The Importance of Essential Fatty Acids

Florence Barrett-Hill

Like all living things our skin, hair and nails, require nourishment to stay healthy and to carry out a repair when damaged, and a wide range of nutrients is needed, including essential fatty acids.

Good fats
In the pursuit of a trim figure, we may be unknowingly “starving” our bodies of the “good” fats

As long ago as the 1930’s it was known that essential fatty acids (EFA’s) were vital for healthy skin, hair and nails.

As essential structural components of cell walls, they ensure the flexibility of cells, this flexibility gives our skin its smoothness and suppleness. EFA’s (Vit F) also prevents water loss from the skin. As water is lost the skin becomes dry, rough and loses its firmness.
Insufficient intake of essential fatty acids (which occurs when we reduce our fat intake) results in loss of skin elasticity and dryness and increases our susceptibility to premature ageing.

The first barrier you have to overcome when ensuring there are sufficient EFA’s in the diet is to get over the FAT THING! From teenage years, right through to maturity, a good portion of women “watch what they eat”.
This generally means instead of being selective of the fats they cut out everything including our precious EFA’s. In that pursuit of a trim figure, they have been unknowingly creating a bigger monster for later years, namely an ageing skin!

Unfortunately, no one told us about the importance of Essential Fatty Acids for our skin, hair, wound healing, and immunity to name but a few. In fact, every important biological function in our bodies is governed by EFAs.

Essential Fatty Acids help to:

lipid bilayers
EFA’s are vital to the health of our lipid bilayers
  • Break down saturated fats.
  • Normalise skin lipids.
  • Prevent dehydration.
  • Balance the acid mantle.
  • Assist in oxygen transfer.
  • Helps the immune system.
  • Increases the metabolic rate.
  • Assist in the formation of ceramides.

The following are some of the vital functions of EFA’s in relation to the skin.

  • Normalising Lipids (Oil)

The top layer of the skin (stratum corneum) is made up of a layer of keratinised cells bound by both lipids (oil) and water (bilayers). Skins lacking in lipids appear dull, coarse and unpliable. In severe cases, we see evidence of conditions such as eczema and dermatitis, with scaling and cracking. Essential fatty acids from within are a vital component of normalising these epidermal lipids.

  • Prevents Dehydration

We are at last realising the importance of the epidermic lipids for the health of the skin and body as far as preventing dehydration, by acting as a barrier to lock in moisture. Topically applied it is believed that EFA’s may be metabolised by the skin and the resulting free fatty acids incorporated into the lipids making up the barrier, decrease the evaporation of water from the skin.

  • Balances the Acid Mantle

Protection is the primary function of the skin. The acid mantle, which has a high content of free fatty acids, is the first major deterrent we have for the penetration of unwanted compounds. Thus, here again, we see the importance of external and internal application of EFA’s.

  • Assists Oxygen Transfer

EFA’s encourage the oxygen transport through the body, across cell membranes to assist with the oxidation of foods for energy.

  • Vital for the proper functioning and formation of Ceramides

Ceramides represent a major percentage of the stratum corneum lipids and are thus important for the maintenance of water in the skin. The essential fatty acid Linoleic Acid has been found to be linked to the formation of ceramides and therefore the presence of EFA’s is vital for the ceramides found in the bilayers of the stratum corneum.

  • Increases the metabolic rate

An increased metabolic rate burns saturated fat into carbon dioxide, water and energy.

  • Helps our immune system

To resist and fight infection and to prevent allergies.

Along with skin ageing comes joint stiffness and pain, perhaps the result of earlier injuries or just years of wear and tear. Improved energy levels and relief of skin dryness are the most common benefits gained from taking Essential Fatty Acids. Of particular importance during and after menopause is the role of EFAs in increasing calcium absorption from the diet. This enhances calcium levels in the body and helps maintain strong bones.

Essential fatty acids that must come from our diet

So where do we find these treasures?

Essential Fatty Acids come largely from vegetables, nuts, seeds and cold water fish. There are different types of essential fatty acids but the two important families are called omega 6 and omega 3.

Omega 6. The Head of the omega 6 family is linoleic acid. Good sources are oils from safflower, sunflower, sesame and corn. Linoleic acids are converted in the body to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is also in abundance In human breast milk (deficiency of GLA may be linked to babies suffering from skin problems such as cradle cap).

Omega 3. The omega 3 family is alpha-linolenic acid, found particularly in flax seed (linseed) oil, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. This converts in the body to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are found in cold water fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines.
We need two to three servings of any of these fish every week plus a good supply of nuts, seeds and their oils, so it is not surprising many of us are deficient in our intake.

So what should we eat?

To ensure you obtain sufficient EFAs in your diets you should include the following foods:

Fish: Two to three servings of fresh salmon, mackerel (preferably not smoked), herring and sardines per week.

Nuts and seeds: Walnuts, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds, one to two tablespoons per day. Mix and store in the fridge, then sprinkle over salad or grind them up and have with yoghurt or cereal.

Oils: Flax, sunflower, corn, evening primrose and starflower oils. One to two tablespoons of flax seed oil daily initially. Use oils on salads or vegetables but, for cooking, only use olive oil as the others become unstable when subjected to heat.

fresh vegetables

Vegetables: Green leafy vegetables, particularly spinach and cabbage. Aim to have five different types each day, including a good proportion of dark-green, leafy ones.

Experts tell us the skin is the last organ these essential fats reach the body uses them up first for vital internal organs which is why each of us should aim to have soft, velvety skin. If we do not, it is a sign we need more EFAs in our diet. In addition, if we do, we can feel reassured we are properly oiled on the inside too.

Note: International Heart Foundations have an excellent source of reading material about foods and the Vitamins and Minerals they supply.

Stay Notified

Sign up for news on topics of interest that will help you grow your career and our new releases.