Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency: For decades, fat has been demonized by the health industry and government. The low-fat agenda has been turned on its head, but the effects of lousy science still linger to this day. Essential fatty acids (EFA) are not produced by the body and therefore need to be consumed as a part of your diet. Today we explore the impact of low-fat diets, with a particular focus on EFAs.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids (or EFAs) are a fatty acid that the body cannot make (or not in adequate amounts) and is therefore crucial to the diet 1. In humans, alpha-linoleic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linolenic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) are the primary essential fatty acids.
Alpha-linolenic acid is converted in the body to the active forms of omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), so DHA and EPA are not considered essential fatty acids.
Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency: Why Do You Need EFA’s?
All fats play an essential role in the body, but essential fatty acids are the only types that the body cannot make, so they must come from the foods we eat. Studies highlight that these EFAs are associated with increased health and vitality, treating certain diseases, improving body composition, mood, mental, and physical performance 1.
Although the impact of EFAs influences many of the body’s functions, most people are used to operating at a suboptimal level, so they may not notice things like memory loss, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, or poor physical performance. Visits to the doctor often compare us to “baseline,” a very low standard for living.
Essential fatty acid deficiency (EFAD) also significantly affects skin function and appearance, which is something many people can pin-point as a big red flag that you may be lacking EFAs 2.
Symptoms of Essential fatty acid deficiency include: 2-3
- Dry skin
- Scaly skin
- Thin fingernails that peel and crack
- Brittle hair
- Dry mouth
- Dull, patchy skin
- Cracked heels
- Excessive thirst
- Fatigue and trouble sleeping
The good thing is that picking up on an EFA deficiency by noticing poor skin function could also benefit you in many other areas of life. Since most people don’t realize how good they can feel, consuming more EFAs may not only resolve skin conditions but improve a whole host of other benefits that come from essential fatty acids.
Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency: Benefits of EFA’s
1. Skin Health
One of the first places you will notice when the body lacks essential fatty acids in the skin. This deficiency is well studied and highlights that EFAs support the integrity of the skin barrier 4. Consuming EFAs like hemp seed oil and flaxseed oil promotes skin hydration and can prevent or reverse many conditions, including eczema, acne, and general skin inflammation 5-6.
Another benefit that fatty acids have on the skin is an increased tolerance to UV light. One study highlights that 4 grams of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) daily for three months experienced a 136% increase in their resistance to sunburn 7! As we have explored, the EPA is the bioactive form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid.
Giving your body ample EFAs helps provide the body with the building blocks it needs to protect your skin from the sun naturally and promote hydrated, healthy, youthful-looking skin.
2. Brain Health
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are required for the maintenance of optimal health 8. EFAs determine the fluidity of neuronal membranes and control the physiological functions of the brain. EFA is also involved in the synthesis and operations of brain neurotransmitters and the molecules of the immune system 8-9.
An inadequate dietary intake of essential fatty acids has been linked to impaired brain performance and diseases, primarily when the deficiency occurs in the early years of life (before age 6) and in elderly years 9.
EFA supplementation has also been linked to reduced inflammation in the brain 10. Inflammation in the brain is connected to microglia cells, the brain’s immune cells. When inflamed, they do not operate properly. Their tasks include disposing of dead neurons, beta-amyloid plaque, and other debris that interfere with healthy communication between neurons. These functions are all needed to prevent a wide range of ailments from daily brain fog all the way to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s 11.
3. Fighting Depression
Although the mechanism is not entirely understood, EFAs have the potential to help fight depression. EFA alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is used for various disease treatments due to its effective antioxidant capacity. It shows promise as a natural therapy to improve depressive disorders due to its ability to boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which plays an essential role in the maintenance and survival of neurons and synaptic plasticity 12-13.
Another hypothesis on why EFAs can help fight depression includes the connection between insulin resistance and depressive disorders. In short, the theory suggests that by improving insulin sensitivity, ALA supplementation could help release more serotonin in the brain and alleviate symptoms of depression 14.
Although many factors play into depression, one established link in the presence of chronic inflammation in the central nervous system (which includes the brain) 15. Studies have shown that EFA supplementation reduces inflammation in the brain, so naturally, this should support inflammation-related depressive symptoms 10.
4. Relieving Inflammation associated with Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency
Essential fatty acids ALA and LA have well-documented anti-inflammatory properties 15-18. ALA also supports reducing blood levels of several inflammatory markers, including IL-6, IL-8, GM-CSF, and ICAM-1 20.
Although there are always many factors that contribute to inflammation, ALA functions as an antioxidant, which protects your cells from damage and helps restore levels of other antioxidants, like vitamins C and E 19.
Sources of Essential Fatty Acids
The two fatty acids considered essential are linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid, and α-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid. Common sources of both include vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds 21.
The most concentrated sources of LA and ALA are found in the oil, so generally, sourcing food or supplement for essential fatty acids will come as an oil or a combination of EFA-rich oils.
Some of the best sources for an essential fatty acid deficiency in food form include:
- Evening Primrose Oil
- Flaxseed Oil
- Sunflower Oil
- Pumpkin Seed Oil
- Hemp Seed Oil
In both food and supplement forms, it’s vital to source the highest quality oils. Opt for organic to avoid unnecessary pesticides and a cold-pressed extraction method to prevent the oil from going rancid. When oils are processed using high heat or chemicals, they can very quickly become toxic. You should also buy these oils in glass to protect the integrity of these healthy fats.
Be mindful that many of these oils are also heat-sensitive. When consuming EFAs, avoid using them as cooking oils. Instead, use them as salad dressing bases, add them in smoothies, or drink them straight up on a spoon. Another option is investing in a high-quality supplement!.
In terms of supplements, the solution to an essential fatty acid deficiency is straightforward: a whole-food supplement that combines various natural sources of essential fatty acids can help you give your body these nutrients daily.
Pure Form Omega® is a patented mixture of organic plant-based essential fatty acids. This formula contains a blend of Evening Primrose Oil, Flaxseed Oil, Sunflower Oil, Pumpkin Seed Oil, and coconut oil, providing a 2.55:1 ratio of linoleic acid to alpha-linolenic acid. It also contains Gamma-Linolenic Acid for an added Omega 6 boost that supports the production of PGE1, one of the most potent anti-inflammatories **.
Essential fatty acids are the fats that your body cannot produce themselves and therefore have to be consumed through diet. Two of the main EFAs are alpha-linoleic acid and linolenic acid. EFAs serve critical metabolic roles in providing the necessary building blocks for the body’s normal growth, repair, and function.
Some of their many benefits include supporting skin health, brain health, heart health, fighting depression, and relieving inflammation. Sources of EFAs include flaxseed oil, sunflower oil, pumpkin seed oil, olive oil, hemp seed oil, and evening primrose oil. You can consume these oils daily as food or through a high-quality supplement.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based upon the opinions of Dr. Daniel Pompa. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Pompa and his associates. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD for accuracy of the information provided, but Dr. Pompa encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
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