Fatty acids can be classified into essential and non-essential. Non-essential fatty acids are derived within the body from amino acids, whereas essential fatty acids are not synthesized in our body and must be obtained from foods that we consume, as these amino acids serve important functions in our body.
Foods rich in essential amino acids are also classified under the class of functional foods. Functional foods can be defined as foods providing multiple health benefits on top of the basic nutrients required for life. Essential fatty acids produce hormones called eicosanoids, which are important for the regulation of the immune system, nervous system, and other hormonal balances.
In the article, we intend to classify amino acids and explain their benefits. The article also provides information regarding foods rich in essential amino acids and the consequences of essential fatty acid deficiency.
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are not formed within the body and must be consumed from foods rich in essential fatty acids. They can be categorized into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids based on the position of the carbon-carbon double bond.
Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3 fatty acids are generally useful for the promotion of heart health.
Food sources of omega-6 fatty acids are linoleic acid (LA), gamma-linolenic acid(GLA), and arachidonic acid (AA). These are important for the regulation of immune function and blood pressure.
Hence, a diet containing a balance of omega-3 and omega-6-containing diets is important for getting all the benefits of essential fatty acids.
Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids
Eicosanoids are critical signaling compounds of essential fatty acids through which they provide beneficial effects for good health. The health benefits of essential fatty acids are explained in detail.
Protection against Cardiovascular Diseases
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially obtained from sea foods, are considered beneficial for the prevention of cardiovascular disease and reduce mortality associated with heart disease. The cardioprotective effects of omega-3 fatty acids are exerted by mechanisms that reduce arrhythmias and improve blood flow to the heart. It is suggested that arrhythmias are reduced by stabilizing the conductance of ion channels. The improvement of blood flow and reduction of clot formation is achieved by a reduction in triglyceride levels, platelet activation, and vascular adhesion molecule expression.
It is recommended that a serving (200 - 400 g) of fatty fish or fish oil two times per week and a diet rich in alpha-linolenic acid be consumed for the primary prevention of heart disease. In people suffering from known heart disease or heart failure, one serving of fatty fish or fat oil should be consumed daily to reduce mortality associated with heart disease.
Studies have also shown that regular consumption of a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids reduces cardiovascular mortality and incidents such as myocardial infarction.
Optimal Brain Functioning and Vision
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is deposited in the brain tissue in the third trimester of pregnancy and the early 2 months of infancy. The DHA plays an important role in brain functioning and visual activity. It also helps in the repair of damaged brain tissue and inhibits neuronal damage. It helps in the modulation of ion channels and thus regulates electrical activity in the brain, resulting in the appropriate functioning of the nervous system.
In the eyes, DHA can be found in the retina. It helps in faster response to any visual stimulation by improving the function of rhodopsin, a photosensitive pigment in the retina necessary for the initiation of visual sensation.
Although DHA gets deposited in childhood, it gets depleted over time, and a source of essential fatty acids from the diet is required for replenishing and maintaining optimal DHA levels for proper brain functioning and vision throughout the lifespan. The depletion of DHA levels in the brain can cause a decline in cognitive functioning such as impaired memory and learning problems. It can also worsen the symptoms associated with schizophrenia and Huntington's disease. A decrease in the DHA level in the prefrontal cortex may reduce dopamine levels, worsening negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Likewise, visual stimulation might be affected by the reduction of DHA levels in the retina.
The essential fatty acids also have anti-inflammatory effects that provide symptomatic relief in inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, and also have been shown to decrease the cardiovascular risk associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Symptomatic relief provided through anti-inflammatory effects has been found to be comparable to NSAIDs in a few studies.
Although the benefits of rheumatoid arthritis are convincing, the benefits of essential fatty acids in other inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and asthma are not clear.
The C-reactive protein (CRP) is considered to be a marker for the prediction of stroke and cognitive impairment. Essential fatty acids have been shown to reduce CRP levels through their anti-inflammatory effects.
Protection against cancer
The growth of prostate cancer is reduced by omega-3 fatty acids, resulting in improved survival. Additionally, anti-cancer effects of omega-3 fatty acids have been demonstrated, especially in breast and colon cancers. Furthermore, essential fatty acids improve the appetite, weight, and quality of life in patients suffering from cancer. Modulation of certain genes has been found to be the mechanism behind the anti-cancer effects of essential fatty acids.
There are other benefits of essential fatty acids which are either conclusive or require further study for the recommendation of supplements. Some of these benefits of essential fatty acids are:
- Healthy cell membrane formation that reduces the risk of various diseases.
- Maintainance thyroid and adrenal function.
- Production of certain hormones
- Maintainance of liver function.
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Regulation of the process of blood clotting. Omega-3 fatty acids act as anticoagulants reducing the clotting process. Omega-6 fatty acids act as procoagulants improving clotting. So, there must be a balance between omega-3 and omega-6 containing diet to regulate the clotting process.
- It is important for cholesterol transport and metabolism
- Essential fatty acids help in maintaining healthy skin and hair
Foods Rich in Essential Fatty Acids
There are certain foods rich in essential fatty acids that can be consumed as recommended for a balanced diet and to improve overall health. You might be considering cutting down on fat for various reasons, but it is important for you to include essential fatty acids in your diet. However, you should be cautious regarding your food allergies, and your food sensitivity to a specific food can be tested by using home-based AFIL kits, which are convenient and easy to use.
- Plant sources: These contain alpha-linolenic acids (ALA), which include foods such as flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, and walnut oil, canola oil, soybean oil, mustard oil, tofu, etc.
- Animal sources: Animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Some of the animal sources containing omega-3 fatty acids are: mackerel, salmon, herring, fish oil, tuna, anchovies, sardines, sea bass, swordfish, menhaden, trout, halibut, shad, sablefish, and wolffish
Food sources of omega-6 fatty acids contain linoleic acids, which include canola oil. soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, chia seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and Brazil nuts.
There are supplements available for essential amino acids to fulfill the requirements for essential amino acids. Some of the supplements of essential amino acids are:
- Fish oil
- Cod liver oil
- Algal oil
- Krill oil
Essential fatty acids deficiency
Since essential fatty acids are very important to health, their deficiency can cause various symptoms. The deficiency is common in people following a certain diet or in people having gastrointestinal disease affecting absorption.
Some of the symptoms associated with essential fatty acid deficiency are:
- Delayed wound healing
- Dry scaly skin
- Hair loss
- Reduced growth of the child
The condition can be diagnosed by taking a proper history, including nutritional history, examination, and tests. The tests might involve investigating liver or kidney function and measuring essential fatty acid levels in the blood.
The condition might be treated by dietary modifications and taking essential fatty acid supplements.
Essential fatty acids are part of functional food, which has multiple benefits for our overall health and must be sourced from our diet. They have an important role in various functions related to our bodies that are required for a healthy life. Hence, essential fatty acids are important for heart and skin health, maintaining the function of the nervous system, and preventing cancer and obesity.
Some of the food sources of essential fatty acids include oily fish, vegetable oil, and nuts. Supplements of essential fatty acids are fish oil, cod liver oil, and krill oil.
Essential fatty acid deficiency can occur in people with certain diets, malnourished people, and people suffering from conditions affecting absorption and metabolism. These deficiencies can be prevented by including essential fatty acids in the diet. Hence, involving a balanced diet in your regular food habits is crucial for overall health.
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