Step 3: Essential Fatty Acids

If the oil's not in the refrigerator
at the store, go look for one that is.

If B vitamins are like the spark plugs of our body's cells, if trace minerals are the nuts and bolts, then essential fatty acids (EFAs) are the electrical system. They help move electrical currents through our cells, serve in the control mechanisms of a wide array of essential body functions, and while they're not usually burned as a main fuel they are involved in running a number of the body's "accessories."

This article describes why we need EFA supplements, how to pick a good one, and how to take them. For a look at the effects EFAs have on mental health, go here.

More precisely EFAs are used to construct membranes and create electrical potentials. The body can easily alter the shape and structure of EFAs creating new molecules which are crticial to some of the most active tissues of the body. The brain, sense organs, adrenals and testes are all highly dependent upon EFAs for their proper function. EFAs attract oxygen, generate electrical currents as well as move them, help transform light into electrical signals and then into nerve impulses. EFAs can be processed by enzymes into prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that control the operation of all body tissues.1

Currently enjoying a wave of popularity, EFAs until quite recently were fairly routinely ignored. This nutritional problem, like many others, had its genesis near the end of the nineteenth century, when the rapid growth of cities began to disrupt age-old relationships between farmers and their customers. Until the late nineteenth century, most people, if not growing their food themselves, knew the people who did personally (much like today's patrons of farmers' markets.) But in the 1880s and 1890s these relationships began to be disrupted as farmers had to transport their products farther and farther from where they were produced. In an age before refrigeration these farm products started spoiling. Late nineteenth century chemists got to work and quickly identified a fraction of the food products which were spoiling much more rapidly than the rest. They invented ways of removing these offending substances from the food to make them more palatable. The easily-spoiled substances they targeted were the omega-3 (w3) essential fatty acids.

Unfortunately, the very same highly reactive properties that led the chemists to remove w3 EFAs from food are precisely the same properties that make them so vital in co-ordinating the operations of our cells. Neurotransmitters can't bind to their receptor sites without w3 EFAs, which are found in abundance in synapses, the small gaps between neurons that must be crossed by electrochemical signals if nerves are to communicate. When a hormone or neurotransmitter encounters a target cell the messenger is rarely allowed to enter directly. Instead, the hormone or neurotransmitter usually binds to a receptor site that then generates a second messenger molecule that carries the signal to the nucleus of the cell (or other organelle) so that the cell can respond to the signal. These second messenger molecules are also made from w3 essential fatty acids.

EFAs are commonly divided into three groups, omega 3 (w3), omega 6 (w6) and omega 9 (w9). The number refers to a bit of rather arcane information: the number of atoms from one end of the molecule (the methyl end) where the first double bonded set of carbon atoms occurs. As a function of the chemical nature of these molecules, w3s are the most highly reactive and thus oxidize, or spoil, the quickest. W6s are therefore much more common in food because they're more stable. W3 EFAs and w6s play opposite roles in much of the body: for example, w3 EFAs are used to create naturally anti-inflammatory prostraglandins, and w6s create naturally pro-inflammatory ones.

In order for the body to function properly it has to maintain a delicate balance between w3s and w6s - too much of one or the other and problems ensue. In modern diets, w6s tend to vastly outnumber w3s. This is not just because the w6s are more chemically stable but also because most commerically produced vegetable oils are much richer in w6s than in w3s. The best sources of w3 EFAs are fish and flax seed oils. W6-rich oils like corn or safflower tend to be favored by restaurants and processed food manufacturers.

I usually suggest that my patients use flax oil as their source, largely because it's important to supplement these critical molecules on a daily basis and because with today's polluted marine environments one has to be cautious about one's fish consumption. Pure flax oil is not the best way to go, however. It's so rich in w3s that the delicate balance between w3s and w6s can be upset in w3s favor.

Sourcing EFAs

I'm also very, very picky about what brand of flax oil supplement my patients use, largely because of concerns about manufacturing and distribution practices. W3 EFAs are so highly reactive that they easily oxidize if they come into contact with brass, which happens to be a common metal used in the fittings for commercial oil presses and bottling equipment. Oxidation in w3 oils is a chain reaction: oxidize one molecule and it will go on to oxidize another, which then oxidizes another, and so on. So some commercially-prepared w3 products are spoiled before they even reach the consumer.

One clue: is the oil refrigerated when you buy it? If not, at best the manufacturer isn't aware of this problem; at worst, they don't care.

Udo Erasmus, the researcher who wrote the book on this subject, Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, works with a company called Flora Brand to put out a well-balanced product called Udo's Choice Oil Blend. It's the only product that I feel comfortable recommending because, not only did Udo write the book on the subject, but Flora Brand is the only company I'm certain has gone to the trouble of fabricating their own, custom, non-reactive fittings for their bottling and pressing equipment. They also make sure their oils are refrigerated from the moment they're pressed until they're picked out of the cooler case at the local health food store.


 1. Erasmus, Udo. 1993. Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill. Burnaby: Alive Books. Much of the material in this section is drawn directly from Mr. Erasmus' work.