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Putting Essential Fatty Acids to Work Can Only Enhance Women’s Health

Good fat, bad fat, low fat, no fat. Cut the carbs but eat some more fat. What sounds like the opening lines of a Dr. Seuss book are actually more reflective of the confusing dietary advice we’ve been getting from the government, medical community, and health “experts” over the past several decades.

As a result, we have been subjecting ourselves to a variety of extreme diets and unnatural foods that have done more to reduce our pleasure than our waistlines.

Women tend to suffer most from this confusion over dietary fat because fat plays a key role in women’s health. Without the right balance of healthy fats and oils, women may be more prone to distinctly female health issues.

These include premenstrual syndrome, menstrual cramps, abnormal menstrual bleeding, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and breast disease. Then there are pregnancy-related problems, which may also impact the health of a fetus during pregnancy.

Recognizing the Importance of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)

Any discussion about the importance of dietary fat needs to be based on a general understanding of the importance of essential fatty acids (EFAs) — the building blocks of all fats. Humans and other animals must consume EFAs in their diet because their bodies cannot synthesize them.

The two most important EFAs are:

  • Linoleic acid (LA or omega-6)
  • Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA or omega-3)

Practically speaking, LA and ALA play a key role in the following:

  • Producing hormones
  • Maintaining the proper function of cell membranes
  • Regulating pain, inflammation, and swelling
  • Dilating or constricting blood vessels
  • Mediating immune response
  • Regulating smooth muscle responses
  • Preventing blood clots
  • Regulating blood pressure and nerve transmission
  • Regulating cholesterol levels

EFA deficiencies can lead to many health problems for both women and men, including:

  • Depression
  • Dry skin
  • Brittle nails
  • High cholesterol
  • Sleep issues
  • Increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Joint pain and inflammation
  • Poor concentration (brain fog)
  • Fatigue

Essential Fatty Acids Deficiency

According to some estimates, about 80 percent of people in the U.S. consume a diet that is deficient in essential fatty acids (EFAs). Generally, the daily consumption of EFAs for adults should be equivalent to about three to four percent of their total daily caloric intake.

For children and pregnant or lactating women, that range increases to five to six percent.

Both linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are essential, but they must be balanced to ensure proper metabolism of prostaglandins — fatty acids that function like hormones to regulate certain biological processes, such as:

  • Blood pressure
  • Smooth muscle contraction
  • Inflammation
  • Pain
  • Fluid balance
  • Blood clotting
  • Steroid production
  • Hormone synthesis
  • Heart, kidney, gut, and nerve function

Ideally, the body converts LA into gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and ALA into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). GLA is then converted into prostaglandin PGE1, and EPA is converted into prostaglandin PGE3. When the body has an imbalance of LA and ALA, it may produce excess PGE2, which is a pro-inflammatory prostaglandin.

The standard American diet is high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, dairy, and saturated and hydrogenated fats, all of which contribute to low amounts of EFAs and high omega-6. This results in the reduced production of PGE1 and PGE3 and increased production of the pro-inflammatory PGE2.

EFAs and Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

Back in 1983, Dr. Guy Abraham, a former UCLA professor of gynecology and obstetrics and the founder of Optimox, conducted a nutritional analysis of women who have PMS. The analysis, titled Nutritional factors in the etiology of the premenstrual tension syndromes revealed that — compared to women without PMS, women with PMS consumed:

  • 62 more refined carbohydrates
  • 275 percent more refined sugar
  • 79 percent more dairy
  • 53 percent less iron
  • 77 percent less manganese
  • 52 percent less zinc

Other studies have linked PMS to a PGE1 deficiency. So, the main approach for supplementing with EFAs to manage PMS is to ensure that the body has what it needs to produce PGE1, which includes:

  • Magnesium
  • Linoleic acid (LA)
  • Vitamins B3, B6, and C
  • Zinc

Vegetable oils are rich in linoleic acid, whereas animal fats are rich in arachidonic acid, which is a precursor to PGE2 and is antagonistic to PGE1. Therefore, patients with PMS are often advised to steer clear of animal fats and increase their consumption of vegetable oils and sources of the other nutrients needed to promote PGE1 synthesis. Oils commonly used to promote PGE1 synthesis include:

  • Evening primrose oil
  • Borage oil
  • Black currant oil
  • Rape seed oil

However, as explained later in this post, healthy oils are beneficial only to the degree that your body can digest and process them, so avoid the temptation to simply start consuming more healthy oils or omega supplements.

EFAs and Menstrual Cramps

Excess PGE2 and insufficient PGE1 are also implicated in menstrual cramps. Remember that PGE2 is a pro-inflammatory and spasmodic prostaglandin, so it’s no surprise that it’s linked to uterine contractions and cramping.

Arachidonic acid, in saturated fats, is a precursor to PGE2 and is antagonistic to PGE1, so reducing the consumption of saturated fats can often help. Avoid sources rich in arachidonic acids, such as:

  • Dairy products: milk, cheese, cottage cheese, butter, ice cream, and yogurt. (In addition to being rich in arachidonic acid, dairy products can cause bloating or gas in individuals with sensitivities to it or those who lack the enzymes for digesting it, which can exacerbate the cramps.)
  • Coconut and palm oil.
  • Animal fats in beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and turkey. (Chicken and turkey are lower in saturated fat but higher in arachidonic acid than red meats.)

Increasing the consumption of foods and supplements that stimulate the production of PGE1 and PGE3 can also be helpful:

  • Cold water fish, including salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, and tuna
  • Flaxseeds and pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds and oils made from these seeds
  • Borage oil, black current oil, evening primrose oil, and fish oils high in omega-3
  • Omega-3 supplements contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids compete with omega-6 fatty acids, including arachidonic acid, and improve PGE1 and PGE3 production.

In one study, fish oil supplements (containing 1,080 mg EPA and 720 mg DHA) plus 1.5 mg vitamin E were tested on 42 adolescent girls with dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation). The first group of 21 received the supplements for two months, followed by a placebo for two months.

The second group received the placebo for two months, followed by the supplements for two months. At the end of the study, 73 percent of the girls rated the effect of the fish oil plus vitamin E greater than or equal to 4 on a 7-point scale.

Irregular Menstruation and Bleeding

Changes in the duration, pattern, and amount of menstrual bleeding are among the most common health concerns among women. If you’re experiencing any abnormal menstrual bleeding, we encourage prompt consultation with your doctor. Most cases are the result of something harmless that’s easy to correct, but it could be a sign of something more serious.

If irregular menstruation is ongoing, supplementation with flaxseed or flaxseed oil may help. Flaxseeds contain phytoestrogens called lignans that have weak estrogenic and antiestrogenic properties.

In one study, researchers examined the effect of flaxseed power on the menstrual cycle of 18 normally cycling women over six cycles. For the first three cycles, they ate a typical diet low in fiber. For the next three cycles, they ate their typical diet supplemented with 10 grams of flaxseed daily. All women were told to avoid soy foods because soy contains high levels of phytoestrogens.

Researchers compared what the women reported during the second and third cycles while on their typical diet with their second and third cycles while on the flax-supplemented diet. While on the typical diet, the 18 women experienced a total of three non-ovulatory cycles (out of 36 total cycles), while they experienced no such cycles on the flaxseed-supplemented diet.

In addition, when eating the flaxseed-supplemented diet, the women had ovulatory cycles that were consistently one day longer in the luteal phase (the latter phase of the menstrual cycle, after ovulation).

Certain oils that increase the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins may also help mitigate heavy bleeding, including the following:

  • Evening primrose oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Borage oil

Amenorrhea (No Menses)

Amenorrhea is a condition when women in their reproductive years have no menstrual periods or have them very infrequently. The condition is often caused by nutritional deficiencies — insufficient calories or dietary fat, or low cholesterol.

The body needs fat and cholesterol to manufacture hormones. Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, or extremely low-fat diets (such as macrobiotic or vegan diets) can result in deficiencies.

Women who experience no or infrequent menses may benefit from increasing their consumption of EFAs in their diet and by supplementing with fish oils, seed oils, or quality omega-3 and omega-6 supplements.

Optimizing Digestion First

By 2026, the global omega-3 fatty acid market is expected to grow to $9 billion dollars. Unfortunately, many of the consumers buying these supplements won’t benefit from them as much as they could. Why? Because dietary and supplementary fats are only as good as your body’s ability to digest and absorb them.

Here at BioDesign Wellness Center, we address any digestive problems before adding dietary or supplementary essential fatty acids. Our protocols to improve digestion are personalized to each individual but often include the use of the following:

  • Bile salts
  • Digestive enzymes
  • Probiotics
  • Prebiotics
  • Immunoglobulins
  • Peptides
  • Digestive repair amino acids
  • Aloe

Out with the Bad Fats, in with the Good Fats

After correcting any digestion issues, we work toward reducing or eliminating the consumption of bad fats and increasing the intake of healthy EFAs in the right ratios.

The best sources of healthy fats are often natural and include the following:

  • Vegetable oils: Olive, canola, flax, sunflower, and pumpkin seed
  • Cold-water fish: Salmon, halibut, sardines, mackerel, and herring
  • Whole grains
  • Supplements: Flax oil, evening primrose oil, borage oil, black current oil, and fish oils rich in EPA and DHA

If you’re a woman having any menstrual issues, we strongly encourage you to consult a doctor who has knowledge and experience treating these issues by addressing digestion and nutrition in addition to available medications when necessary.

If hormone replacement is necessary, natural, bio-identical hormones are available for safe and effective treatment.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post about the role of fatty acids in women’s health is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from the medical staff at BioDesign Wellness Center, Inc., nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.