Characteristics of Essential Fatty Acids

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Foods containing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Foods containing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. (Image: AlexPro9500/iStock/Getty Images)

Your body depends on essential fatty acids just as much as the vitamins and minerals in your diet. Chances are you know these important fats better by their common names: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.They help keep you going at full energy, support your immune system and contribute to your long-term heart health. Certain characteristics found in essential fatty acids set them apart from other fats and determine how work.

Essential is a Top Characteristic

All types of fats are made from chains of carbon molecules, but each fat has something different in its structure that defines how it benefits your metabolism. The human body lacks the enzymes necessary to form the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Since they’re vital for your health, they must be obtained through your diet, which is why they're called essential fatty acids. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important because they're essential for forming healthy cell membranes throughout your body.

Unique Roles of Omega-3s

The most important characteristics are defined by the jobs filled by essential fatty acids. Omega-3s fight inflammation, prevent irregular heart rhythms and inhibit the formation of blood clots. They also help lower blood levels of triglycerides and bad cholesterol. Two forms of omega-3s -- eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA -- fill several jobs in your nervous system. EPA helps regulate mood and behavior, while DHA is vital for the developing vision and nervous systems in babies and for the ongoing functioning of the adult brain.

Responsibility of Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Like the omega-3s, the omega-6 fatty acids help lower cholesterol. They also help keep blood sugar balanced, which may lower your risk of developing diabetes, according to Harvard Medical School. Omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation, but they also regulate the duration of an inflammatory reaction. This is an important job because inflammation is a normal part of the immune response when you’re injured. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids both help maintain the health and appearance of your skin, but one type of omega-6 -- linolenic acid, or LA -- is the most abundant fat in the skin's waterproof barrier.

Sources of Essential Fatty Acids

Another distinguishing feature of essential fatty acids is that they’re found in vegetable oils, which otherwise contain few nutrients. Safflower, sunflower, corn and soybean oils are some of the best sources of omega-6. It’s also found in sunflower seeds, pecans and Brazil nuts. One form of omega-3 -- alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA -- comes from canola, flaxseed and soybean oils, as well as walnuts and ground flaxseeds. To get EPA and DHA, you'll need to include two servings of fish in your weekly menu. The primary sources are oily fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, trout and sardines.

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