Supplementing With Essential Fatty Acids

Body fat is composed of substances called fatty acids. Omega 3 and Omega 6 are two essential fatty acids (EFAs) that we can't synthesize on our own and must obtain from our diet. EFAs are used by t

Body fat is composed of substances called fatty acids. Omega 3 and Omega 6 are two essential fatty acids (EFAs) that we can't synthesize on our own and must obtain from our diet.

EFAs are used by the body to make hormones called prostaglandins, which can cause inflammation. It's thought that inflammation might be related to heart disease, aging, memory loss and other health-related conditions.

Many people preventively supplement with Omega 3 EFAs (less inflammatory than the Omega 6 EFAs). Clinical studies supporting Omega 3 health benefits are inconclusive. Furthermore, the doses and duration of Omega 3 EFA use in these studies vary for each indication.

The typical American diet is rich in Omega 6 EFAs and lacking in Omega 3 EFAs. The optimal ratio in foods we consume would be 2-to-1 Omega 6 to Omega 3. Many foods contain both.

There are three main Omega 3 constituents in nature: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in fish oil and alpha linolenic acid (ALA) in flaxseed and flaxseed oil. ALA is a precursor to EPA and DHA.

In addition to ALA, flaxseed and flaxseed oil contain lignan, so both products function as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents different from fish oil. Normally, the body can manufacture Omega 3 constituents unless our diet is overloaded with Omega 6 EFAs. An anti-inflammatory strategy would strive for a diet containing foods rich in Omega 3 (i.e., EPA, DHA and ALA) and lower in Omega 6 content. Simply adding flaxseed to the equation might not be enough.

Foods rich in Omega 6 EFAs in order of decreasing content include sunflower oil, corn oil, wheat germ oil, safflower margarine, sesame oil, walnuts, avocado oil, almond oil, peanuts, peanut butter and palm oil.

Foods rich in Omega 3 EFAs in order of decreasing content include flaxseed oil, salmon oil, sardine oil, borage oil, cod liver oil, flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts, wheat germ oil, soybean oil, herring, shrimp and olive oil (minor). Of all these foods listed, supplements and foods with good Omega 3/Omega 6 ratios are flaxseed, flaxseed oil and cod liver oil.

Cod liver oil also contains vitamin A and vitamin D3. Cold-pressed flaxseed oil is an organic product extracted without solvents.

It's important to note that the lignan content (e.g., seicoisolariciresinol) in flaxseed oil and flaxseed classifies them as phytoestrogens, which are constituents found in nature that act like weak estrogens and weak anti-estrogens (but different from prescription hormone replacement therapy). Some phytoestrogens also have antioxidative effects.

Flaxseed products might not be appropriate for men or women who are at risk for, or who currently have been diagnosed with, a hormone dependent cancer.

In general regarding potential EFA-related side effects, prostaglandins manufactured from Omega 6 EFAs stimulate the immune system and form blood clots whereas those made from Omega 3 are immuno-inhibitory and tend to thin the blood. More specifically, flaxseed oil or flaxseed might increase the risk of bruising and bleeding in a dose-dependent fashion due to reduced platelet stickiness.

In addition, flaxseed contains soluble fiber and can act as a laxative. Flaxseeds must be ground up well before consuming.

When purchasing fish oil-based products, make sure you check with the manufacturer to ensure they've been tested for mercury, PCB and other unwanted contaminants. This kind of information rarely appears on the label.

Check to see how much EPA and DHA are in that 1,000-mg dose of fish oil to assess product value before purchase. If that amount is low, you might not be getting the quality you desire for your money.

Finally, please know that the dose of Omega 3 that's right for you might not be appropriate for others and could differ for diabetics and people with heart disease.

There is a new Omega 3-containing prescription product on the market called Lovana for people with extremely high triglycerides. The prescription dose for this indication is much higher than the over-the-counter anti-inflammatory dose for general health.

CATHY CREGER ROSENBAUM is a holistic clinical pharmacist. Contact her via

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