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The Good Fats: 
Essential Fatty Acids

While it is true that certain types of fats, such as saturated fats and trans fatty acid, contribute to heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other conditions, there are also highly beneficial fats that are absolutely essential. Like vitamins, essential fatty acids (EFAs) are essential to life and good health and cannot be produced by the body. EFAs must be obtained from the diet or from dietary supplements. Scientists estimate that 80% of Americans are deficient in EFAs. Research suggests that a lack of essential fatty acids plays a significant role in the development of chronic degenerative diseases such as heart disease, cancer and stroke. The good news is that taking EFA supplements help to prevent deficiencies and to protect against heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders such as MS and rheumatoid arthritis, skin diseases and many other conditions.

There are 2 main classes of essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. Both the amount and the ratio of these two EFAs in the diet are important. The typical western diet contains adequate levels of omega-6, but is deficient in omega-3. Also the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is much too high. Supplementation helps to correct the deficiency and to restore the proper balance. Fish oil and flax seed oil are both excellent sources of omega-3.

Which to take, fish oil or flax seed oil?

Those who are vegetarian or have trouble with fatty fish would be better off with flax seed oil. Fish oil is a potent source of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. These fatty acids are well utilized by the body for a variety of essential functions. Flax seed oil is the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids, primarily ALA. This fatty acid is converted in the body to EPA. Flax seed oil also contains omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids to a lesser extent as well as other nutrients such as vitamin A. The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in general as well as specific benefits of fish and flax oil are detailed in this article.

Dr. Weil, the well known natural medicine doctor and author, in his book Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, lists flax seeds as the first thing that anyone interested in eating healthier take. While he recommends ground flax seeds, flax is also available in capsule and oil form.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been extensively studied and shown to be of benefit to the following conditions:

  • Heart disease/ high cholesterol/high blood pressure
  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Memory loss/ Alzheimers
  • Psoriasis and Eczema
  • Asthma
  • Ulcerative colitis/Crohn’s Disease

Heart and Cardiovascular System

A large volume of medical literature shows that fish oils prevent and can help to improve or even prevent arteriosclerosis, heart attack, heart failure, angina, arrhythmias, stroke and peripheral vascular disease. Fish oils act by helping to maintain elasticity of artery walls, prevent blood clotting, reduce blood pressure and stabilize heart rhythm.

Studies have shown that those who eat diets rich in fish or fish oils are less likely to develop heart disease and arthritis.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower bad cholesterol by up to 25% and triglycerides by up to 65%. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids from flax seed oil makes platelets less sticky which reduces the tendency of the blood to clot.

A German study found that fish oil supplementation for 2 years caused regression of arteriosclerotic deposits and an Italian study of 11,000 heart attack survivors found that patients supplementing with fish oils markedly reduced their risk of another heart attack, a stroke or death.


There are at least a dozen studies that show a clear protective effect of fish or fish oil against breast, colon, and prostate cancer. There is considerable evidence that fish oil consumption can delay or reduce tumor development in breast cancer. Studies have also shown that a high blood level of omega-3 fatty acids combined with a low level of omega-6 fatty acids reduces the risk of developing breast cancer. Greek medical researchers report that fish oil supplementation markedly increases the survival time for cancer patients with generalized malignancy. Daily supplementation with as little as 2.5 grams of fish oils has been found effective in preventing the progression from benign polyps to colon cancer and researchers in Korea recently reported that prostate cancer patients have low blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids.


Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to enhance the immune system and to reduce inflammation in the body. This has implications for many disorders associated with inflammation and the immune system such a rheumatoid arthritis. Daily supplementation with EPA and DHA can markedly reduce the number of tender points and increase the time before fatigue sets in. Some studies have noted a decrease in morning stiffness and at least two clinical studies concluded that arthritis patients who took fish oils could eliminate or sharply reduce their use of NSAIDS and other arthritis medications.

Mental Function/Depression

Fatty acids are essential to the health of the brain and nervous system. The brain is 60% fat and contains more than 20 grams of DHA. Fish is often referred to as “brain food” because of its high concentration of DHA. Numerous studies have established a link between low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and increased rates of mood disorders and depression, bipolar disorder and suicidal behavior. Research conducted by Donald Rudin, M.D., author of Omega 3 Oils, found that flax seed oil supplements benefited nearly 2/3 of subjects studied with a reduction in stress, anxiety and tension.

A high intake of fish has been linked to a significant decrease in age-related memory loss and cognitive function impairment, and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Consuming fatty fish once a week or more has also been linked to a decreased risk of developing age-related macular degeneration.

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