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Essential Fatty Acids

Author and Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP 

 

The Recognition of Essential Fatty Acids

Dietary fat has long been recognized as an important source of energy for mammals, but in the late 1920s, researchers demonstrated the dietary requirement for particular fatty acids, which came to be called essential fatty acids. It was not until the advent of intravenous feeding, however, that the importance of essential fatty acids was widely accepted: Clinical signs of essential fatty acid deficiency are generally observed only in patients on total parenteral nutrition who received mixtures devoid of essential fatty acids or in those with malabsorption syndromes.

These signs include dermatitis and changes in visual and neural function. Over the past 40 years, an increasing number of physiological functions, such as immunomodulation, have been attributed to the essential fatty acids and their metabolites, and this area of research remains quite active.1, 2

Fatty Acid Nomenclature

The fat found in foods consists largely of a heterogeneous mixture of triacylglycerols (triglycerides)–glycerol molecules that are each combined with three fatty acids. The fatty acids can be divided into two categories, based on chemical properties: saturated fatty acids, which are usually solid at room temperature, and unsaturated fatty acids, which are liquid at room temperature. The term “saturation” refers to a chemical structure in which each carbon atom in the fatty acyl chain is bound to (saturated with) four other atoms, these carbons are linked by single bonds, and no other atoms or molecules can attach; unsaturated fatty acids contain at least one pair of carbon atoms linked by a double bond, which allows the attachment of additional atoms to those carbons (resulting in saturation). Despite their differences in structure, all fats contain approximately the same amount of energy (37 kilojoules/gram, or 9 kilocalories/gram).

The class of unsaturated fatty acids can be further divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Monounsaturated fatty acids (the primary constituents of olive and canola oils) contain only one double bond. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) (the primary constituents of corn, sunflower, flax seed and many other vegetable oils) contain more than one double bond. Fatty acids are often referred to using the number of carbon atoms in the acyl chain, followed by a colon, followed by the number of double bonds in the chain (e.g., 18:1 refers to the 18-carbon monounsaturated fatty acid, oleic acid; 18:3 refers to any 18-carbon PUFA with three double bonds).

PUFAs are further categorized on the basis of the location of their double bonds. An omega or n notation indicates the number of carbon atoms from the methyl end of the acyl chain to the first double bond. Thus, for example, in the omega-3 (n-3) family of PUFAs, the first double bond is 3 carbons from the methyl end of the molecule. The trivial names, chemical names and abbreviations for the omega-3 fatty acids are detailed in Table 1.1.  Finally, PUFAs can be categorized according to their chain length. The 18-carbon n-3 and n-6 short-chain PUFAs are precursors to the longer 20- and 22-carbon PUFAs, called long-chain PUFAs (LCPUFAs).

Fatty Acid Metabolism

Mammalian cells can introduce double bonds into all positions on the fatty acid chain except the n-3 and n-6 position. Thus, the short-chain alpha- linolenic acid (ALA, chemical abbreviation: 18:3n-3) and linoleic acid (LA, chemical abbreviation: 18:2n-6) are essential fatty acids.

No other fatty acids found in food are considered ‘essential’ for humans, because they can all be synthesized from the short chain fatty acids.

Following ingestion, ALA and LA can be converted in the liver to the long chain, more unsaturated n-3 and n-6 LCPUFAs by a complex set of synthetic pathways that share several enzymes (Figure 1). LC PUFAs retain the original sites of desaturation (including n-3 or n-6). The omega-6 fatty acid LA is converted to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA, 18:3n-6), an omega- 6 fatty acid that is a positional isomer of ALA. GLA, in turn, can be converted to the longerchain omega-6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid (AA, 20:4n-6). AA is the precursor for certain classes of an important family of hormone- like substances called the eicosanoids (see below).

The omega-3 fatty acid ALA (18:3n-3) can be converted to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; 20:5n-3). EPA can be elongated to docosapentaenoic acid (DPA 22:5n-3), which is further desaturated to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22:6n-3). EPA and DHA are also precursors of several classes of eicosanoids and are known to play several other critical roles, some of which are discussed further below.

The conversion from parent fatty acids into the LC PUFAs – EPA, DHA, and AA – appears to occur slowly in humans. In addition, the regulation of conversion is not well understood, although it is known that ALA and LA compete for entry into the metabolic pathways.

Physiological Functions of EPA and AA

As stated earlier, fatty acids play a variety of physiological roles. The specific biological functions of a fatty acid are determined by the number and position of double bonds and the length of the acyl chain.

Both EPA (20:5n-3) and AA (20:4n-6) are precursors for the formation of a family of hormone- like agents called eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are rudimentary hormones or regulating – molecules that appear to occur in most forms of life. However, unlike endocrine hormones, which travel in the blood stream to exert their effects at distant sites, the eicosanoids are autocrine or paracrine factors, which exert their effects locally – in the cells that synthesize them or adjacent cells. Processes affected include the movement of calcium and other substances into and out of cells, relaxation and contraction of muscles, inhibition and promotion of clotting, regulation of secretions including digestive juices and hormones, and control of fertility, cell division, and growth.3

The eicosanoid family includes subgroups of substances known as prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and thromboxanes, among others. As shown in Figure 1.1, the long-chain omega-6 fatty acid, AA (20:4n-6), is the precursor of a group of eicosanoids that include series-2 prostaglandins and series-4 leukotrienes. The omega-3 fatty acid, EPA (20:5n-3), is the precursor to a group of eicosanoids that includes series-3 prostaglandins and series-5 leukotrienes. The AA-derived series-2 prostaglandins and series-4 leukotrienes are often synthesized in response to some emergency such as injury or stress, whereas the EPA-derived series-3 prostaglandins and series-5 leukotrienes appear to modulate the effects of the series-2 prostaglandins and series-4 leukotrienes (usually on the same target cells). More specifically, the series-3 prostaglandins are formed at a slower rate and work to attenuate the effects of excessive levels of series-2 prostaglandins. Thus, adequate production of the series-3 prostaglandins seems to protect against heart attack and stroke as well as certain inflammatory diseases like arthritis, lupus, and asthma.3.

EPA (22:6 n-3) also affects lipoprotein metabolism and decreases the production of substances – including cytokines, interleukin 1ß (IL-1ß), and tumor necrosis factor a (TNF-a) – that have pro-inflammatory effects (such as stimulation of collagenase synthesis and the expression of adhesion molecules necessary for leukocyte extravasation [movement from the circulatory system into tissues]).2 The mechanism responsible for the suppression of cytokine production by omega-3 LC PUFAs remains unknown, although suppression of omega-6-derived eicosanoid production by omega-3 fatty acids may be involved, because the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete for a common enzyme in the eicosanoid synthetic pathway, delta-6 desaturase.

DPA (22:5n-3) (the elongation product of EPA) and its metabolite DHA (22:6n-3) are frequently referred to as very long chain n-3 fatty acids (VLCFA). Along with AA, DHA is the major PUFA found in the brain and is thought to be important for brain development and function. Recent research has focused on this role and the effect of supplementing infant formula with DHA (since DHA is naturally present in breast milk but not in formula).

Dietary Sources and Requirements

Both ALA and LA are present in a variety of foods. LA is present in high concentrations in many commonly used oils, including safflower, sunflower, soy, and corn oil. ALA is present in some commonly used oils, including canola and soybean oil, and in some leafy green vegetables. Thus, the major dietary sources of ALA and LA are PUFA-rich vegetable oils. The proportion of LA to ALA as well as the proportion of those PUFAs to others varies considerably by the type of oil. With the exception of flaxseed, canola, and soybean oil, the ratio of LA to ALA in vegetable oils is at least 10 to 1. The ratios of LA to ALA for flaxseed, canola, and soy are approximately 1: 3.5, 2:1, and 8:1, respectively; however, flaxseed oil is not typically consumed in the North American diet. It is estimated that on average in the U.S., LA accounts for 89% of the total PUFAs consumed, and ALA accounts for 9%. Another estimate suggests that Americans consume 10 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids.4 Table 1.2 shows the proportion of omega 3 fatty acids for a number of foods.

Evidence Report/Technology Assessment   Number 89

 Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Lipids and Glycemic Control in Type II Diabetes and the Metabolic Syndrome and on Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Renal Disease, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, and Osteoporosis

 Prepared for:

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

540 Gaither Road

Rockville, MD 20850

http://www.ahrq.gov

Contract No. 290-02-0003

 Chapter 1. Introduction

This report is one of a group of evidence reports prepared by three Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)-funded Evidence-Based Practice Centers (EPCs) on the role of omega-3 fatty acids (both from food sources and from dietary supplements) in the prevention or treatment of a variety of diseases. These reports were requested and funded by the Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. The three EPCs – the Southern California EPC (SCEPC, based at RAND), the Tufts-New England Medical Center (NEMC) EPC, and the University of Ottawa EPC – have each produced evidence reports. To ensure consistency of approach, the three EPCs collaborated on selected methodological elements, including literature search strategies, rating of evidence, and data table design.

The aim of these reports is to summarize the current evidence on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, child and maternal health, eye health, gastrointestinal/renal diseases, asthma, immune- mediated diseases, tissue/organ transplantation, mental health, and neurological diseases and conditions. In addition to informing the research community and the public on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on various health conditions, it is anticipated that the findings of the reports will also be used to help define the agenda for future research.

This report focuses on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on immune- mediated diseases, bone metabolism, and gastrointestinal/renal diseases. Subsequent reports from the SCEPC will focus on cancer and neurological diseases and conditions.

This chapter provides a brief review of the current state of knowledge about the metabolism, physiological functions, and sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

fatty acid metabolism

fatty acid metabolism

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Inositol lipid regulation of lipid transfer in specialized membrane domains

Fatty acid oxidation and ETC 11306_2014_721_Fig3_HTML

major metabolic intermediates in the pathways for synthesis of cholesterol, fatty acids

major metabolic intermediates in the pathways for synthesis of cholesterol, fatty acids

Arachidonate pathways

Arachidonate pathways

arachidonic acid derivatives

arachidonic acid derivatives

benefits of omega 3s

benefits of omega 3s

flowchart of food energy

flowchart of food energy

Fatty acid synthase

Fatty acid synthase

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Elongation and Desaturation of Fatty Acids

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