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Why Are The Essential Fatty Acids Essential?

Posted by Maria Altieri on

Why Are The Essential Fatty Acids Essential?

 What are Essential Fatty Acids?

 Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are compounds that the body needs to stay healthy but cannot produce independently. This means that a person must get these nutrients from food or supplements. 

EFAs are necessary for producing hormones that regulate the immune system and nervous system. 

There are two categories of Essential Fatty Acids, omega-3 and omega-6. It is important to balance them in a person's diet for optimal health. 

What Are Fish Oils? (Omega-3)

 Fish oil is often used as a broad term for supplements or foods containing the omega-3 nutrient. Fish oils are the most prominent sources where omega-3 can be found, although there are also some plant-based omega-3 sources. 

Omega-3 essential fatty acids are used to produce hormones called eicosanoids, which play a role throughout the cells in the human body. Specifically, omega-3 acids are important for cardiovascular and immune system health. Omega-3 fatty acids also contribute to anti-inflammation, so that they can be an important supplement for patients with rheumatoid arthritis or other joint pain.

 For expecting mothers, essential fatty acids, specifically the DHA omega-3, are beneficial for the development of the baby throughout pregnancy. It is commonly recommended that pregnant women take a DHA supplement during their pregnancy. While this is widely considered a safe supplement beneficial for a baby's development, always consult with your doctor before adding supplements to your diet while pregnant. 

Some research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids can help combat mood disorders and even ADHD, especially in children. While more studies are needed in this area, there is anecdotal evidence that patients have shown improvement in depression, ability to focus, and general cognitive ability when an omega-3 is increased in a person's diet through food or supplements. 

Dietary Sources of Omega-3

 Omega-3 EFAs are most commonly found in fish, but there are also plant sources and supplements in capsule form. 

Some common animal-based omega-3 sources:

  • Salmon
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Tuna

 Some common plant-based omega-3 sources:

  • Walnuts
  • Flaxseed
  • Chia seeds

 It is important to note that more research is done on fish-based sources of omega-3 rather than plant-based sources. While all of these foods are considered healthy to consume, the body can process the amounts and types of omega-3 in these sources differently. Unless you have dietary restrictions or allergies, fish-based sources of omega-3 are recommended.


Supplements can be made from either animal-based or plant-based sources for those with dietary restrictions. The most common omega-3 supplement is fish oil; it is found in capsule form and can be taken daily. Fish oil has the most research for effectiveness and is the most widely taken omega-3 supplement. Other fish-based supplement options are krill oil or cod liver oil. 

While the risk of serious side effects from taking omega-3 supplements, specifically fish oil, is very low, they can interact with certain medications, trigger allergies, and cause indigestion. Always consult with a doctor before changing your supplementation routine. 

What Is CLA? (Omega-6) 

CLA is a group of essential fatty acids that contain omega-6; they are widely found in plant-based sources like nuts and seeds. 

CLA and omega-6 also aid in functioning all cells in the human body, and CLA helps the body produce energy and balance cholesterol levels. 

Recently, CLA specifically has become popular with the fitness community. It is said that CLA can help the body create energy, specifically from fat stores, which protects muscle tissue from being used and reduces the amount of body fat a person has. While this needs more research, anecdotal evidence in the bodybuilding community often supports the claim. 

A risk with omega-6 is that it has been shown to increase inflammation when taken in high amounts, leading to aggravated medical conditions and general pain.

Dietary Sources of Omega-6

Omega-6 nutrients are most commonly found in nuts and seeds or can be taken as a supplement. CLA is the most commonly used supplement for omega-6. 

Plant-based sources of omega-6

  • Walnuts
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sunflower oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Corn oil
  • Soybean oil

 Omega-6 fatty acids are relatively easy to get from a modern American diet, but they can be found in supplements if needed. There are some risks to a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids, as they have been linked to inflammation that can aggravate medical conditions such as COPD. Consult with a doctor before adding a CLA or omega-6 supplement. 

Which Supplement To Take, CLA or Fish Oil?

 Both omega-6 and omega-3 are essential fatty acids, meaning they are necessary for health but cannot be produced by the body. This means that supplementation of both can be necessary in certain cases if there is not enough intake from food. 

The main consideration when deciding if taking a CLA, fish oil, or another omega supplement is balance. For optimal health, a person should have omega-6 and omega-3 in their diet, but the levels of omega-3 should be higher due to their anti-inflammatory properties. The two types of fatty acids can have opposite effects on the body, so while both are needed, the side effects can balance each other out when levels of both are consumed. 

Another factor is that omega-6 is more readily available in the common American diet – so taking a CLA may not be necessary. The plant-based oils containing omega-6 are inexpensive and widely used in cooking, so most Americans get enough if they eat a balanced diet. Omega-3, on the other hand, is harder to get from food. The top sources of omega-3 are fatty fish, which can be expensive and less common in the American diet. For this reason, many can benefit from taking a fish oil supplement. 

The last consideration is risk factors. While there are always some risks when consuming any supplement, fish oil is America's most commonly taken supplement, and it is well researched and generally considered very safe. It is difficult to consume too much omega-3, and CLA is a newer supplement with less research. Studies have shown that it is possible to get too much omega-6, and high levels can be harmful, so look into current levels of omega-6 intake before adding a supplement. 

What Happens Without Enough EFAs

 Since essential fatty acids are necessary for the body, a deficiency can cause health problems. If a person is not consuming enough of these nutrients, it can lead to Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency or EFAD. 

While it is rare for a person who is consuming a healthy diet to have severe cases of EFAD, varying levels of these symptoms can occur due to Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency: 

  • Hair loss or dull hair
  • Rash and dry, scaly skin
  • Weakened immune system
  • Slowed growth in children

 Severe Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency cases can be diagnosed and treated clinically through blood tests and infusions of fatty acids. In most cases, however, adding a supplement will reverse the effects.

Learn more about the importance of Essential fatty Acids such as Fish Oil and CLA, by clicking the links below.