance that the cell membrane of every new cell produced in the body is constructed in part from essential fatty acids.  Hence the importance of these fatty acids to the growth process.

While most diets will include some sources of Omega 6 fatty acids, they are often low in sources of Omega 3’s.  It is speculated that the imbalance of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids contributes to the development of many different disease states from ADHD to type II diabetes to heart disease, cancer and so on.  So the addition of Omega 3 fatty acids is essential at all stages of life.

Omega 6 or Linoleic acid is generally abundant in a typical North American diet.  It is found in nuts, seeds, wheat, corn and soy. Oils such as safflower, sunflower and sesame are rich in Omega 6 fatty acids.

Omega 3 or alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is further metabolized into 2 very essential polyunsaturated fats known as eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  These fatty acids are less abundant in our diets generally speaking.   Omega 3 fatty acids are found in flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and leafy green vegetables.  Cold water ocean fish such as salmon, tuna, halibut, sardines, mackerel and arctic char contain already manufactured EPA and DHA. And hence are considered richer sources of Omega 3’s.

EPA and DHA are especially important for neurological development and maintenance of a healthy nervous system through out life.  They are also important for maintaining cardiovascular health.  You may have heard your grandparents referring to fish as “brain food”. Well they were absolutely right.  DHA is especially important for the development of the fetal brain and continues to be important during early childhood years.  After the age of 5,  EPA becomes more important.  A lack of EPA is associated with an inability to focus in school, mood fluctuations, behaviour issues etc.  As a general rule it you can think of DHA as stimulating brain function and EPA as calming brain function.  Both are essential for healthy brain metabolism.

EPA is a nutrient that reduces inflammatory processes in the body.  Hence it is useful to help treat or prevent allergies, asthma, eczema, joint and muscle inflammation and so on.  DHA becomes significant later in life again and is useful to help prevent memory loss associated with aging.

In a healthy child making sure they have an abundance of food sources of omega 3’s should be adequate. Adding some ground flax seed or hemp seeds to your child’s breakfast cereal, or a smoothie made with berries and yogurt is a good way to ensure they get adequate amounts. Flax seed oil and hemp oil can be used also, but the seeds themselves add fibre, protein and other nutrients to the mix.  Green leafy vegetables – a source of so many essential nutrients- can be added to sandwiches or as a salad before supper.  Having fish at least twice per week is another way to ensure they get enough essential fatty acids.  Unfortunately all fish is contaminated to some degree with heavy metals such as mercury.  Tuna is the worst for this as it is such a long lived fish and has years to accumulate such toxins.  Farmed fish is often loaded with PCB’s – another unwelcome toxin.  So your best bets are wild caught salmon, sardines, mackerel and arctic char.

If your child is a picky eater, or suffers from hyperactivity or difficulty focusing in school you might want to consider a fish oil supplement.  Up until the age of 5 a good quality fish oil supplement that is a little higher on the DHA side (such as cod liver oil) is a good choice as their brains continue to develop and mature.  After the age of 5 and especially if hyperactivity, asthma or allergies are a problem look for a supplement with a little more EPA.  The anti-inflammatory effect will help to calm and balance their moods.  EPA is an integral part of nutritional protocols for ADHD, autism, mood fluctuations and allergies.

There has been a lot of press recently about the quality of fish oil supplements.  Some of the cheaper brands have been found to contain PCB’s and or rancid oils.  Check with your local health food store about the quality of their fish oil products.  There are many products available today even for picky eaters including chewable berry flavoured children’s EFA supplements.