Essential fatty acid: Wikis


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Types of fats in food
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Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are fatty acids that cannot be constructed within an organism (generally all references are to humans) from other components by any known chemical pathways, and therefore must be obtained from the diet. The term refers to fatty acids involved in biological processes, and not those which may just play a role as fuel. As many of the compounds created from essential fatty acids can be taken directly in the diet, it is possible that the amounts required in the diet (if any) are overestimated. It is also possible they can be underestimated as organisms can still survive in non-ideal, malnourished conditions.

There are two families of EFAs: ω-3 (or omega-3 or n−3) and ω-6 (omega-6, n−6). Fats from each of these families are essential, as the body can convert one omega-3 to another omega-3, for example, but cannot create an omega-3 from omega-6 or saturated fats. They were originally designated as Vitamin F when they were discovered as essential nutrients in 1923. In 1930, work by Burr, Burr and Miller showed that they are better classified with the fats than with the vitamins.[1]



The biological effects of the ω-3 and ω-6 fatty acids are mediated by their mutual interactions, see Essential fatty acid interactions for detail.

In the body, essential fatty acids serve multiple functions. In each of these, the balance between dietary ω-3 and ω-6 strongly affects function.

Nomenclature and terminology

Fatty acids are straight chain hydrocarbons possessing a carboxyl (COOH) group at one end. The carbon next to the carboxylate is known as α, the next carbon β, and so forth. Since biological fatty acids can be of different lengths, the last position is labelled as a "ω", the last letter in the Greek alphabet. Since the physiological properties of unsaturated fatty acids largely depend on the position of the first unsaturation relative to the end position and not the carboxylate, the position is signified by (ω minus n). For example, the term ω-3 signifies that the first double bond exists as the third carbon-carbon bond from the terminal CH3 end (ω) of the carbon chain. The number of carbons and the number of double bonds is also listed. ω-3 18:4 (stearidonic acid) or 18:4 ω-3 or 18:4 n−3 indicates an 18-carbon chain with 4 double bonds, and with the first double bond in the third position from the CH3 end. Double bonds are cis and separated by a single methylene (CH2) group unless otherwise noted. So in free fatty acid form, the chemical structure of stearidonic acid is:

Chemical structure of stearidonic acid showing physiological (red) and chemical (blue) numbering conventions.


For complete tables of ω-3 and ω-6 essential fatty acids, see Polyunsaturated fatty acids.

The essential fatty acids start with the short chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (SC-PUFA):

These two fatty acids cannot be synthesised by humans, as humans lack the desaturase enzymes required for their production.

They form the starting point for the creation of longer and more desaturated fatty acids, which are also referred to as long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA):

ω-9 fatty acids are not essential in humans, because humans generally possess all the enzymes required for their synthesis. Exceptions do occur in older people or people with a liver problem that do not completely produce a sufficient amount, and hence many supplement companies market Omega 3-6-9 blends.


Between 1930 and 1950, arachidonic acid and linolenic acid were termed 'essential' because each was more or less able to meet the growth requirements of rats given fat-free diets. Further research has shown that human metabolism requires both ω-3 and ω-6 fatty acids. To some extent, any ω-3 and any ω-6 can relieve the worst symptoms of fatty acid deficiency. Particular fatty acids are still needed at critical life stages (e.g. lactation) and in some disease states. In nonscientific writing, common usage is that the term essential fatty acid comprises all the ω-3 or -6 fatty acids Conjugated fatty acids like calendic acid are not normally considered essential. Authoritative sources include the whole families, without qualification.[4][5][6] The human body can make some long-chain PUFA (arachidonic acid, EPA and DHA) from lineolate or lineolinate.

Traditionally speaking the LC-PUFA are not essential. See (Cunnane 2003)[7] for a discussion of the current status of the term 'essential'. Because the LC-PUFA are sometimes required, they may be considered "conditionally essential", or not essential to healthy adults.

A 2005 study has shown evidence that gamma-linolenic acid, GLA has been shown to inhibit the breast cancer promoting gene of Her2/neu.[8]

Biologist Ray Peat has pointed out flaws in the studies purportedly showing the need for n-3 and n-6 fats. He notes that so-called EFA deficiencies have sometimes been reversed by adding B vitamins or a fat-free liver extract to the diet. In his view, 'the optional dietary level of the "essential fatty acids" might be close to zero, if other dietary factors were also optimized.'[9]

Essential fatty acids should not be confused with essential oils, which are "essential" in the sense of being a concentrated essence. A deficiency of essential fatty acids results in scaly dermatitis, hair loss, and poor wound healing.

Food sources

Almost all the polyunsaturated fat in the human diet is from EFA. Some of the food sources of ω-3 and ω-6 fatty acids are fish and shellfish, flaxseed (linseed), hemp oil, soya oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, leafy vegetables, and walnuts.

Essential fatty acids play a part in many metabolic processes, and there is evidence to suggest that low levels of essential fatty acids, or the wrong balance of types among the essential fatty acids, may be a factor in a number of illnesses, including osteoporosis.[10]

Plant sources of ω-3 contain neither eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) nor docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The human body can (and in case of a purely vegetarian diet often must, unless certain algae or supplements derived from them are consumed) convert α-linolenic acid (ALA) to EPA and subsequently DHA. This however requires more metabolic work, which is thought to be the reason that the absorption of essential fatty acids is much greater from animal rather than plant sources (see Fish and plants as a source of Omega-3 for more).

The IUPAC Lipid HandbookPDF (370 KiB) provides a very large and detailed listing of fat contents of animal and vegetable fats, including ω-3 and -6 oils. The National Institutes of Health's EFA Education group publishes 'Essential Fats in Food Oils.' This lists 40 common oils, more tightly focused on EFAs and sorted by n-6:3 ratio. Stuchlik and Zak, 'Vegetable Lipids as Components of Functional Food'PDF (139 KiB) list notable vegetable sources of EFAs as well as commentary and an overview of the biosynthetic pathways involved. Users can interactively search at Nutrition Data for the richest food sources of particular EFAs or other nutrients. Careful readers will note that these sources are not in excellent agreement. EFA content of vegetable sources varies with cultivation conditions. Animal sources vary widely, both with the animal's feed and that the EFA makeup varies markedly with fats from different body parts.

Human health

Almost all the polyunsaturated fats in the human diet are EFAs. Essential fatty acids play an important role in the life and death of cardiac cells.[11][12][13][14]

Treatment for depression

Research suggests that high intakes of fish and omega-3 fatty acids are linked to decreased rates of major depression. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are important for enzymatic pathways required to metabolize long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Low plasma concentrations of DHA predict low concentrations of cerebrospinal fluid 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA). It is found that low concentrations of 5-HIAA in the brain is associated with depression and suicide.[15]

There are high concentrations of DHA in synaptic membranes of the brain. This is critical for synaptic transmission and membrane fluidity. The omega-6 fatty acid to omega-3 fatty acid ratio is important in order to avoid imbalance of membrane fluidity. Membrane fluidity affects function of enzymes such as adenylate cyclase and ion channels such as calcium, potassium, and sodium, which in turn affects receptor numbers and functioning, as well as serotonin neurotransmitter levels. It is evident that western diets are deficient in omega-3 and excessive in omega-6, and balancing of this ratio would confer numerous health benefits.[16]

Although further research is needed, there are studies providing evidence for the role of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of depression during the perinatal period. Correlations have been found between depression and low levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and treatment with omega-3 supplementation shows benefit for depression as well as other mood disorders. Research also suggests that supplementation is beneficial for healthy infant development.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Burr, G.O., Burr, M.M. and Miller, E. (1930). "On the nature and role of the fatty acids essential in nutrition" (PDF). J. Biol. Chem. 86 (587). Retrieved 2007-01-17.  
  2. ^ Stillwell W, Shaikh SR, Zerouga M, Siddiqui R, Wassall SR (2005). "Docosahexaenoic acid affects cell signaling by altering lipid rafts". Reproduction, Nutrition, Development 45 (5): 559–79. doi:10.1051/rnd:2005046. PMID 16188208.  
  3. ^ Calder PC (December 2004). "n-3 fatty acids, inflammation, and immunity--relevance to postsurgical and critically ill patients". Lipids 39 (12): 1147–61. doi:10.1007/s11745-004-1342-z. PMID 15736910.  
  4. ^ Heather Hutchins, MS, RD (10/19/2005). "Symposium Highlights -- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Recommendations for Therapeutics and Prevention". "Omega-3 fatty acids and their counterparts, n-6 fatty acids, are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) because they cannot be synthesized de novo in the body."  
  5. ^ Nugent KP, Spigelman AD, Phillips RK (June 1996). "Tissue prostaglandin levels in familial adenomatous polyposis patients treated with sulindac". Diseases of the Colon and Rectum 39 (6): 659–62. doi:10.1007/BF02056946. PMID 8646953. "Arachidonic acid is an essential fatty acid…".  
  6. ^ Carlstedt-Duke J, Brönnegård M, Strandvik B (December 1986). "Pathological regulation of arachidonic acid release in cystic fibrosis: the putative basic defect". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 83 (23): 9202–6. doi:10.1073/pnas.83.23.9202. PMID 3097647. "[T]he turnover of essential fatty acids is increased (7). Arachidonic acid is one of the essential fatty acids affected.".  
  7. ^ Cunnane SC (November 2003). "Problems with essential fatty acids: time for a new paradigm?". Progress in Lipid Research 42 (6): 544–68. doi:10.1016/S0163-7827(03)00038-9. PMID 14559071.  
  8. ^ Menendez JA, Vellon L, Colomer R, Lupu R (November 2005). "Effect of gamma-linolenic acid on the transcriptional activity of the Her-2/neu (erbB-2) oncogene". Journal of the National Cancer Institute 97 (21): 1611–5. doi:10.1093/jnci/dji343. PMID 16264182.  
  9. ^
  10. ^ Kruger MC, Horrobin DF (September 1997). "Calcium metabolism, osteoporosis and essential fatty acids: a review". Progress in Lipid Research 36 (2-3): 131–51. doi:10.1016/S0163-7827(97)00007-6. PMID 9624425.  
  11. ^ Honoré E, Barhanin J, Attali B, Lesage F, Lazdunski M (March 1994). "External blockade of the major cardiac delayed-rectifier K+ channel (Kv1.5) by polyunsaturated fatty acids". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 91 (5): 1937–41. doi:10.1073/pnas.91.5.1937. PMID 8127910.  
  12. ^ Reiffel JA, McDonald A (August 2006). "Antiarrhythmic effects of omega-3 fatty acids". The American Journal of Cardiology 98 (4A): 50i–60i. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2005.12.027. PMID 16919517.  
  13. ^ Landmark K, Alm CS (November 2006). "[Alpha-linolenic acid, cardiovascular disease and sudden death"] (in Norwegian). Tidsskrift for Den Norske Lægeforening 126 (21): 2792–4. PMID 17086218.  
  14. ^ Herbaut C (September 2006). "[Omega-3 and health]" (in French). Revue Médicale De Bruxelles 27 (4): S355–60. PMID 17091903.  
  15. ^ a b Rees AM, Austin MP, Parker G (April 2005). "Role of omega-3 fatty acids as a treatment for depression in the perinatal period". The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 39 (4): 274–80. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1614.2005.01565.x. PMID 15777365.  
  16. ^ Logan AC (November 2004). "Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: a primer for the mental health professional". Lipids in Health and Disease 3: 25. doi:10.1186/1476-511X-3-25. PMID 15535884.  

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