By Kate Holm
Essential Fatty Acids are a group of poly-unsaturated fatty acids that are exactly that… essential! Meaning we cannot create them within the body so they must be consumed from the diet. This widely researched group of fats have many health benefits, including supporting hormone balance and a number of other women’s health complaints. But before we get into that… a science lesson! *puts on lab coat*
Essential Fatty Acids (or EFAs) include both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, and within each of these groups there are specific compounds. The key types that you will hear of most are:
- Alpha linolenic acid (ALA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Linoleic acid (LA)
- Gamma linolenic acid (GLA)
The 3 and 6 refers to the position of the first carbon double bond in the chain… but all you really need to remember is that they are important!
“But haven’t I heard that omega 6 oils are pro-inflammatory?”
Yes, you have. But not ALL omega 6 fatty acids are created equal. LA and GLA have important ANTI-inflammatory actions within the body. These are found in things like evening primrose oil, borage oil and flaxseeds. What you want to be mindful of are the pro-inflammatory food sources of omega 6’s such as your refined vegetable oils, canola oil, processed foods and commercially raised animal meats.
You are what you eat (or technically, you are what you absorb, but that’s a conversation for another day). Dietary fats are used as building blocks for every single cell in the body. Cell membranes, the very important protective barrier for the cells are made from fatty acids. This membrane, not only protects the cell, but also plays a role in cell-to-cell communication and acts as a reservoir of fatty acids, which in turn acts as precursors to many compounds for functions like promoting the immune response and anti-inflammatory activity.
A healthy diet will contain a balance of both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids - but unfortunately a typical western diet is heavily weighted towards the inflammatory omega 6 variety with small (if any!) amounts of omega 3’s being consumed. On the other hand, a Mediterranean Diet for example is much higher in omega 3 essential fatty acids - one of the key reasons it is often promoted as one of the healthiest diets on the planet.
“What do you mean by inflammation?”
Inflammation is often considered to be a negative thing, but it is actually an incredibly important function within the body and part of the healing process. The problem lies when inflammation gets out of control or when the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids within the cell membrane are out of balance. An inflammatory response can be triggered by a number of things including infection, tissue trauma, allergy or exposure to toxins. During this process fatty acids are released from the cell membrane of the effected tissue to protect it. These fatty acids are quickly converted to hormone-like molecules called eicosanoids - some of which promote inflammation, while others promote healing and decrease inflammation. If the reservoir of fatty acids within the cell membrane has a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, then a pro-inflammatory immune response will occur. If the reservoir has a higher ratio of omega-3 fatty acids, then an anti-inflammatory immune response will occur.
Now, let’s chat about our hormones…
Conditions of hormonal imbalance (and inflammation) are on the rise, including things such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), heavy and painful periods, thyroid conditions, hormonal acne, and even women struggling with the transition through menopause just to name a few. While all of these conditions are multi-factorial, there is a large and growing body of evidence to support the use of essential fatty acids in not only managing symptoms but also reversing some of the conditions or hormonal markers entirely.
Promote oestrogen balance
When inflammation is high, an enzyme called aromatase will convert testosterone to oestrogen (in both men and women), which can lead to a state of oestrogen dominance and androgen deficiency. Some conditions that can be associated with oestrogen dominance include heavy and painful periods, weight gain, bloating, migraines, PMS, low libido, mood swings and fibroids to name a few.
Reduce period pain
Elevated levels of inflammatory prostaglandins can trigger cramps in the uterine muscles - i.e., PERIOD PAIN! Omega 3 essential fatty acids can work to lower these inflammatory prostaglandins and consequently reduce period pain.
Support insulin resistance
Studies have shown that omega 3 essential fatty acids can help to improve insulin sensitivity. Changes to insulin sensitivity can often occur as a symptom of PCOS, but are also largely influenced by our diet (yours should be improving dramatically over the course of the 8-week program!). Impaired insulin sensitivity is associated with things like difficulty losing weight, fatigue, further hormonal imbalances and even skin tags.
Reduce menopausal symptoms
Some women breeze through menopause unscathed, while others can experience a range of symptoms including hot flushes, depression and changes to metabolic parameters such as cholesterol and blood triglycerides. Studies have found that omega 3’s can help to reduce the severity of all of the above as well as having cardioprotective effects (something that was previously provided by oestrogen).
While supplementation of omega-3 (and sometimes the anti-inflammatory omega 6) EFAs can be indicated in some conditions, it is important to come back to our food as medicine and aim to consume a wide variety of health promoting fatty acids as regularly as possible.
Foods high in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids
Please note that the actual content of omega 3 & 6 fatty acids can vary greatly depending on processing methods and what animals were fed. It is also not suggested that ALL omega 6 oils are removed from the diet, but rather focus on those that are more healthful, and aim to increase your consumption of omega 3 essential fatty acids to promote a beneficial ratio. This is not an exhaustive list.
Omega 3 rich foods
- Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
- Chia seeds
- White rice
- White flour
- Most fruits and vegetables
- Cheese, milk and yoghurt
- Adzuki beans, white beans, kidney beans, lentils
- Coconut (milk, cream, oil)
Omega 6 rich foods
Please note: some of these foods are best avoided or minimised, but others contain other healthful properties and can be consumed regularly as part of a varied, balanced diet.
- Puff pastry
- Imitation cheese (depending on ingredients)
- Processed meats
- Cooking methods of meats - frying and roasting will increase the omega-6 content
- Pine nuts
- Poppy seeds
- Safflower oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
About Kate Holm
Kate is a naturopath, nutritionist, health educator and speaker. She’s also the founder of Holism Health Co. – an online naturopathic clinic and postpartum meal delivery service designed to support women and their families through the challenges of preconception, pregnancy and postpartum.
As a mum of 2, Kate has firsthand experience with the guidance, support and health needs of new mothers. She’s passionate about creating a healthy foundation for future generations and believes it all starts with the way we eat. She pairs scientific knowledge with naturopathic philosophy to provide informed, personalised and holistic health and wellness solutions. Take a look at her website HERE to learn more about Kate and keep updated on her exclusive tips for everyone undertaking the 8-Week Program!