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Omega-3 fatty acids
Fatty acids used to be known as vitamin F but were then re-categorised as fats. Fatty acids are often ignored in a world obsessed with dieting. Fat is every bit as important in the diet as any other nutrients. Some important nutrients are fat-soluble and need to be consumed alongside fatty foods in order to be absorbed and utilised such as:
Sixty percent of the brain is fat. Fat and foods rich in fatty acids allow the nervous system to function well. The various types of cells in the body, including the cells in the eyes, brain and heart require fat in order to survive and function properly. Fat is also necessary to keep the immune system working and keep a host of diseases away.
The body does not have the enzymes to produce linolenic acid (omega-3 fatty acids) and linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acids) as these are made by plants not animals but they are required by the human body so must be consumed in the diet and are therefore essential. Essential fatty acids are necessary to make cell membranes and for many of the important hormones and other chemical messengers that tell the body what to do.
They are especially important for making prostaglandins in the body which are hormone-like substances that regulate many activities including inflammation, pain and swelling (some cause swelling and others relieve it) which can help with preventing arthritis and autoimmune diseases. They also play a role in controlling the blood pressure, heart, kidneys, the digestive system and body temperature and are related to allergic reactions, blood clotting and making other hormones.
Omega-3 fatty acid is a primary structural component of the human brain, cerebral cortex, skin, sperm, testicles and retina. It can be synthesised from alpha-linolenic acid or obtained directly from food. It supports muscle cell proliferation which can prevent the development of atherosclerosis and restenosis. It also reduces triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
Although there are a number of omega-3 fatty acids, the primary one responsible for so many biological functions is alpha linolenic acid. It is responsible for the formation of healthy cell walls by making them flexible and supple while also improving circulation in the bloodstream. The omega-3 fatty acids also support mental acuity, a healthy nervous system, immunity, reduction in blood clots, reduction in triglycerides, reduction in LDL cholesterol, regular heart rhythm and healthy growth in children. In some cases omega-6, linoleic acid, works in conjunction with the omega-3 fatty acids to carry out some of these processes.
A diet low in essential fatty acids could result in skin problems such as dandruff, eczema, splitting nails and dull brittle hair. Fatty acids influence the structure of the cells lining the intestinal tract, as well as the villi through which absorption of nutrients takes place. They increase the thickness and surface area of the digestive-absorptive cells that line the inside of the intestine. This results in more effective digestion, better absorption of nutrients, less absorption of allergens and better health.
Omega-3 from plant foods
Linolenic acid is a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid which is found in plants. It is similar to the omega-3 fatty acids that are in fish oil. The body can change alpha-linolenic acid into eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help prevent chronic diseases, such as heart disease and arthritis. They are also important for brain health and development, as well as normal growth and development.
Omega-3 fatty acids support the body's manufacture of hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins which help regulate functions of the circulatory system. GLA assists the body with its energy processes and is a structural component of the brain, bone marrow, muscles and cell membranes.
Omega-3 from animal sources
Marine mammals (such as whale, seal, and walrus) and the oil derived from cold-water fish (cod-liver, herring, menhaden, and salmon oils) provide eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are fatty acids that are made from linolenic acid in marine animals. A lot of interest in the omega-3 fatty acids was created when researchers reported that there is a lower incidence of heart disease in some populations (e.g. Greenland). Diet patterns showed high fish consumption in these people, which lead to greater omega-3 fatty acid intake and a reduced incidence of heart disease. In addition, there are links between the consumption of fish and cognitive development as well as reducing age related losses in memory and cognition.
Like eicosapentaenoic acid , DHA and DPA are omega-3 fatty acids that are primary structural components of the human brain, cerebral cortex, skin, sperm, testicles and retina. They can be synthesised from alpha-linolenic acid or obtained directly from food. They smoothes muscle cell proliferation which can prevent the development of atherosclerosis and restenosis. They also reduce triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol) and are anti-inflammatory being particularly effective against arthritis and other joint disorders and allergies like hay fever.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) fatty acids are among the most documented in nutrition research. However, a third key fatty acid, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) has recently been shown to play probably the most powerful role in key health outcomes. DPA is an elongated version of EPA and has drawn the attention of scientists because it is present in relatively high levels in the diets of the Greenland Inuit people, a population group with exceptional cardiovascular health.
There are links between the consumption of fish and cognitive development as well as reducing age related losses in memory and cognition. These fatty acids can also help those suffering with back, joint and skeletal problems as they reduce inflammation. There are significantly lower amounts of these fatty acids in the cells of patients who attempted suicide, suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids may actually play a role in suicide.
Expecting mothers consuming foods rich in fatty acids during the course of pregnancy reduces the chances of birth defects drastically. Defects related to the brain and spine can be reduced and also the deficiency of vitamin B9 (foliate) in the mother’s body can be reduced.
Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect. Inflammation is essential for survival as it protects the body from infection and injury, but it can also cause severe damage and contribute to disease when the inflammatory response is inappropriate or excessive. Therefore a balanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is required. Most experts recommend that the omega 6:3 ratio should be around 4:1 but the optimal ratio may vary if there is a particular condition or disease present. Today’s diet in the developed world can have a far higher level of omega-6 to omega-3 and may be responsible for the rise in many conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and inflammatory conditions like arthritis. Symptoms of deficiency of fatty acids in the diet may include:
High blood pressure
Essential fatty acid deficiency and omega-6 and omega-3 imbalances have been linked to serious health conditions, such as:
The western diet consists of far more of the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids than the anti-inflammatory omegy-3 fatty acids and it is therefore recommended that more oily fish and a daily krill oil capsule is consumed.
Hemps seeds are one of the rare foods that contain the correct ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids which should be around 4:1.
Highest sources of linolenic omega-3 fatty acids in alphabetical order
Natural sources of DHA, DPA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids
NOTE: Menhaden fish are a prime source of docosapentaenoic acid more so than most other oily fish.
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