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Essential Fatty Acids

Most consumers of packaged food products would be surprised if they were recommended a dietary supplement of one or two tablespoons of flaxseed oil as a part of their daily diet, especially in this age of intense fat phobia and the perceived dangers of obesity, which has led to a mass aversion to most fat rich foods - easily evidenced from the shelves upon shelves of low-fat and non-fat food products that are seen in most grocery stores and supermarkets. The benefits of the oil from the flaxseed outweigh any concern about it being a fatty food, because it is extremely rich in “good” fats that are designated as essential fatty acids (EFA's) by nutritionists. The word "essential" is an allusion to the fact that the human body is incapable of synthesizing them via normal metabolic pathways and hence all humans need to consume them in the diet - the essential fatty acids tend to be abundant in plant based foods. The benefits of a high dietary intake of the essential fatty acids is supported by results from clinical research, these fatty acids are abundant in flaxseed oil and certain other unrefined polyunsaturated vegetable based oils. Researchers have found that these essential fatty acids perform a significant function in the development of many chronic degenerative diseases including heart disease, the risk of cancer, and incidences of stroke in susceptible individuals.

The dietary intake of the essential fatty acids of approximately eighty percent of the American population is estimated to be deficient according to the studies carried out by nutritional experts and dieticians. Americans therefore suffer from a serious threat to their health and well being due to this dietary deficiency of the essential fatty acids. The two essential fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic acids have myriad functions in the human body aside from their use as energy yielding molecules, they form an essential component of the nerve cells, they are a part of important cellular membranes, and are also responsible for the production and synthesis of a hormone like substances known as the prostaglandins in all cells. The essential fatty acids and the products called prostaglandins perform a vital role that maintains the human body in a good condition, these functions include:

The biochemical synthesis of messenger compounds like the hormones and the production of steroids in cells. The homeostatic regulation of the internal fluid pressure in the eyes, the synovial pressure in the joints, as well as in the blood vessels. These compounds also help in the regulation of the body's response to pain; they help reduce the inflammatory response, and aid in alleviating localized swelling and other physical problems. The prostaglandins are also important molecules that help in mediating the immune response in the human body. The other functions include the regulation of the various bodily secretions and the maintenance of their viscosity. The essential fatty acids and prostaglandins also help in the mechanism of dilatation and constriction in the blood vessels of the body. They also help in regulating the collateral circulation in the body. One important function is their ability to direct the secretion of endocrine hormones to their target cells. They also help in the regulation of the functioning of the smooth muscles and in the autonomic reflexes within the human body. The essential fatty acids and prostaglandins being mainly constituents of cellular membranes have very important regulatory roles at the cellular level of interaction in the human body. They are responsible for the regulation of the rate at which most cells divide in the human body in the process called mitosis. They help in the maintenance of the fluidity and the rigidity of cellular membranes in the body. They help regulate the in-flow and out-flow of metabolic substances into and out of the cells. They aid in the transport of oxygen from the red blood cells to the tissues and organs. They help maintain proper functioning of the kidneys and help in regulating the fluid balance in the body. They help keep all the saturated fats mobile within the blood stream. They help prevent the clumping of blood cells, the conglomeration or aggregation of blood cells - the main cause of atherosclerotic plaque and all blood clots, and a major trigger for stroke. They help in mediating the release of many pro-inflammatory substances from the cells which may all help trigger the various allergic reactions in the body. They help in the regulation of nerve transmission and stimulation. They stimulate the bio-synthesis of steroids. They are also the principal energy source for cardiac smooth muscles.

The essential fatty acids and prostaglandins also play a very critical role in the normal physiological processes, the essential fatty acids have been demonstrated to have therapeutic effects and strongly protect against the risk of heart disease, certain cancerous growths, and help stall autoimmune diseases including the onset of multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, they are also helpful in alleviating many skin diseases, and other disorders.

The main causes of essential fatty acid deficiency

Dietary deficiency of the essential fatty acids in the present nutritional regimen followed by modern people is due to the great adulteration of the polyunsaturated oils during the mass commercial refinement of foods that contain fats and oils, modern food production methods have led to the almost complete removal of all the essential fatty acids from the modern American diet. At the same time, the average daily diet has witnessed a tremendous increase in the total amount of unnatural fats and oils that have been added to the diet mostly in the form of trans fatty acids and partially hydrogenated oils - seen in all mass produced fast food products. The production of trans fatty acids occurs during the processing of food when the polyunsaturated oils undergo a chemical change due to the excessive heat, light, oxygen, and other chemical means used in the refining stage. The word “trans” signifies the fact that the formerly C shaped or “cis” polyunsaturated fatty acid has been chemically (trans) formed to an unnatural straight - shaped fatty acid molecule during the refining process. The chemical process of hydrogenation on the other hand is brought about when the liquefied polyunsaturated fatty acids undergo an infusion or saturation with the excess hydrogen molecules, which then occupy the formerly unsaturated bonds - thus there is a net addition of hydrogen to the molecule and the process is called “hydrogenation". Hydrogenation results in the formation of a semisolid or solid fat substance that is not duplicated in nature - such fats are therefore unnatural products. A good example of a hydrogenated fat substance is the common table margarine that contains both hydrogenated and trans fatty acids in a solidified mixture.

The dietary regimen of the average American has undergone a drastic change, for example, in the twentieth century, the daily consumption of the average American was about 125 grams of fat. This has changed today; the average consumption these days is closer to 175 grams of fat a day, which represents a 40 percent increase, or about 50 extra pounds a year in total. At the same time and proportionally the average American daily consumption of the saturated fats has remained almost the same. The bad news is that the average American's daily consumption of unrefined polyunsaturated oils that are rich in the disease preventing essential fatty acids has undergone a dramatic decrease. To add to the bad news, the average daily intake of refined and adulterated polyunsaturated oil products in the average American diet has risen sharply, this factor has been correlated to the dramatic rise in many common degenerative conditions including the higher incidence of all types of cancers, different heart diseases, as well as stroke. The body's ability to optimally utilize the essential fatty acids that are consumed is hindered by the intake of these refined and processed compounds - a prime factor in the cause of many disorders. The main problem with the use of these plethora of synthetic fats in the human diet for about a century, is that the human body is not evolutionary adapted to handle these artificial and deadly compounds in the diet.

The contemporary deficiency of the essential fatty acids in the average American diet is due to three primary factors of modern life.

The mass commercialization and refinement of all oils and fats resulting in the unavailability of quality oils that are rich in all the essential fatty acids in the average diet. The chemical transformation of all the healthful omega-3 and omega-6 oils into many unnatural and toxic compounds - hydrogenated and trans isomers - due to the refinement of most modern food products. The biochemical and metabolic competition between the hydrogenated and trans fatty acids found in modern food products with the essential fatty acids taken in the diet within the body.

Detecting a deficiency of essential fatty acids

The deficiency of essential fatty acids in the body are represented by typical signs and symptoms including chronically nagging symptoms, that can range from mild but persistent fatigue to a fatal heart attack in extreme cases. As they lack training in nutrition, the majority of orthodox health care practitioners will almost never make an association between a chronic health problem and a deficiency in an essential fatty acid, this is compounded by the fact that laboratory analysis to measure essential fatty acid deficiency is not easily available or appreciated in most medical circles. At the same time, physical symptoms suggesting an essential fatty acid deficiency are often not obvious when compared to many other nutrient deficiencies that can affect the human body. Unfortunately for the patient or suffered, death can result from the consequences of this lack of knowledge. Added to this is the fact that most orthodox clinicians do not know enough to recognize the presence of these deficiencies in the patient and very few know how to deal with the problem, let alone treat it.

One problem in the correct identification and rectification of essential fatty acid deficiency is that the physical symptoms tend to be very vague and broad, so that they are usually written off as having some other causative factors. Clinical surveys indicate that the majority of Americans receive only ten percent of essential fatty acids required for optimal health and well being - therefore, the deficiency of essential fatty acids seem to be widespread in the modern world. One of the main reasons that dieticians suggest that everyone, regardless of his or her health status consume essential fatty acid - rich flaxseed oil in the diet is due to the results of such studies. The guidelines given below may be of help in recognizing the individual essential fatty acid (EFA) status for each person.

Some of the EFA deficiency symptoms which are typical, but not exclusive of the average person may include:

The presence of aching and painful joints in the body. The sudden appearance of angina and related complications. The presence of chest pain and related heart problems. The onset of arthritis. The persistence of constipation. The presence of cracked nails and general bodily impairment. The presence of persistent depression. The drying and lifeless sensation in hair. The drying out of the mucous membranes, as well as the tear ducts, dryness in the mouth as well as the vaginal cavity in women. The drying out of the skin all over the body. The presence of persistent physical fatigue; general bodily malaise and absence of energy. Problems with forgetfulness and mental clarity. The coming of frequent colds and general sickness in the affected person. The persistence of a high blood pressure in the affected person. A history of cardiovascular disease in the medical history. General immune weakness and susceptibility to disease. The persistence of indigestion and related digestive problems; the persistent of excess abdominal gas; abdominal bloating and excess gas. The general lack of physical endurance and stamina. The general lack of motivation and energy.

Different sources of the essential fatty acids

Many food items are rich sources of the essential fatty acids - EFAs, including vegetarian sources such as nuts, seeds, as well as fish, and all vegetable cooking oils. According to most physicians and dieticians, the ideal way to incorporate EFAs in the diet is to get receive them from foods rather than through the use of nutritional supplements. The optimal way to get most nutrients in the diet is through the consumption of whole foods, which contain healthy amounts of all the necessary vitamins, the required minerals, and many other essential nutrients needed in the human body.

A doctor may recommend the use of supplements to people, who find it difficult to obtain enough foods that contain the EFAs; the supplemental route is usually followed by individuals with a distinct health condition that makes it necessary for them to obtain larger amounts of the essential fatty acids on a daily basis. The family doctor must be consulted about the use of supplements.

The best natural sources of the essential fatty acids are the many varieties of fish oils that are marketed under different brand names. However, the ideal dose of ingested fish oil should be about one tablespoon a day of cod liver oil, and doses higher than this are not advisable as such fish oils are too rich in vitamins A and D - which can become toxic when taken in large amounts. The best idea is to utilize other varieties of fish oils, like salmon oil, these tend to be made from the skin of fishes rather than the liver and thus have a lower dose of vitamins.

Ideally, one should look for products that include the vitamin E when shopping for EFA supplements in the super market. The presence of the vitamin E protects such oils from spoilage when exposed to excess light, extremes of heat, or air. The vitamin E is beneficial in other ways and is known to be a good free radical scavenger; research shows that the vitamin E helps protect the body's cells from oxidative damage inherent in the different biochemical pathways within the body.

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