What are essential fatty acids?Fats or fatty acids (FA) are important nutrients in our diet providing energy and adding palatability to foods. However, foods with high content of saturated fatty acids (SFA) are known to cause a myriad of health problems. Foods high in unsaturated FAs, especially essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) have been found to contribute to good health.
Among the PUFA, alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid (abbreviated ALA) and linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, (abbreviated LA) are essential for human metabolism and their short fall can affect the healthy functioning of our body. Our body cannot synthesize these essential FAs and to meet their nutritional requirements we have to source them through our diet.
Though LAs are essential, in excess they can be detrimental to the health as they have been found to accelerate the tumor growth. However, ALAs have anti-cancer effects and slow the growth rate of tumors. ALAs, help in the normal development and function of the brain, eyes and nerves.
Excess of LAs in the blood stream may result in the exhaustion of the enzymes required for breaking up of these FAs affecting the synthesis of DHA out of ALA. Hence there has to be a balance in the proportion of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, the ideal ratio being between 1:1 and 1:4.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 FA, which can be synthesized from AHA. DHA can also be obtained from from breastmilk or fish oil. Human brain contains more than 60% structural fatty acids. DHA is the primary structural component. Deficiency of LHA or DHA may cause decline of mental function and a variety of mental disorders.
The causes of essential fatty acid deficiency diseases
Excessive dieting:The low fat hype of the past three decades has contributed to the increased nutritional deficiency of essential FAs. Many weight-conscience dieters, by indiscriminately reducing the FA intake, are putting themselves in a dangerous situation of essential FA deficiency as well as the dearth of vitamin A, including beta-carotene, D, E and K. This deficiency can affect the functions of almost all the organs of the body.
Nutritional deficiency:In nations affected by general poverty or scarcity of foods, fatty acid dearth is encountered. Poverty leads to protein and fatty acid starvation as people opt for lower-priced carbohydrate rich foods.
Deficiency due to malabsorption:Many debilities affecting the gastrointestinal system lead to decline in nutritional status of the affected persons.
In persons suffering from tropical sprue, dearth of essential fatty acids may arise. In tropical sprue, there is impairment of the absorption of nutrients from the intestines due to having high levels of certain types of bacteria in the intestines.
In persons affected by celiac disease, lining of the small intestine is damaged due to an immune reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye. In such persons there is malabsorption of the nutrients including essential fatty acids.
Cystic Fibrosis and Crohn’s disease also lead to malabsorption and dearth of essential fatty acids in the plasma.
Signs and symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiencyThe symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency include:
- achy joints,
- symptoms of attention deficit,
- brittle nails,
- coarse, unruly hair,
- cold intolerance symptoms,
- cracked skin on heels,
- excessive thirst,
- frequent urination,
- gastrointestinal problems,
- symptoms of hyperactivity,
- irregular bowel movements,
- low concentration,
- low mental energy,
- learning disability,
- lowered immunity,
- low body weight,
- patches of dry skin,
- poor growth,
- poor memory,
- poor wound healing,
- suicidal tendency,
- weakness and
The Consequences of essential fatty acid deficiencyThe immediate consequence of fat deficiency is dietary energy deficiency and malnutrition.
Neurological derangement and mental illness:Research findings show that depression disease patients have lower levels of essential omega-3 FA in their blood than normal persons.
Children suffering from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism or dyspraxia are found to have deficiency of omega-3 FA. The supplementation with the missing fatty acids is found to improve their status.
Depression, irritability, low mental energy, learning disability and psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia have been associated with low intake of essential n-3 FA.
Cognitive decline during aging and Alzheimer Disease are associated with decrease in DHA in the brain.
Cardiovascular diseases:Low levels of omega-3 fatty acid in the blood is associated with cardiovascular diseases like coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cardiac arrest, atherosclerosis and coronary arteriosclerosis.
Auto-immunity and chronic inflammation:
Low levels of omega-3 FA in the blood is associated with chronic inflammation like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), arthritis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, ulcerative colitis and immunoglobulin A nephropathy.
Cancers:Research studies have found that there is an inverse relationship between relatively high adipose tissue level of EPA and DHA and decrease in the level of breast cancer risk. Similarly, research studies have shown an inverse relationship between blood levels of EPA and DHA and the risk of prostate and colon cancer.
Pregnancy and lactation:DHA is very essential for fetuses and infants. The DHA content of the infant's brain increases by 300% at the end of three months of life. Postpartum depression, ADHD and low IQs are all the result of low DHA intake during pregnancy.
Low blood levels of essential omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy increases the risk of increase in blood pressure, pre-eclampsia and subsequent premature birth. Pregnant women are prone to low levels of omega-3 FA as the nutritional supplies are diverted to the growing fetus.
Preterm infants have lower levels of essential omega-3 when compared to full term babies. DHA is very important for optimal fetal nervous system development, especially in the last trimester of pregnancy.
Christopher E Ramsden et all in their recent cohort study found that "substituting dietary linoleic fatty acid in place of saturated FAs increased the rates of death from all causes, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease." These findings could have important implications for worldwide dietary advice to substitute polyunsaturated fatty acids in general, for saturated FAs.
Related topics in Nutritional Deficiency Diseases:
Carbohydrate deficiency diseases.
Protein deficiency diseases.
Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM).
Vitamin deficiency diseases.
Mineral deficiency diseases.
Saturated fatty acids.
Unsaturated fatty acids.
Monounsaturated fatty acids.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Essential fatty acids.
Trans fatty acids.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Arachidonic acid (ARA).
1.Zevenbergen H, de Bree A, Zeelenberg M, Laitinen K, van Duijn G, Flöter E. Foods with a high fat quality are essential for healthy diets. Ann Nutr Metab. 2009;54 Suppl 1:15-24.
2.Christopher E Ramsden et all. Use of dietary linoleic fatty acid for secondary prevention of coronary heart disease and death: evaluation of recovered data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study and updated meta-analysis. BMJ 2013;346:e8707
Essential fatty acid deficiency diseases.