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Ideally, we get the nutrition we need from the foods we eat. In most cases, our bodies get from these foods that vitamins and minerals they need and put them to good use. When it comes to essential fatty acids, however, our bodies need some extra help from linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. These compounds are used to build omega-3 and omega-6 and help the brain and nervous system function. They also regulate inflammatory and immune responses.

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Alpha-Linolenic Acid

Although they both hold an important role in maintaining a healthy life, linoleic and alpha-linolenic are quite different from one another. Alpha-linolenic acid is used to make eicosanoids in the body, which regulate inflammation. Chains of the fatty acid join to create omega-3 chains known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These chains protect the body from coronary heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases.

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Linoleic Acid

Linoleic acid creates signaling molecules throughout the body which chain together to form omega-6. Most people obtain enough of this acid from their daily food intake without the need for supplements. In fact, the Western diet is often over-wrought with omega-6 at the expense of omega-3. Linoleic acid keeps the skin impermeable to water, and after being metabolized it also promotes blood clotting and creates leukotrienes, extremely strong inflammatory agents.

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Essential Function of Fatty Acids

Linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid once metabolized are vital components. Together they are responsible for the proper development of the brain and the nervous system and guarantee the thyroid, and adrenal systems work correctly. They help produce hormones, regulate the immune system, ensure proper liver function and transport and break down cholesterol. Finally, omega-6 and omega-3 must dance in tandem to balance the blood's ability to clot. Omega-3 is responsible for reducing clotting, while omega-6 encourages clot formation.

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Results of Deficiencies

A deficiency in either of the important essential fatty acids can lead to a number of negative effects. The liver may develop abnormalities and the immune system can function less efficiently. People who are deficient in fatty acids experience a reduced growth rate and a higher incidence of heart trouble, from high blood pressure to high cholesterol. Lack of fatty acids can even lead to skin disorders and depression.

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Ratio of Omega Acids

The difference between how many omega-3 and omega-6 are received through diet greatly affects health. It is important to eat more foods with omega-3 than omega-6. In fact, the proper ratio between the two peaks at around four omega-6 consumed to every one omega-3. Instead, the processed foods and oils prominent in the Western diet often bring that ratio up to 25:1, resulting in many unhealthy Americans and increased obesity.

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Sources of Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 fatty acids come from linoleic acid. They exist in common foods like leafy vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds, as well as vegetable oils (corn, sesame, sunflower, etc.). For most people, it is easy enough to consume sufficient amounts of this fatty acid that they shouldn't need a supplement. A derived omega-6 fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) provides the body with an extra boost against inflammation and some diseases. It is harder to find as it is only present in rare oils such as hemp oil or black currant.

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Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are healthier than the omega-6 and provide a wealth of benefits. Daily consumption of these fatty acids is ideal, but this takes some planning on the part of the consumer. Some sources of omega-3 fatty acids include soybean, walnut, and flaxseed, as well as nuts, beans, and whole grains. The oil from these foods, including canola, and cornflower, can also provide the body with omega-3.

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Pregnancy and Infant Health

During pregnancy, essential fatty acids become even more important. They appear to play a vital role in fetal growth and brain development. In addition, those who plan to breastfeed should ensure they continue to get enough fatty acids since they are passed through the breast milk and provide infants with required nutrients and a boost in growth and development. Some women take a DHA supplement to increase their baby's exposure to these essential fatty acids.

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Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Mental Health

While it is apparent that omega-3 and omega-6 provide people with a variety of health benefits including maintenance of essential bodily functions, there is some evidence that omega-3 has psychological benefits as well. These fatty acids can treat symptoms of mental illness including bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD, and psychosis. The evaluation of data continues, but there is a significant correlation between the consumption of omega-3 supplements and symptom relief.

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Why Fish Doesn't Cut It

Most people associate omega-3 with fish, and believe that eating fish will provide the necessary essential fatty acids. However, scientific evidence shows fish cannot fulfill all the body's fatty acid needs because it has too much fat and cholesterol and not enough fiber. Fish can also be high in mercury and other toxins from the environment. Even fish oil supplements have come under the gun lately, with opponents claiming the omega-3 they contain is unstable and tends to decompose, releasing free radicals.

Essential Fatty Acids

Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.