Essential fatty acids have a significant effect on every system in the body and we cannot survive without them.
Fatty acids are the basic building blocks of fats and oils. Essential fatty acids are a component of dietary fat vital to physiological function. Because the body cannot make them, it is essential that they be obtained through dietary sources.
Why are Essential Fatty Acids important?
Essential fatty acids have a significant effect on every system in the body and we cannot survive without them. They:
- help build and produce healthy cells, tissues and organs
- support proper thyroid and adrenal activity required for growth and energy
- are crucial to brain and nerve development and function
- improve cardiovascular function by keeping the arteries supple and lowering blood pressure
- aid digestion
- bolster immunity and assist in the removal of toxins from the body
- improve the health and function of the skin and hair
- are crucial in the breakdown and transport of cholesterol
Skin disorders, including eczema and dry or scaly skin, dry hair, hair loss, nail problems, gall stones, liver problems, varicose veins, susceptibility to infection, low body weight, infertility and retarded growth may indicate a deficiency in essential fatty acids.
There are two main categories of essential fatty acids based on their chemical structures:
Omega-3 also known as alpha linolenic acid
Omega-6 also known as linoleic acid
Note the subtle spelling difference between ‘linolenic’ and ‘linoleic". Occasionally essential fatty acids (EFAs)are referred to as vitamin F or polyunsaturates.
The EFAs and Pregnancy
The essential fatty acids play an integral role preconception, pregnancy, labour and postpartum. They are crucial:
- in the production of prostaglandins
- for the healthy development and function of your baby’s brain
- in decreasing the likelihood of premature birth and its associated problems
- in reducing the incidence of low birth weight babies
- in treating the condition pre-eclampsia
EFAs are converted to prostaglandins, a group of fatty acids made naturally in the body that act as chemical messengers (hormones). There are many different prostaglandins thought to play a role in the regulation and function of every organ and cell in the human body.
During pregnancy, prostaglandins play an integral role in stimulating and maintaining hormonal levels necessary for successful conception, pregnancy, labour and postpartum. For example, during labour, it is the release of prostaglandins that stimulate the release of oxytocin and help soften the connective tissue of the cervix in preparation for birth.
EFAs assist in the transmission of nerve impulses and are vital for normal development and functioning of your baby’s brain. Deficiency is linked to an impaired ability to learn and recall information.An omega-3 fatty acid called DHA (Docohexaenoic acid) found in high concentrations in brain tissue, is believed to be essential to brain development and growth, ultimately affecting learning ability.
The vast majority of human brain growth occurs in the womb – especially during the third trimester – and immediately following birth. In fact as much as 50% of the brain’s DHA is formed during foetal development and the remaining 50% accumulates in the following first year or so. It is important, therefore, that the growing foetus has an adequate supply via the pregnant mother’s diet.
Furthermore, because it is thought that an infant has very little or no enzymatic capability to make its own DHA, it is important that the EFAs are provided through diet, ideally via breastfeeding. This is especially relevant in cases of pre-term or low birth weight babies.
A recent American study found that disturbed sleep patterns of infants may indicate that the baby’s central nervous system has not fully developed as a result of a deficiency in EFAs. The study found that babies born to mothers with adequate intakes of essential fatty acids, had more mature sleep patterns with less transitional sleep – the time between sleep and wakefulness.
Pre-eclampsia is a complication of pregnancy characterised by high blood pressure, oedema (swelling due to fluid retention) and an excess of protein in the urine. The cause is not known. Untreated it can progress to a more serious condition called eclampsia.
The EFAs are recommended in the treatment of pre-eclampsia as they help improve circulation, lower blood pressure and thin the blood. Caution: if you have blood-clotting problems a supplement including the EFAs is contra-indicative.
Growth and Development
Because the essential fatty acids encourage growth and development they are thought to be useful in decreasing the likelihood of premature birth and its associated problems. Their effects are also thought to help reduce the incidence of low birth weight babies.
How much do I need?
There is no recommended daily requirement of essential fatty acids as such, but during pregnancy it is recommended that you restrict your intake of saturated fats in favour of those foods rich in essential fatty acids. Generally nutritionists believe that fat should comprise about 35% of the energy content of your diet with most coming from plant sources and less than 10% being of animal origin.
What foods contain the essential fatty acids?
Omega-3 can be found in oily fish, salmon, mackerel, rainbow trout, sardines, tuna and eels. The richest vegetarian sources are linseed oil (also known as flaxseed oil) comprising 50% omega-3 oil. Moderate amounts of omega-3 is found in hempseed, pumpkin seed, canola oils and the lesser known chia and kukui (candlenut) nut oils. Small amounts can be found in walnuts, wheatgerm, soya oils and dark green leaves.
Omega-6 is found in the naturally-occurring oils of nuts and seeds including flax, hemp, sesame, olive, soyabean, walnut and pumpkin seed. Sunflower and safflower oils are the richest source of omega-6.
Foods that contain quality fats provide a valuable concentrated source of energy as well as vitamins A, D E and K, which are also vital for growth and development. It is also known that nuts, seeds, and their oils, help to hydrate the skin and promote efficient digestion, relieving constipation.
The balance of omega-6 and omega-3 in your diet is an important factor and can directly affect your body’s ability to convert the essential fatty acids into other more usable substances. Too much of one essential fatty acid can shift the balance and have knock-on effects.
Nutritionist, biochemist and geneticist Udo Erasmus has developed his own oil believed to provide an appropriate balance of both omega oils. Erasmus believes the ratio should be 2;1 of omega-3 to omega-6. His Udos Choice Ultimate Oil Blend contains oils from certified organic flax, sesame and sesame seeds, wheatgerm, ricegerm and oatgerm and can be found in good health shops.
While it is possible to take essential fatty acids as a supplement in the form of Udos Choice Ultimate Oil Blend or Biocare’s Essential Fatty Acids, nutritionists feel they should not replace dietary sources.
The chemical structures in unsaturated fatty acids are very sensitive. If the omega oils are exposed to light, heat and oxygen, either during processing or cooking, important nutritional components can be destroyed. Worse still, heat creates the release of dangerous free radicals. If oils are hydrogenated, a process used to make the oil more solid as commonly done in the production of margarine and spreads, the linoleic acid is converted into trans-fatty acids, which are not beneficial to the body.
So what are the safe alternatives?
Look for oils that have been first cold-pressed and are preferably organic. They will be more expensive but will taste better and be nutritionally superior.
How to include the EFA’s in your diet
Here are some simple and safe ways to ensure an adequate intake of EFAs during pregnancy:
- Steam or grill any of the oily fish and serve with a rich green leaf salad
Make simple homemade dressings instead of using artificial low-fat
alternatives. Lime or lemon juice blended with olive oil is delicious and healthy over vegetables or salad leaves.
- Hempseed oil has been found to be the best balanced plant source of both omega-3 and omega-6 oils. Include small amounts in dressings, smoothies and soups.
Sprinkle a blend of toasted or dry roasted sunflower, sesame, linseed,
pumpkin and hemp seeds on your salad, stir-fry or soup
- Add any of the above seeds in their natural form to your cereal or smoothie
Eating more fruit and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants will help protect the essential fatty acids.