Essential fatty acids are crucial for good health but it can get a bit complicated, to control immune function, cell membranes and cell growth as well as blood clotting, the body requires two long chain Omega-3 fatty acids: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) from food.
Omega 3 prevents cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration (loss of vision), cognitive decline and depression, further to aiding against acts of violence. An enquiry in a British prison showed that incidents by inmates decreased by 37% when they were given omega 3 as part of their diet.
DHA is particularly important for the brain development in young children and during pregnancy, further to improving memory loss and brain function in adults. Our modern diets are rich in Omega 6 and our bodies produce Omega 9, however we tend to have lower levels of Omega 3 which is a problem as the balance of Omega 3, 6 and 9 in the body is crucial to maintain heart, brain and cardiovascular health.
Unfortunately plant based diets have little or no EPA or DHA, with the exception being micro algae and some sea vegetables. The good news is that ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a short chain fatty acid that is found in flax seed and other plant based foods is a precursor to EPA/ DHA, this means that the body can convert ALA to EPA or DHA.
However this requires a balance of Omega 3 and 6 within the body, when you have too much omega 6 (LA) it acts against the Omega 3 (ALA) and reduces absorption. It is important to avoid trans fatty oils if you are wanting your body to convert ALA, as highly processed oils like margarine will boost the Omega 6 content and inhibit conversion within the body.
Studies have shown that woman more effectively convert ALA especially during child bearing years, however it must be noted that genetics play a crucial role in conversion. Interestingly research has also shown that conversion rates of ALA to EPA/DHA are lower in those who consume fish or algae that already have these nutrients.
It was believed that before processed diets humans had a ratio of 1:1, currently the recommended ratio is 2:1, especially for vegans and vegetarians, so basically you need double the amount of Omega 3 to Omega 6 for your body to benefit from the essential fatty acids. An imbalance of Omega 3 and 6 can lead to numerous health complications like asthma, coronary heart disease, autoimmunity, obesity, dyslexia, hyperactivity, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
On another note, too much DHA is easily oxidized by free radicals in the blood. So the body will not convert the ALA to DHA if levels are sufficient and taking a supplement could have adverse effects and contribute to the disease process.
If you are concerned about your levels, an essential fatty acid test can be taken in order to evaluate your personal requirements.