In our frenzy to avoid killer fats, we can easily forget the fats that heal – those fats that we must obtain from foods in order to be healthy. The key components of healing fats are the essential fatty acids (EFAs). Their names are linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
The proper scientific name for LA is: all cis- w6,9-octadecadienoic acid, abbreviated to 18:2w6. To review, the abbreviation 18:2w6 means that there are 18 carbon atoms in the chain, there are 2 double bonds, the double bonds are methylene interrupted, the first double bond starts at carbon atom number 6 counting from the methyl end, and the double bonds are in the cis- configuration. LA is the w6 polyunsaturated fatty acid abundant in safflower, sunflower, corn, sesame, and other oils. It looks like a caterpillar bent in two places.
The proper scientific name for ALA is all cis- w3,6,9-octadecatrienoic acid, abbreviated to 18:3w3. LNA has three double bonds, the first of which is on carbon atom number 3, counting from the methyl end. ALA, the w3 EFA, is sometimes called superunsaturated to distinguish it from the w6 EFA. The distinction is important because, although they appear quite similar, many of the effects of w6s and w3s in the body are opposite in nature.ALA looks like a caterpillar bent in three places.
Both LA and ALA are EFAs for humans (fish require ALA, but LA is not essential for them, because they can make it from ALA). This means that our body must have them, but cannot make them. It must therefore get LA and ALA from foods. A third fatty acid, called arachidonic acid (AA, 20:4w6), was thought to be essential in the past, but our body can make it from LA, and therefore AA is not an EFA, but an EFA derivative. If either LA or ALA is missing or deficient in the diet, cells deteriorate and, inevitably, deficiency symptoms will gradually develop.
LA Deficiency Symptoms
The symptoms of LA deficiency include:
- eczema-like skin eruptions
- loss of hair
- liver degeneration
- behavioral disturbances
- kidney degeneration
- excessive water loss through the skin accompanied by thirst
- drying up of glands
- susceptibility to infections
- failure of wound healing
- sterility in males
- miscarriage in females
- arthritis-like conditions
- heart and circulatory problems
- growth retardation
Prolonged absence of LA from the diet is fatal. All of the deficiency symptoms (except death) can be reversed by adding LA back to the diet from which it was missing.
ALA Deficiency Symptoms
Symptoms of ALA deficiency include:
- growth retardation
- impairment of vision and learning ability
- motor incoordination
- tingling sensations in arms and legs
- behavioral changes
These symptoms can be reversed by adding ALA back to the diet from which it was missing.
Other symptoms that can result fromALA (or w3) deficiency include:
- high triglycerides
- high blood pressure
- sticky platelets
- tissue inflammation
- dry skin
- mental deterioration
- low metabolic rate
- some kinds of immune dysfunction
These are not considered ‘classic’ symptoms of w3 deficiency, but often respond remarkably well to w3 supplementation.
Experts have recently begun to suggest that EFA deficiency (especially of the w3 EFA) is far more widespread than was formerly believed. Its symptoms closely resemble some of the symptoms of diseases of fatty degeneration. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that tissue and/or blood levels of people with these diseases are often low in w3 EFAs; nor is it surprising that this set of diseases responds well to dietary increases in EFAs, and to improvements in the dietary intake of the essential minerals and vitamins required for EFA metabolism.