Essential Fatty Acids: Information
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are nutritional fats that are essential for health, but cannot be made by the body. EFAs can only be supplied by diet or supplements.
The two most important EFAs for humans are linoleic acid/omega-6 and linolenic acid/omega-3. Ideally, omega-6 and 3 would be consumed in a close ratio of 5:1 to 1:1, as it was in the diets of early humans. Unfortunately, modern diets provide an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids (from most vegetable oils, dairy and animal fats) and few omega 3's (cold water fish, fish oil, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseed oil). This is why most discussion of EFA supplements centers around omega-3s; since they're much harder to get from the diet, supplementation is more likely to be necessary.
Fish oil and flax oil are the most common omega-3 supplements. They also contain some omega-6, but omega-3s predominate and therefore they provide a net increase of omega-3. Borage oil, evening primrose oil and black currant seed oil are the most common types omega-6 supplements.
The body converts linoleic acid/omega-6 into other fatty acids like GLA. Linolenic acid/omega-3 is converted into the fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid); these are thought to be responsible for most of the benefits of omega-3's. Significant amounts of EPA and DHA are only found in the tissues of cold water fish, wild game, and some types of algae. Linolenic acid/omega-3 of plant origin (flax, walnuts, canola oil) must be converted into EPA and DHA by the body. This conversion is not very efficient (10-40%) so fish oil is the most popular and straightforward way to cover this nutritional base.
EFAs: Essential for Health
EFAs of both types are used all over the body to support a wide range of functions and structures. These include the production of compounds that maintain the integrity of cell structures and control inflammation. EFAs are also critical nutritional factors for brain health, a positive mood, vision and clear healthy skin. A lack of EFAs in the diet can lead to deficiency side effects such as chronic inflammation, skin problems, poor mood, and most notoriously, cardiovascular problems. EFAs are also necessary for the proper break down of fat-soluble vitamins important to heart health like vitamin E and vitamin K. Due to omega-3's significant anti-inflammatory properties, EFA supplements (fish oil in particular) have been recommended to support resolution of chronic or unregulated inflammation as occurs in rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune disorders. GLA supplements are often recommended to help with certain types of allergies.
Most people only need extra omega-3's, so fish oil softgels are the popular and effective choice. Vegetarians can use flaxseed oil instead. Those on very low-fat diets may need additional omega 6 fatty acids as well. In this case use a combination 3-6-9 supplement that provides both. (Omega-9s are non-essential nutrients).