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Omega Fatty Acids: The Fat You Never Knew You Needed

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Consuming adequate amounts of healthy kinds of fat like those found in fish, legumes and nuts is vital. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends adult fat consumption equal at least 15% of energy intake, and in women of reproductive age, no less than 20%. There is, however, a stigma in our society surrounding the consumption of fat.

By now, almost everyone has heard that a great way to slow down aging, reduce major disease risk factors and lose weight is to stop eating fat. It’s no wonder we live in a “witch hunt” era, where all fats are commonly labeled as bad. To be sure, dietary fats have been found to play a role in the development and complications of obesity, vascular disease, cancer, and various other degenerative disorders. But because of the anti-fat hysteria, fatty acid deficiency may be a lot more widespread than commonly believed.

In order to build and maintain the tissues of the body, new cells must constantly be formed. The membrane that surrounds all types of cells is made up largely of the long carbon chains of fatty acids, and the control of what enters and leaves the cell is determined by the kinds of fatty acids present. The fluid nature of the membrane increases when unsaturated fatty acids are more abundant. Since fatty acids absorbed in the gut are taken directly into cells without alteration, it is true that “you are what you eat” in terms of dietary fat.

In addition to their role in supplying energy and providing structural building blocks, some special fatty acids also affect how energy flows, how rapidly cells are formed, and many other body controls. They are used to make powerful hormone-like compounds call eicosanoids.

The omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are an excellent source of healthy fat. The two key omega 3 fatty acids are EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid). These omega 3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and also in various plant foods such as soybeans, flaxseed and walnuts.

Study after study of populations noted for their high consumption of fish showed reduced rates of diseases of aging such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, psoriasis and bronchitis. For example, Eskimos eat twice as much cholesterol as Americans and favor a diet rich in marine mammals and fishery products. But Eskimos enjoy ten times less risk of dying from cardiovascular disease! The Japanese consume between 100 and 250 grams of fishery products daily (3 times the rate of Americans) and have the lowest occurrence of heart disease and arteriosclerosis of any developed nation. Seafood and especially fatty fish contain particular “pharmacological fats”, EPA and DHA, which protect the arteries by thinning the blood, which in turn can help prevent the clotting that leads to heart attacks and strokes. The omega 3’s found in fatty fish have been found to help lower blood pressure, lower dangerous triglycerides, raise good cholesterol (HDL’s), increase artery flexibility and trigger anti-inflammatory processes which help reduce risk for arthritis, cancer, psoriasis, diabetes and cell dysfunction.

Jean Carper, in her best selling book Stop Aging Now points to a major Italian study which found that daily consumption of fish oil equal to eight ounces of mackerel a day suppressed abnormal cell growth by 62% in 90% of those vulnerable to colon cancer. The researchers noted a slowdown in abnormal cell growth in just two weeks time.

Researchers at Cornell University Medical Center found that an omega 3 rich diet revved up enzyme activity, including the important immune boosting, free radical fighter, glutathione S transferase. A range of omega 3 fatty acid research points to promising benefits of a diet high in fish oil for certain types of cancers.

The key type of omega 6 fatty acid is called GLA (gamma linolenic acid). GLA is a precursor to hormone-like prostaglandins (PGE-1). Prostaglandins and specifically PGE-1 are powerful health “gladiators” cascading through the body performing a wide range of vital anti-inflammatory, anti-infection, anti-spasm functions in addition to reducing the “stickiness” of blood platelets.

PGE-1 performs a crucial role in the cardiovascular system by inhibiting the clumping together of blood platelets in order to reduce the risk of blood clots. PGE-1 ensures adequate blood flow to and from the heart by helping to dilate blood vessels as well as helping to reduce the body’s manufacture of cholesterol by the liver.

Immune function is also under the powerful influence of PGE-1, which controls the release of lymphokines known to activate as well as inhibit the over-stimulation of immune system cells. When immune function over-reacts and runs amok over other cells in the body, the result is auto-immune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Another function of PGE-1 is its ability to regulate release of histamine which in turn helps prevent a wide range of allergic reactions while decreasing pain and inflammation. Production and secretion of vital hormones in the pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands, as well as immune boosting and lean tissue building growth hormone, are all stimulated by “multi-talented” PGE-1. PGE-1 also triggers the release and uptake of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the nervous system, which can help reduce the need for sleep as well as help decrease symptoms of depression.

Healthy levels of fatty acids which lead to adequate PGE-1 are important for those wishing to maintain energy levels and for weight watchers because PGE-1 is a powerful inhibitor of insulin release from the pancreas. PGE-1 also inhibits secretion of excess acid from the stomach which may lead to ulcers and it may help reduce the severity of asthma attacks by relaxing tissues in the bronchial tubes.

Unfortunately GLA is rarely found in food. In fact, the richest source of GLA is found in human breast milk. This may explain why breast fed babies are far healthier and leaner than bottle fed babies. Infants do not develop the enzymatic activity necessary to convert linoleic acid to GLA until age 6 months old, at which time infants can be weaned from breast feeding. Cows milk and soy milk used in infant formulas contain no GLA.

There are two times in life when the body’s ability to convert beneficial levels of GLA from linoleic acid is compromised; 1.) birth and 2.) after age 30, when certain enzymatic activities begin to diminish. Deficient levels of GLA may also result from diets high in transfatty acids such as those found in margarine, from disease such as viral infections and stress related hormone activation (cortisol and adrenaline). By age 65, GLA levels may drop to 1/3 of those found in healthy young adults. Fatty acids are critical to good health.

The preferred supplemental source of fatty acids is a formulation of omega 3 fatty acids from cold water fish which are readily absorbed by the body, and omega 6 (GLA) fatty acid from borage oil, the richest source of GLA. For greater vitality and as an added measure of protection, be sure you consume adequate amounts of fatty acids.

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