Fatty Acid Supplements

This is part three of a four part article.

The chart below gives a simple breakdown of some of the major fatty acids we've been discussing. The first division is whether the fatty acid is saturated or unsaturated, which refers, as we discussed earlier, to whether all the carbon atoms in a chain are holding hydrogen atoms. We used the analogy of carbon molecule “shoppers” standing in a line holding hydrogen molecule “shopping bags.”


The four different fatty acids listed under saturated are differentiated by their length, in other words, how many carbon atoms are in the chain. Lauric acid is the shortest with only 12 “shoppers” in the chain. Myrstic acid is longer with 14 carbon molecules in a line, while palmitic has 16 and stearic acid has 18. So, the length, not just the amount of saturation, is important in distinguishing fatty acids.

Besides the distinction of being monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, unsaturated fatty acids also fall into three more categories: Omega-3, Omega-6 and Omega-9. This distinction is made by the position of the unsaturated bonds.

Fatty acids have two ends, an omega end, which is oil soluble, and a delta end, which is water soluble. To determine whether a fatty acid is an omega-3, -6 or -9, you start at the omega end of the fatty acid and count the number of carbon molecule shoppers in the line until you reach the first pair of shoppers who are holding hands instead of holding hydrogen molecule shopping bags.

If you remember from our previous discussion, the shoppers who are holding hands instead of shopping bags are called a double bond. So, if the first double bond is three carbon molecules down the line, it is an omega-3 fatty acid. If the first double bond is six carbon molecules down the line, then it's an omega-6 and so forth.

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids

Omega-9 essential fatty acids aren't considered essential because the body can make them out of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. Oleic acid is the basic Omega-9 fatty acid. It is a monounsaturated fatty acid and is 18 carbon molecules long. It is found in foods like olive oil (virgin or extra virgin), olives, avocados, peanuts, sesame oil, and nuts like almonds, pecans pistachios, cashews, macadamias, etc. Studies have shown that oleic acid lowers heart attack risk and arteriosclerosis, and aids in cancer prevention. An omega-9 fatty acid, oleic acid, was pictured earlier.

Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acids

The polyunsaturated fatty acids are considered essential because the body can't manufacture them. The basic Omega-6 essential fatty acid (EFA) is linoleic acid. Here's an example of an Omega-6 essential fatty acid.


The most common form of linoleic acid is alpha-linoleic acid, which the body converts to gamma linoleic acid (GLA). Linoleic acid is found in all vegetable oils and many other foods. There is, however, a special form of linoleic acid known as conjugated linoleic acid or CLA. Oddly enough, CLA is actually a naturally occurring transfatty acid. The structure of this is shown below. Notice that the double bonds are different from regular linoleic acid shown above. The red arrows point to the double bonds.


CLA is found in grass-fed meat and dairy products. CLA is converted to GLA and is more likely to be converted into good prostaglandins (the kind that reduce inflammation) than regular linoleic acid. When animals are allowed to graze on grass they will produce up to 500% more CLA. Animals fed commercial feed and grains in feed lots don't produce as much CLA.

CLA appears to be a very healthy form of linoleic acid, in spite of its transfatty structure. Possible benefits of CLA include increasing metabolic rate and stimulating thyroid activity, decreasing abdominal fat, balancing adrenal hormones, enhancing muscle development, lowering triglycerides and cholesterol, enhancing the immune system and reducing food-induced allergic reactions.

Supplementation with GLA has proven helpful for a wide variety of conditions. While it's true that most Americans get plenty of Omega-6 in their diets, many have problems converting it to GLA. This is because their diets are rich in sugar, alcohol, and transfatty acids. Smoking, stress, viral infections, diabetes, and even the aging process can also inhibit this conversion process.

GLA supplementation has been used for a wide variety of health problems, but some of its best uses are:

  • Reducing inflammation in chronic inflammatory diseases, (such as arthritis, food and respiratory allergies, burning hands and feet, autoimmune disorders, eczema, psoriasis and dermatitis),
  • Helping to repair damage in nerve and brain disorders (such as bipolar mood disorder, multiple sclerosis (MS), nerve damage, neuralgia, neuritis, neurosis, epilepsy, senility and Parkinson's disease)
  • Easing female reproductive problems (breast lumps, enlarged breasts, cystic breast disease, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, PMS, leukorrhea, post partum weakness and menopause)
  • Helping detoxification from chemicals, pesticides and heavy metals
  • Resolving appetite problems (craving for fats, failure to thrive in infants and weight gain)

Other possible uses for GLA supplements include helping keep skin healthy (dry skin, wrinkle prevention, seborrhea, vitiligo, cradle cap), anemia, asthma, high blood pressure, cancer prevention, cystic fibrosis, type II diabetes, down syndrome, ligaments (torn or injured), Lupus, Lyme disease, and restless leg syndrome.

GLA is found in evening primrose oil, black currant oil and borage oil, all of which are found in NSP's Super GLA blend. These oils also contain linoleic acid (Omega-6) and linolenic acid (Omega-3) in varying amounts. The percentages of these fatty acids in each oil are shown below:

  • Evening Primrose Oil: 8-10% GLA, trace Omega-3, 72-73% Omega-6
  • Borage Oil: 20-24% GLA, trace Omega-3, 35-37% Omega-6
  • Black Currant Oil: 15-18% GLA, 13% Omega-3, 47% Omega-6

Getting the Most from GLA

Supplementation with GLA doesn't always work. There are several reasons for this. First, the body can't use essential fatty acids properly if fat metabolism is impaired. The body has to be able to digest the fats, absorb them and metabolize them in the liver and other tissues. Secondly, the body converts GLA into other substances called eicosanoids. These are little chemical messengers (a primitive form of hormones) which are produced by every cell in the body.

Some of these eicosanoids reduce inflammation, enhance immune function, lower blood pressure and otherwise exert beneficial effects on the body. Others do the opposite, increasing inflammation, reducing immune function and increasing blood pressure. Borrowing an analogy from Star Wars (I'm a sci fi fan), GLA is like a young Jedi knight who can stay on the light side or turn to the dark side of the eicosonoid force.

Arachidonic_acid_spacefill.pngOn the “dark side,” GLA is converted to arachidonic acid (shown on the right), which is then converted into eicosanoids like series 4 leukotrienes and lipoxins (which are pro-inflammatory) and series 2 prostaglandins and thromboxanes (which are pro-inflammatory, raise blood pressure, constrict arteries to raise blood pressure. promote blood clotting and do other dastardly deeds). On the “light side” GLA is converted to series 1 prostaglandins and thromboxanes (which reduce inflammation, reduce cell proliferation, reduce blood clotting, dilate blood vessels to reduce blood pressure and do other good deeds). If we want to get the benefits from any Omega-6 supplement (evening primrose oil, borage oil, black current oil or Super GLA Oil, we have to keep it working on the “light side” of the eicosanoids force.

So, what is it that turns our healthy GLA and linoleic acid (Omega-6) to the “dark side?” The evil doers are high insulin levels and transfatty acids, coupled with a lack of another good guy to guide them, Omega-3 essential fatty acids. So, to get the best results with GLA or CLA supplements reduce refined carbohydrates and “bad” fats in the diet and make certain you get a good ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6

Continue to part four, Omega-3 Fatty Acids.