What are essential fatty acids?
In the good versus bad fat debate, omega fatty acids are typically considered beneficial to the human body. All omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are considered “essential” fatty acids because they are necessary for health, and the human body can’t synthesize them by itself. These fatty acids need to come from dietary sources. But are all essential fatty acids equal, or does the ratio of the kinds of fats you consume matter? In the standard western diet, for example, we tend to get far too many omega-6 fatty acids as compared to omega-3, an imbalance that can contribute to inflammation and chronic disease. Choosing your dietary fats wisely and even supplementing with omega-3 oils is a good way to support all over health and wellbeing.
So, what are essential fatty acids? Omega-3 essential fatty acids, found in some nuts and seeds, grass-fed beef, and cold-water fish and shellfish, support a myriad of systems in the body, including the brain, heart, and circulatory system. They build cell membranes and compose the myelin sheaths around nerve cells. They increase blood flow in the brain and have been linked in various studies to better brain function and lower levels of depression and cognitive diseases. Moreover, omega-3 fatty acids can also lessen our susceptibility to chronic diseases by lowering systemic inflammation.
On the other hand, omega-6 fatty acids are prevalent in the western diet — found in the seed and vegetable oils, such as corn and soybean oil, used in processed food. They’re also found in commercially raised livestock, who consume corn and soy. Omega-6 fats catalyze inflammatory processes in the body. Some efficient inflammation is a good thing because it primes the body to fight infections, step up the production of white blood cells, or tend to an injury. However, high levels of omega-6 oils can contribute to long term inflammation and exacerbate chronic illnesses like ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome).
If too much omega-6 can be problematic for people, does omega-3 have what it takes to improve ME/CFS symptoms? Let’s take a look.
Essential fatty acids and ME/CFS
In studies, ME/CFS patients have been shown to possess low omega-3 fatty acid levels as compared to omega-6 fatty acids. This ratio is important. Over the course of evolution, scientists say humans ate omega-3 to omega-6 oils in a ratio of 1:1, with much higher levels of omega-3 fats consumed in ocean fishing communities. Current ratios in the west are closer to 1:14.
For anyone trying to recover from ME/CFS, making sure to have enough omega-3 essential fatty acids as compared to omega-6 will support your progress. The following is a list of some of the signs and symptoms that you may be experiencing a fatty acid deficiency — notice how some of them overlap with the signs and symptoms of ME/CFS.
Symptoms of Fatty Acid Deficiencies
- Dry or flaky skin
- Dry eyes and lips
- Dry mouth or throat
- Brittle, dull or peeling nails
- Cracking or peeling skin
- Dry or brittle hair
- Allergies or asthma, hives, and hayfever
- Autoimmune conditions like eczema
- Joint pain
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Cramping during menstruation
- Vaginal dryness
- Depression or mood swings
- Difficulty concentrating or brain fog
- Poor sleep
If you have any of these symptoms, or if you are concerned about your ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, talk with your doctor about altering your diet and supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids.
The following is a break down of the three different omega-3 fatty acids, ALA, EPA and DHA, where to find them in foods, and their unique benefits:
1. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid, is a short-chain fatty acid found in plant foods such as flax or hemp seeds (and their oils), chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, brussels sprouts, and avocado. It’s also found in grass-fed beef.
Unfortunately, ALA is not very bioactive and needs to be converted, mostly in the liver, to the more bioavailable, long-chain fatty acids known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Typically, only between 5-20% of ALA in our diet is converted to the bioactive forms. The rest we either store as body fat or burn for fuel.
It can be hard to consume enough essential fatty acids from plant-based sources or grass-fed beef because the conversion in our bodies to bioavailable forms is so inefficient. Even if your liver is good at converting short-chain to long-chain fatty acids, you need to eat a lot of flax seeds and avocado to get enough. (On the other hand, vegetarian sources of ALA are full of fiber, beneficial phytochemicals, and micronutrients – so eating a bunch of them is a great idea regardless. They’re also great choices to support a Ketogenic diet.)
Vegans, or those concerned about overfishing, can supplement with plant oils such as flaxseed or hemp oil. The problem with these oils is that they are very unstable and quickly denature when exposed to heat or light, becoming toxic. Choose companies that cold process organic oils and package them in refrigerated, dark glass containers. You’ll notice a price difference, but it’s worth it. Avocado oil is less unstable than seed oils, and also a good source of ALA. Still, choose cold-pressed, organic oil in dark glass.
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2. EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid)
EPA and DHA are both long-chain essential fatty acids, and they are found together in foods or supplements that are rich in omega-3. They both occur naturally in their bioavailable forms, including ocean fish and shellfish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, and oysters. They are also found in some seaweed and algae. Consuming these foods means your body gets to skip the step of converting short-chain to long-chain fatty acids, and all of the fatty acids are put toward building healthy systems. While EPA and DHA work in tandem, both of these healthy fats have some properties of their own.
For instance, EPA is the most effective long-chain fatty acid for reducing cellular inflammation. It directly inhibits the activity of enzymes critical to the production of inflammatory cytokines. (DHA doesn’t inhibit the same enzymes.) EPA essentially acts as a natural steroid in the body, lowering systemic inflammation — but without any nasty side effects. High concentrations of EPA in the blood can even lower neuroinflammation in the brain.
3. DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid)
DHA is a slightly larger molecule than EPA, so its actions are a bit different. It isn’t as good at lowering cellular inflammation. However, due to its larger size, it does increase cell membrane fluidity more than EPA, which is important for the healthy function of all cells, and especially in the brain.
Cell membrane fluidity allows for the movement of lipids and proteins in and out of cells — the basis of cellular communication. In the brain, a fluid cell membrane improves signal transmission in neurons. Higher levels of DHA in the brain have been linked to greater learning ability and less cognitive decline with aging.
You can get plenty of EPA and DHA in combination by eating fatty fish and shellfish. But it is becoming increasingly hard to know whether the seafood out there is contaminated with mercury or other toxic metals. Choosing smaller fish like sardines lessens your exposure to these toxins, and using algae and seaweed is even safer.
You can also choose to supplement with highly purified oils. In this case, you can separate EPA and DHA from each other, making sure you have the correct amounts of each for your unique situation. Contraindication for omega-3 fatty acids include those who are allergic to fish or taking blood-thinning medications. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor about dosages, and choose companies that support sustainable fishing practices and are verified through a third party for purity.
All of us need to be mindful of our omega-3 levels during ME/CFS treatment, especially those of us healing from debilitating fatigue or neuroinflammation. If you’re not already eating a clean diet, trade in the corn chips for a sardine and tomato salad, or light the grill for some barbecued oysters. With a bit of effort, the process can be delicious.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
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