I wrote once before about good versus bad fats, and I mentioned in broad strokes why “good fat” is considered good. But I haven’t gone into great detail about Essential Fatty Acids (also known as EFAs, fish oil, flax seed oil, cod liver oil, krill oil, etc). Note that they’re called essential because your body can’t synthesize them on its own – you have to ingest them from your diet. And unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD!) has precious few of them.
In With the Good, Out With the Bad
Probably the most important reason why everyone needs EFAs is because they are a critical component to maintaining healthy cell walls.
Historically the “brain” of the cell was considered to be its nucleus, and cell walls were considered to be the “skin.” But if you remove the nucleus from a cell, it can still function just fine – it just can’t reproduce (implying that the nucleus is more like the cell’s reproductive organ than its brain.) But if you remove the cell’s membrane, the cell dies immediately.
Cell membranes are like gates, and the receptors dotted along the membrane are like gatekeepers. They require a certain “password” in order to open and let a particular substance inside the cell – not just anybody gets in. But the “gate” has to be fluid enough to allow the gatekeepers to do their jobs properly, and also to let out the internal waste left over from cellular processes.
EFAs keep the gate fluid, letting the “good” stuff in and the “bad” stuff out. (They’re like good interpersonal boundaries in that way!) This is true for every cell in your body. Healthy gates will:
- Let in nutrients and oxygen (critical for life!)
- Let in glucose for energy (limiting insulin resistance)
- Let in neurotransmitters in brain cells (improving mood disorders)
- Maintain proper nerve conduction (treating neuropathy symptoms).
And letting the trash “out” is universally important, since toxic buildup is one of the primary causes for the inflammatory diseases of Western culture, such as diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, allergies, and cancer.
Speaking of inflammation, imbalance in the proper ratio of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3 fatty acids will cause it too. The ratio SHOULD be about 4-6:1, in favor of omega 6. But in the Standard American Diet (SAD! – sorry, have to keep emphasizing that acronym), the ratio is more like 20:1!
Why this is a problem: if you get just enough omega 6, you’ll produce an anti-inflammatory molecule (called a prostaglandin – because it was first discovered in the prostate, incidentally). If you get too much, though, you’ll flood the pathway and produce an inflammatory prostaglandin – the same one that gets blocked when you take aspirin.
In other words, you take aspirin because you have inflammatory pain – which you got in the first place by eating too much omega 6 (mostly from vegetable oil and processed foods) and too little omega 3!
Fish oil is EPA and DHA, which are both in the omega 3 pathway. So taking fish oil daily helps to balance out the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3.
(You should also quit eating processed crap, though.)
Think of EFAs as a natural lubricant: it’s necessary for supple and healthy skin, hair, blood vessels, and lung tissue, just like it’s necessary for healthy cell membranes.
I prefer fish oil to flax seed oil only because the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 is slightly better in fish oil. But I still like flax seed oil, especially for vegans or vegetarians who don’t eat fish.
Krill oil is a fine alternative to fish oil, it’s just more expensive.
Cod liver oil has not just EFAs, but also Vitamins A and D, which is great for immune support. Depending on the brand, you might have a lower amount of EFAs than pure fish oil, but this isn’t universally true.
A word of caution on fish oil: If it smells “fishy” then it’s likely rancid, and rancid fish oil actually becomes a pro-oxidant, rather than an antioxidant. Don’t let it go beyond its expiration date, for the same reason.
Choose one that says “Pharmaceutical Grade” on the bottle – this means it’s got a much higher percentage of actual omega 3 in the capsule (compared to fillers, like fish fat).
I’d also be careful about purchasing fish oil from a regular pharmacy or a box store. In the case of fish oil, quality matters, because fish is so toxic these days. If you buy cheap fish oil, they probably got it from cheap fish – which was most likely farmed or Atlantic, both of which are chock-full of heavy metals.