Essential Fatty Acids are Indeed Essential

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Essential fatty acids, omega-3 fats, and omega-6 fats are literally essential to our good health. We must ingest them because our bodies cannot synthesize them. They are integral to keeping the cell membrane flexible, which we want for a healthy, functioning body.

The essential fatty acids are the starting point for making hormones that regulate inflammation and blood clotting, which is important for overall health let alone wound healing. They maintain the suppleness of the arterial walls, protecting your cardiovascular system. And, they are highly concentrated in the brain and are necessary for memory and performance as well as for preventing mood swings and depression.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate a ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats of about 1 to 1. This changed dramatically with the Industrial Revolution and mass-produced foods, which saw the boom of using refined vegetable oils in foods and the use of cereal grains to feed livestock instead of grazing on grass. As a mention, grass-fed beef is leaner, has more protein, and higher amounts of Omega 3s plus CLAs. For a deeper discussion on the merits of grass-fed animals, check out Beyond Beef Basics: Grass Fed, Grain Finished & More from The Nourish Evolution. 

Nowadays, the standard diet supplies a ratio of 1 part omega-3 to 15 parts omega-6 fats. That's a huge difference! Unfortunately the skewed ratio is having dramatically negative consequences on our health due to the pro-inflammatory nature of omega-6 fats. Pro-inflammatory meaning creates more inflammation. Not good. 

Vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybean are cheap and widely used in packaged and processed foods, and they throw the delicate balance of essential fats way out of whack. Suffice to say, we need to dramatically increase the omega-3 fats and reduce the omega-6 fats to optimize health and, in particular, scar health and healing.

There are three important omega-3 fatty acids:

  1. ALA, alpha-linolenic acid, found in a wide variety of foods, including flaxseed and walnuts

  2. EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid, found in fish

  3. DHA, docosahexaenoic acid, found in fish and seaweed.

Scientific studies indicate that supplementing with omega-3 fats, particularly EPA and DHA, dramatically assists wound healing by reducing inflammation and encouraging skin formation or epithelialization [1]. Now, not to seem shallow, but having bouncy, flexible cell walls, reduced inflammation and increased skin formation all sound like things that make up nice skin. Besides the brain and body protection, essential fatty acids can help us look good on the outside too.

Foods naturally high in EPA and DHA fats include oily fish like herrings, anchovies, mackerel, sardines, and salmon. The smaller fish are a healthier choice over salmon because they are lower on the food chain and less likely to contain high amounts of pollutants, including mercury, found in the oceans.

Vegans and vegetarians can obtain their omega-3 fats by eating seeds and nuts rich in omega-3 fats. However, these foods carry a high concentration of ALA as opposed to the wound-assisting EPA and DHA. Your body can convert some of the ALA into the other forms, but it is not as accessible as eating the fish oils directly.

The best vegan source of omega-3 fats is flaxseed. Grind the seeds freshly each time you consume them because you need to break down the seed coating to access the good fats. The oils can go rancid quickly, so buying them pre-ground is not beneficial. Be sure to store all seeds (and nuts) in the fridge to keep them fresh.

Other good sources of omega-3 fats are walnuts, especially English and Persian walnuts, followed by black walnuts. Chia seeds are high in omega-3 fats as well in protein and fiber, which makes them an excellent addition to a vegetarian diet. Dark leafy greens also contain some omega-3 fats which is one more reason to jump on the green smoothie wagon.

The other way to increase your levels of beneficial omega-3 fats is to reduce your consumption of omega-6 fats such as safflower, grape seed, sunflower, hemp, corn, cottonseed, and soy oils. This tips the ratio in the healthier direction. It is easy to overeat cookies and cakes made with vegetable oils, but pretty darn hard to binge on sardines, unless you are a sea lion. Margarine, vegetable shortenings and any other artificially stabilized spreads are bad news as we discovered in the trans-fats page.

If you've just had surgery or are recovering from injury, I do suggest a supplement, as you are in in the early stages of healing. You want to encourage and support the healing as much as possible. Personally I believe if you eat a fantabulous diet, with conscious food choices, you’ll be covered. If that’s not on the cards right now you can use a fish oil supplement or a vegan supplement.

From my research, I’ve found two fish oils that sound really good. The first is Wiley's Finest Wild Alaskan Fish Oil, which is traceable, sustainable, and American made. You can go to the Wiley's Finest website here to check them out and read more about their story and products. The second company I like is Nordic Naturals. I've prescribed their Ultimate Omega for years (the Wiley's is a recent find). Nordic Naturals' fantastic website explains and details the multiple benefits of fish oils, far more comprehensively than I can. So I'm not going to reinvent the wheel. If you do not eat fish, Nordic Naturals has a vegan omega-3 that comes from algae. If you think a bit beyond the box, using an algae supplement makes sense. After all, that’s how the fish get their Omegas.

Endnotes

[1] J. C. McDaniel, K. Massey, A. Nicolaou. “Fish oil supplementation alters
levels of lipid mediators of inflammation in microenvironment
of acute human wounds,” Wound Repair and Regeneration 19, no. 2
(March/April 2011): 189–200.