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The Importance of Essential Fatty Acids for Building Strong Immune Responses

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By eating a typical western diet, we do not consume sufficient essential fatty acids for proper cell functioning. It is estimated that approximately 80 percent of Americans consume an insufficient quantity of essential fatty acids. This is believed to pose a serious threat to our health. Our children are at particular risk from the inadequate consumption of omega-3 essential fatty acids.

The types of fatty acids we and our children eat determine which immune and inflammatory responses are favored in the body. What we eat determines if we create inflammation or prevent it; if we activate immune responses or suppress them; if we create an internal environment that supports the existence of allergies or asthma or does not support their existence. It is vitally important that we eat a diet that provides optimal amounts of the essential fatty acids that are converted into the prostaglandins that favor anti-inflammatory and immune responses.

Essential Fatty Acids and Cell Membranes

All of the cells in the body are enveloped by a membrane composed chiefly of essential fatty acids in the form of compounds known as phospholipids. Phospholipids determine the integrity and fluidity of cell membranes. The type of fat we eat determines the type of phospholipid in the cell membrane. A phospholipid composed of a saturated fat or trans-fatty acid differs in structure from a phopholipid composed of an essential fatty acid.

The cell membranes are programmed to incorporate the essential fatty acids needed to maintain optimal function. If we do not eat enough essential fatty acids then the cell will incorporate saturated fat, animal fatty acids, cholesterol and trans-fatty acids. This will lead to the formation of cell membranes that are much less fluid. If you do not have sufficient essential fatty acids in your diet the deficiency of essential fatty acids in the cell membrane means that the cell can not properly perform all of its vital functions. Without sufficient essential fatty acids in the diet the cell membrane does not act properly as a selective barrier to regulate the passage of materials in and out of the cell.

How an Alteration in Cell Membrane Affects the Health of the Body

An alteration in cell membrane function is thought to be the primary factor in the development of cell injury and cell death. Cells with an unhealthy membrane have a diminished ability to hold water, vital nutrients and electrolytes. They cannot communicate correctly with other cells and do not respond properly to regulatory hormones.

Cellular health, and hence the entire body’s health, is critically determined by the health of the cellular membrane. When the cell membrane is disturbed, the process of homeostasis is disturbed. Homeostasis is the process whereby the body works to maintain a balanced internal environment. Homeostasis is the automatic tendency of an organism to maintain a steady state.

When the cell membrane is disturbed all cellular processes are disturbed. Existing research points to the adequacy of essential fatty acids as one of two crucial determinants of the health of the cellular membrane. (Proper antioxidant consumption being the other.)

The Crucial Role of Essential Fatty Acids in Prostaglandin Production

Essential fatty acids are crucial in many body functions and structures. They play a protective role in the prevention of many chronic degenerative diseases including heart disease and cancer and many auto-immune diseases. Essential fatty acids are also transformed into the regulatory compounds known as prostaglandins.

Prostaglandins are hormones which are responsible for a host of crucial body functions including: regulating the response to pain and inflammation; mediating the immune responses; directing endocrine hormones to their appropriate destination; regulating nerve transmission; affecting allergies; regulating fever; and regulating the activity of white blood cells.

In the presence of the appropriate enzymes and vitamin and mineral co-factors certain types of essential fatty acids are made into certain types of prostaglandins. These cofactors include vitamin A, B6, C, E, and folic acid, and the trace minerals zinc, copper, magnesium, selenium.

Only certain types of fatty acids will produce certain types of prostaglandins. Linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acids found in vegetable oils such as sesame, safflower, sunflower) is converted into a family of prostaglandins that block allergic responses, prevent inflammation, improve nerve function, and enhance immune responses.

Alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3 fatty acids found in flax, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts) is converted into a family of prostaglandins that blocks the release of inflammatory precursors, enhances immune function and prevents inflammation.

Arachidonic acid (found in animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs) is converted into a family of prostaglandins that stimulates allergic responses, promotes inflammation, and suppresses immune function.

Good Fats and Bad Fats

There are good fats and there are bad fats. Saturated fats are animal fats like butter, lard, and tallow and are semi-solid to solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are generally thought of as bad fats and are associated with strokes and numerous degenerative diseases. The body needs some saturated fats but can make all of what it needs. The diet does not need to supply any saturated fats. Saturated fats interfere with the body’s use of essential fatty acids and when this happens the immune system is compromised.

Unsaturated fats are typically thought of as solid fats and are liquid at room temperature. Most vegetable oils contain primarily unsaturated oils. Unsaturated fats can be essential and nonessential fatty acids. All essential fatty acids are unsaturated fats but not all unsaturated fats are essential fatty acids.

Nonessential Fatty Acids

The body can make nonessential fatty acids. If the diet is too high in the nonessential fatty acids this can interfere with the metabolism and use of essential fatty acids, compromise immunity and create other health problems.

There are also nonessential fatty acids that are artificially created through food processing - the trans-fatty acids and hydrogenated oils. These fats are found in processed foods such as bakery items and fast foods. Artificially created fatty acids make up a great percentage of most diets today and are dangerous to our health.

The Ill Effects of Trans-fatty Acids and Hydrogenated Oils

Vegetable oils can be hydrogenated. This means that a hydrogen molecule is added to the oil’s naturally unsaturated fatty acid molecule to make it more saturated (solid or semisolid). This is what happens to shortening or margarine. Hydrogenation changes the structure of the natural fatty acid to unnatural fatty acids and from the naturally occurring cis form to the unhealthy trans form.

Trans-fatty acids and hydrogenated oils are believed to do great harm once inside the body and to contribute to many chronic disorders including heart disease, cancer, prostate disease, diabetes, immune suppression, and low quality and quantity of breast milk. Hydrogenated vegetable oils create free radical damage in the body, increase cholesterol levels, increase inflammation in the body and interrupt the metabolism of essential fatty acids and their use in the body.

By eating a diet too high in artificially created nonessential fatty acids we compromise our metabolism of healthy essential fatty acids. When we eat chemically altered fatty acids they alter the structure of our cell membranes and can trigger destructive free radical reactions in the body.

A byproduct of cooking and hydrogenation of oil is called trans-fatty acid. Trans-fatty acids have many adverse effects on the body. They cause fatty deposits in the blood vessels, liver and other organs. Trans-fatty acids change the permeability of cell membranes and allow the wrong substances to pass in and out of the cell membrane. Trans-fatty acids can also cause degeneration of nerves and change their electrical properties so that abnormal signals are sent from place to place. The worst effect of eating trans-fatty acids is that they can interfere with the metabolism of good fatty acids, damage the good fatty acids, and alter their production of prostaglandins.

Trans-fatty acids comprise about 10 percent of our daily fat intake. This is mostly in the form of hydrogenated oils and margarine. French fries, candies, cakes, and cookies contain between 30 to 40 percent trans-fatty acids. When we or one of our children eat a fast food meal, trans-fatty acids comprise almost 40 percent of the fat in that meal.

Trans-fatty Acids Favor Illness

High levels of trans-fatty acids in the diet change the composition of the cells making them more rigid, sticky and susceptible to damage such as inflammation and infection. Once trans-fatty acids are incorporated into the tissues they are difficult to remove. The only way to remove them is to decrease or stop their intake and to increase the intake of omega-3 fatty acids along with their needed cofactors

The consumption of trans-fatty acids affects our immune and inflammatory responses. Trans-fatty acids and their depletion of magnesium block the enzyme that is needed to produce the prostaglandins that lead to anti-inflammatory and immune enhancing responses. Trans-fatty acids also trigger the release of arachidonic acid from cells and this leads to the release of inflammatory substances. When we eat trans-fatty acids we produce an environment in our body that favors illness.

Omega 6 and Omega 3 Oils

The body can make most of the fatty acids it needs except linolenic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. These two are essential fatty acids. They are essential for survival and must be obtained through what we eat. There are two main types of essential fatty acids- omega-6 and omega-3.

Vegetable oils can be divided into two types: medicinal and cooking oils. Medicinal oils contain gamma-linolenic acid - omega 6 oils (evening primrose, Borage, and black current oils) or alpha-linolenic acid - omega 3 oil (flaxseed oil). These oils are highly polyunsaturated. Polyunsaturated oils do not hold up well under heat. When exposed to heat the chemical structure of the essential fatty acids is changed to lipid peroxides - a toxic substance. Other polyunsaturated oils include sunflower, safflower and soy.

Omega-6 fatty acids are those which contain linoleic acid (found in sunflower, safflower, corn, sesame, flax, soybean, and pumpkin seed), gamma linolenic acid (GLA) (found in evening primrose, Borage, and breast milk), and arachidonic acid (AA) (found in animal products). Both arachidonic acid and gamma linolenic acid can be synthesized from linoleic acid.

The second main type of essential fatty acids is Omega-3 fatty acids comprised primarily of the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) (found in pumpkin, flax, soybean, walnut and other plants and fatty fish such as salmon and trout). Flax is the most abundant source containing 50 to 60 percent of its oil as LNA.

Important Nonessential Fatty Acids

Important nonessential fatty acids are Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These oils are marine oils and are found in mackerel, salmon, trout, tuna, cod, and sardines. Omega-3 oils can also be found in these cold water fish sources. Cod liver oil is a good source of omega-3 oils. EPA and DHA can be made in the body from LNA but if there are certain enzyme impairments then EPA and DHA become essential and must be obtained from the diet. Fish oils are good sources of EPA and DHA.

Our Out of Balance Essential Fatty Acid Ratios

Most adults and children get enough Omega-6 essential fatty acids such as sunflower, safflower, or corn oil but if they do not have all the necessary vitamin or mineral cofactors they may not be able to use these oils efficiently.

Commercial processing of fats, oils and foods containing omega 3 fatty acids has almost eliminated omega-3 essential fatty acids from our diets. Because we have greatly increased our consumption of unnatural fats and oils in the form of trans-fatty acids and partially hydrogenated oils, Omega-3 fatty acids are lost through this chemical hydrogenation process.

Essential fatty acids are contained in the germ portion of grains. When grains are milled to make flour omega-3 oils are destroyed. Light, heat, and exposure to air also destroy essential fatty acids.

Omega-3 oils in the diet have also been lost through the mass consumption of oils that are rich in omega-6 but poor in omega-3. Such oils include safflower, sunflower, and corn oil.

The net effect is that we do not consume sufficient essential fatty acids for proper cell functioning. It is estimated that Americans are up to 90 percent deficient in essential fatty acids.

The Importance of Essential Fatty Acids for Children

Our children are at particular risk from the inadequate consumption of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Infants and children require a high percentage of dietary fats in their diets because all developing cells including those of the nervous system and the brain consist of different types of fats. If children do not eat the right kinds of fats and the proper amounts of the right kinds of fats their development will be compromised.

Children who have chronic congestion, runny noses, constipation, ear infections, coughs, or slow healing wounds need more essential fatty acids in their diet. Any child who has allergies, asthma, hay fever, eczema, skin rashes, and digestive problems is deficient in essential fatty acids. Other symptoms of a deficiency of essential fatty acids include lack of endurance, malaise, fatigue, lack of motivation, depression and dry skin.

The Ratio of Essential Fatty Acids You Eat Determines the Health of Your Immune Responses

Omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils and animal products are already amply supplied in most adult and child diets and for the most part we do not need to worry about incorporating more. But for proper cell membrane function and immune enhancing responses and anti-inflammatory prostaglandins production, it is essential that the proper amount of omega-3 fatty acids be supplied.

The balance of omega-6 to omega-3 oils is crucial to the proper metabolism of the right families of prostaglandins. The optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is 4:1 where we eat four times as much omega-6 oils as omega-3 oils.

Getting the Right Ratio of Essential Fatty Acids for Immune Health

The problem is that because omega-6 oils are the oils primarily found in manufactured oil products and is the primary oil ingredient added to processed foods, our consumption of omega-6 to omega-3 oils is more like 20:1. It is important to eliminate the hidden sources of omega-6 in our diets and to supplement our diets with omega-3 fatty acids. The elimination of poor quality omega-6 fatty acids and the addition of high quality omega-3 essential fatty acids in our diets helps us return to the optimal ratio of omega-6 to -3 fatty acids while providing balanced and efficient production of prostaglandins and their health enhancing immune and anti-inflammatory properties.

More omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained by eating a diet high in foods rich in these essential fatty acids. This would include a diet rich in nuts, nut butters, seeds, omega-3 fish such as salmon and trout, and beans and legumes.

Including flaxseed oil in the diet is a smart step in making sure that we are promoting strong immune function. Flax seed oil is 50 to 60 percent omega-3 oil and can be incorporated into dips and salad dressings, used to season vegetables and sauces or taken in a capsule form. Fish oils such as cod liver oils or omega-3 fish oils are also an important way to treat and prevent an essential oil deficiency.

Preventing an essential fatty acid deficiency leads to the balanced production of the anti-inflammatory and immune enhancing prostaglandins. With the balanced production of these prostaglandins the body creates the internal environment that supports health and high quality immune functioning.

Steps to Building Stronger Immune Responses

1. Eliminate or seriously decrease hydrogenated oils and trans-fatty acids in the diet. These are found in low quality manufactured foods, processed foods, and fast foods.

2. Decrease the consumption of saturated fats in animal products.

3. Eliminate hidden sources of poor quality omega-6 fatty acids such as safflower, sunflower, and soybean oil.

4. Increase the consumption of high quality omega-3 fatty acids found in flaxseed oil, fish oils and a diet high in seeds, nuts, legumes and omega-3 fish such as salmon and trout.

5. Remove any inhibitory factors that would block the proper functioning of the enzyme needed to produce the anti-inflammatory and immune enhancing prostaglandins from the essential fatty acids. These inhibitory factors include: saturated fats in excess; oxidizing chemicals such as pollutants and cigarette smoke; anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and acetaminophen; cortisone found in topical creams, nasal sprays, and bronchial inhalers; refined sugar and flour; high cholesterol; and stress (under stress the adrenal glands release epinephrine which prevents the enzyme from working).

6. Ensure the presence of the cofactors needed to produce the health enhancing prostaglandins from the essential fatty acids. These include: magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6, selenium, beta-carotene, insulin, protein, vitamin C, vitamin B3, vitamin A, copper, and vitamin E.


© Copyright 1997 - 2008 by Mary Ann Copson and Evenstar. All rights reserved.

About the Author:
Mary Ann Copson is the founder of the Evenstar Mood & Energy Wellness Center for Women. With Master's Degrees in Human Development and Psychology and Counseling, Mary Ann is a Certified Licensed Nutritionist; Certified Holistic Health Practitioner; Brain Chemistry Profile Clinician; and a Health, Wellness and Lifestyle Coach. Reconnect to your physical, emotional, mental, psychological and spiritual natural rhythms at

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