F is for fatty acid!

My nick name at school, and pretty much in life, is miss fatty acid.

being an expert on oils extracted from fish and marine life isn’t really that glamorous……. but til death do us part; I live, eat, breathe and chug fish oil.

I owe a lot to Ascenta Health and their lovely essential fatty acids. It’s my employer, where many of my good friends work, my research for them inspired my career choice, and I get to help people every time I recommend an omega-3, or provide the research indicated for a specific medical or health concern.

F is for fatty acid

The letter F is gonna be a three parter. What can I say I’m obsessed with essential fats. We’ll get to G eventually and it’ll be Gggggreat

  1. In this first post I’ll describe what an essential fat is
    • who and what are the omega-3s and the omega-6s
  2. The second post will describe what omega-3s do in our body, how they modulate human physiology.
    • What is chronic inflammation? How do EFAs modulate the immune system
  3. The last and third post will describe the clinical indications for omega-3s!
    • What to take, how much and which product to choose for the most common diseases and conditions.

What are essential fatty acids (EFAs)

Essential fats are just that: Essential.  Humans don’t have the genes required to produce the enzymes required to make omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids from other fatty precursors, making it “essential” that they be consumed in our diet. Every single omega- or omega-6 fat in our body was consumed from our diet.  Throughout the course of history, both omega-3 and omega-6 were consumed in relatively similar quantities.

Historically we ate:                                                         Today we eat:

  • Berries, nuts, seeds, fish, whole foods                       Processed foods, grains, vegetable oils, grain fed meat
  • Ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 WAS 1:1 or 1:2         Ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is NOW 1: 25 or 1:40

You really are what you eat. If you eat a lot of omega-6 fatty acids and few omega-3s from fish;  then every cell in your body will have more omega-6s then omega-3s as well.

 Why supplement?

Based on a Harvard Medical study a deficiency of omega-3 was the 6th largest cause of preventable death in the US.

  1. Tobacco smoking       467,000                   5. High dietary salt                               102,000
  2. High blood pressure   395,000                   6. Low dietary omega-3 fatty acids     84,000
  3. Overweight-obesity     216,000                   7. High dietary trans fatty acids           82,000
  4. Physical inactivity        191,000

Over the past few decades  its become clear that omega-3s are literally a cure ALL!!

Here’s a challenge: Google any medical condition or issue you can think of + omega-3, and I guarantee you’ll get a hit and that omega-3s are beneficial. One of the reasons I love omegas such much is that they are super naturopathic, because they don’t actually “treat” disease; instead they modify the body’s internal biochemistry allowing for a healthier response to mitigate or prevent disease.

Whats cool is that very few pharmaceutical drugs achieve the same level of efficiency and none provide the range of benefits and safety

Sources of short and long chain essential fatty acids

Short chain:


  • Short chain omega-3 fatty acids (with less carbons) include alpha linolenic acid (ALA) and stearidonic acid (SDA)
  • ALA is most commonly known to occur in flax, but is also found in hemp, chia, canola, rapeseed & soy.
  • SDA is found in echium, black currant and hemp
  • Pretty much all of the clinical research has been done with the long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.

Short and long chain EFAs

Conversion to EPA and DHA from ALA is very inefficient in humans. Studies show on average that 3.5% of ALA converts to EPA and less then 1% of ALA converts to DHA
Delta 6 desaturase is the limiting enzyme in conversion from ALA to EPA and is inhibited by aging, alcohol, xenoestrogens, cholesterol, saturated fat, sugar, low levels of Mg, Zn, B6 & C among many other things including high levels of dietary LA, since it too requires delta 6 for conversion.
see the following article I wrote a few years back if you’re interested in learning more:
Thankfully, SDA found in echium converts much more effectively to EPA–> studies in humans show it converts about 35% to EPA. Conversion to EPA bypasses the rate limiting delta 6 desaturase making SDA much more bioavailable
  • The short chain omega-6 linoleic acid is found in great abundance in our diet and occurs in safflower, evening primrose, grape seed, sunflower, corn, hemp, wheat germ, cottonseed, soybean, walnut, sesame, argan, peanut, canola, olive & coconut oil.  It is also found in almonds, peanuts, pistachios, egg yolks, chicken fat etc.

Long chain fatty acids


  • Long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are found in marine life.  Commonly fish, squid, krill, seals etc
  • It is important to select a marine oil that is ethically sourced, strictly controlled by the environment and the smaller the animal the better since big fish eat little fish and via bio-accumulation, larger species will have higher levels of mercury, lead, pesticides and other chemicals.


  • Arachidonic acid is the BAD guy. He’s the one wreaking havoc on your health, causing imbalance and smoldering inflammation. It’s found in many parts of our diet including peanuts and grain fed meat and readily converts from LA its short chain precursor.
  • Gamma linoleic acid another long chain omega-6 fatty acid is gaining a lot of popularity as a useful essential fat to supplement along with fish oil. Ironically research has been around for decades on its usefulness in hormones, menopause, skin and joint health.
  • Gamma linoleic acid can be found most commonly in borage oil and evening primrose oil but it also occurs in hemp, chia, black currant and echium as well.
  • One concern with supplementing GLA is that it can convert to the inflammatory arachidonic acid. In clinical and in vitro research conversion to AA is inhibited by EPA.

GLA conversion

Bioavailibility of long chain omega-3 fatty acids

  • Another important consideration is bioavailibility

fish oil synthesis

There are two types of fish oils most readily available: Natural triglycerides and synthetic ethyl ester

  • When our bodies digest fats: they are emulsified by bile and then hydrolyzed with pancreatic lipse from the pancreas
      • The ethyl ester bond is 50x more resistant to lipase breakdown, meaning less fish oil is digested.
  • Free fatty acids are then produced and the fats are absorbed through the endothelial cells of the small intestine.
  • Once in the intestinal cells, in order to be absorbed into the blood and circulation, chylomicrons must be formed and the free fatty acids need to be re-synthesized into triglycerides which means that a glycerol backbone is required.
      • This glycerol backbone back is not present in ethyl ester fish oils making their absorption significantly lower then their natural TG competitors..

fat breakdown

for more info check out another article I wrote:


Stay tuned next week for how omega-3s work and their anti-inflammatory action.

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