There’s been a lot of focus recently by the media and supplement manufacturers on the claimed benefits of essential fatty acids. But what are fatty acids and why are they ‘essential’?
Fatty acids are the building blocks and smallest constituents of fats. Fatty acids come in many different forms and can either be healthy (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) or unhealthy (saturated, trans). Today we’ll be focusing on a specific class of fats known as essential fatty acids or EFAs.
EFAs are considered essential because they cannot be synthesised by the human body, but are still required. Thus, they must be consumed as part of your diet. You may recall a similar instance in our previous article on BCAAs, which must also be supplemented as part of a healthy diet.
What Do EFAs Do?
EFAs play a critical role in normal growth and development, including brain functioning, skin and hair growth, metabolism and heart health, among others.
Symptoms related to EFA deficiencies are often severe and include weakness, impaired vision and learning ability, decreased motor coordination, behavioural changes as well as growth retardation. Symptoms and diseases that respond well to EFA supplementation include high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, macular degeneration (AMD) and dermatitis (1).
There are two main types of EFAs: Omega 3s and Omega 6s, both of which are classified as polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Many people believe that omega 3s refer to a single type of fatty acid, but omega 3s are actually composed of a group of three different fatty acids.
These fatty acids include alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Although the body can synthesise and utilise EPA and DHA from ALA, it does so at much lower efficiencies than obtaining them from preformed sources as part of one’s diet, or via supplementation (2) (3).
Like omega 3 fatty acids, omega 6s refer to a group of fatty acids.
These include linoleic acid (LA), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), calendic acid, dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA), arachidonic acid (AA), adrenal acid and docosapentaenoic acid.
The Benefits Of EFA Supplementation
You will notice that most of the benefits derived from EFAs revolve around omega 3s. This is because the balance between omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids is often skewed. A vast majority of diets contain large amounts of omega 6s and relatively low quantities of omega 3s.
One study involving chronic inflammation in patients concluded that higher omega 6 to omega 3 ratios promoted inflammation while the opposite reduced inflammation (4). Inflammation is often the basis for many chronic conditions. A proper balance between the two is vital to getting the most benefits from EFAs.
Improved Joint Health
Exercise puts a lot of strain on an individual’s joints, so it’s important to care for and prevent joint injuries and excessive wear.
A study by Goldberg & Katz (2007) evaluated the effects of an omega 3 supplement on individuals suffering from inflammatory joint pain. Researchers found that supplementation reduced morning stiffness and joint pain intensity, along with the number of painful and/or tender joints (5).
Another study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research evaluated the ratios of omega 3 to omega 6 in red blood cells and how this relates to instances of hip fractures. They found that individuals with higher omega 3 to 6 ratios had reduced instances of hip fractures compared to those with higher omega 6 to 3 ratios (6).
Both these studies suggest that supplementation with omega 3 fatty acids could not only relieve symptoms of joint pain and/or discomfort, but also act as a preventative measure against further joint degradation.
Separate studies published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport and the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine evaluated the effectiveness of taking an omega 3 supplement on delayed muscle soreness following weighted exercise.
In the former, both men and women were asked to performs arm curls on two different occasions: once after fourteen days of omega 3 dietary restriction and once after seven days of omega 3 supplementation. Findings showed that both the measures of soreness and arm swelling were reduced following the period of supplementation (7).
The latter focused only on males and had both a control group (not taking supplements) and trial group (taking supplements) perform knee-high step-ups. Their results found that both perceived pain and thigh swelling were reduced in those taking the omega 3 supplement (8).
Lowered Heat Rate
A lower heart rate has many benefits, most of which prevent the development of long term disease. Research shows that individuals with lower resting heart rates are less likely to develop high blood pressure and various forms of heart disease (9).
Researchers in one study evaluated the effectiveness of omega 3 supplementation on resting heart rate and heart rate recovery following exercise. This study found that supplementation resulted in a decrease in resting heart rate of about five beats per minute while an increase in heart rate recovery of about five beats per minute (an increase in recovery heart rate means that the heart is slowing down at an accelerated rate).
This study hints at the potential cardio protective role omega 3 supplementation could have (10).
- Myprotein Super Omega 3
- Myprotein Omega 3 6 9
- The Protein Works Liquid Omega 3 Oil
- Super Strength Omega 3 Softgels 1000mg
- Cnp Pro Omega + 60 Caps
- Optimum Nutrition Fish Oils
- Bodybuilding Warehouse Omega 369 – 1000mg
- Vitabiotics Omega H3
- Sci Mx tri Omega Efa
Before significantly altering or adding any new supplement to your diet you should speak to a medical professional or nutritionist. The above results outlining the benefits or perceived benefits of EFAs, more specifically omega 3 supplementation, are promising.
With further and more long term research, EFAs could act as a more natural alternative to prescription and over the counter drugs dealing with many of the issues revolving around omega fatty acid imbalances and deficiencies.
(1) Ehrlich, S. D. (2011, 10 5). Omega-3 fatty acids.
(2) Gerster, H. (1998). Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3). International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 68(3), 159-173.
(3) Talahalli, R. R., Vallikannan, B., Sambaiah, K., & Lokesh, B. R. (2010). Lower efficacy in the utilization of dietary ala as compared to preformed epa dha on long chain n-3 pufa levels in rats. Lipids, 45(9), 799-808.
(4) Noori, N., Dukkipati, R., Kovedy, C. P., Sim, J. J., Feroze, U., Murai, S. B., Bross, R., Brenner, D., Kopple J.D., & Kalantar-Zadeh K. (2011). Dietary omega-3 fatty acid, ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 intake, inflammation, and survival in long-term hemodialysis patients. American Journal of Kidney Diseases, 58(2), 248-256.
(5) Goldberg, A. J., & Katz, J. (2007). A meta-analysis of the analgesic effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for inflammatory joint pain. Pain, 129(1-2), 210-223.
(6) Orchard, T. S., Ing, S. W., Lu, B., Belury, M. A., Johnson, K., Wactawski-Wende, J., & Jackson, R. D. (2013). The association of red blood cell n-3 and n-6 fatty acids with bone mineral density and hip fracture risk in the women. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 28(3), 505-515.
(7) Jouris, K. B., McDaniel, J. L., & Weiss, E. P. (2011). The effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 10(3), 432-438.
(8) Tartibian, B., Maleki, B. H., & Abbasi, A. (2009). The effects of ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids on perceived pain and external symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness in untrained men. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 19(2), 115-119.
(10) O’Keefe , J. H. J., Abuissa, H., Sastre, A., Steinhaus, D. M., & Harris, W. S. (2006). Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on resting heart rate, heart rate recovery after exercise, and heart rate variability in men with healed myocardial infarctions and depressed ejection fractions. 97(8), 1127-1130.