Introduction to the science of oils and fats in the human body

  • Two stories must be told on fats and oils, not just one. Most of our confusion about the effects of fats and oils on health comes from knowing only half the story. To illustrate this point, consider this list of specific body functions and health conditions that exemplify the double story on fats and oils.
  • Some fats slow you down, other fats increase your energy.
  • Some fats promote cancer, other fats inhibit cancer.
  • Some fats increase platelet stickiness making a heart attack or stroke more likely. Other fats make platelets less sticky, protecting us from heart attacks and strokes.
  • Some fats make you fat, and other fats keep you slim.
  • Some fats make your skin greasy, others make skin soft, smooth and velvety.
  • Some fats interfere with brain development, but other kinds of fat are required for brain development.
  • Some fats lead to fatty degeneration of the liver, but other fats benefit the liver and in fact can reverse fatty degeneration of the liver.
  • Some fats impair adrenal function while other fats are necessary for and improve adrenal function.
  • Some fats inhibit immune function while other fats are required for our immune system.
  • Some fats relieve allergies, others worsen them.
  • Some fats decrease reproductive function, others enhance reproductive function, being required for sperm formation as well as the female reproductive cycle.
  • Some fats can cause mutations while other fats protect our genetic material (DNA) from mutations and other damage.
  • Some fats depress us (e.g. seasonal affective disorder), and other fats lift depression and elevate mood.
  • Some fats increase inflammation, other fats decrease it.
  • Some fats interfere with the functions of every cell, tissue, and organ in the body, while other fats enhance, improve, and protect their functions.
  • Some fats clog your arteries, other fats clean your arteries.
  • Some fats increase Lp(a) - the highest risk factor for cardiovascular disease - and other fats decrease this risk factor.
  • Some fats increase fats in the blood (serum triglycerides). Other fats decrease blood fats (you read that right!)
  • Some fats lead to atherosclerosis, others prevent and reverse atherosclerosis.
  • Some fats improve visual and brain function, other fats impede brain function.
  • Some fats deteriorate kidney function, but other fats improve it.

Omega 3 fatty acids is a term that refers to a group of three fats known as ALA, EPA and DHA. These are alpha linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, and (docosahexaenoic acid.

Common sources of these oils include fish oils, and some plant oils including sea buckthorn seed, flax seed and hemp oil. These fatty acids are essential for normal human metabolism, but the evidence that supplementation can provide benefits to our health is somewhat unclear. Even so, omega 3 fatty acids are considered to be "essential fatty acids" in the sense that they cannot be synthesised by the human body.

It appears that supplementation may be more important in older people than younger people, where even the body's limited ability to manufacture these acids is seriously diminished. Wikipedia states that there is no evidence to support a beneficial role for omega 3 fatty acid supplementation in preventing cardiovascular disease, although it may diminish the risk of stroke. However, there is definitely a significant impact on the amount of low-density lipoproteins in the bloodstream. Furthermore, regular consumption of omega 3 fatty acids appears to reduce systolic blood pressure by about five mmHg if it's taken on a long-term basis.

One of the reasons that these benefits accrue is that EPA and DHA stimulate blood circulation, increase the breakdown of fibrin, which is intimately involved in the formation of blood clots, and in addition they reduce triglyceride levels in the blood, and also reduce blood pressure itself.

Research has also indicated that long chain omega-3 fatty acids may actually have an anti-inflammatory effect, and it appears that suffers from rheumatoid arthritis may benefit from a reduced level of pain, perhaps even more so than people who take standard anti-inflammatories. Furthermore, omega 3 fatty acids have achieved a degree of popularity (which may not be justified, according to the scientific research) for children with ADHD and autism. Interestingly enough, there is some evidence to support a link between polyunsaturated fatty acids and an improvement in brain function.

To find out more about this fascinating duality of the effects of fats and oils on the human mind and body, click on one of the links below.

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