Essential fatty acids are fats that cannot be synthesized by the body and so must be consumed in the diet. Fatty acids are used for a wide variety of functions in the body, which include proper heart, brain, and immune system functioning, healthy skin and hair, and flexible joints. Due to the many processes in the body that require these fats, an essential fatty acid deficiency can cause many unpleasant symptoms.
Because skin, nail, and hair cells tend to have a fast turnover, they are often the places that an essential fatty acid deficiency will first begin to show. Hair may become dull, brittle, or frizzy. The hair may begin to break off, and in extreme conditions may even begin to fall out. A person with this deficiency may also begin to have dandruff.
The skin will show an essential fatty acid deficiency by becoming dry and dull. Painful cracking might occur on the heels, knees, and elbows. In addition, the nails will often begin to grow slowly, have a dull appearance, and eventually begin to split.
An essential fatty acid deficiency may also begin to affect some of the crucial processes in the body that require these fatty acids. Essential fatty acids are modified in the body to become signaling molecules that affect blood pressure, heart rate, and the immune system. They also appear to be involved in lowering bad cholesterol and increasing good cholesterol. Finally, they play a role in brain development and continue to be involved in the adult brain because of their role in neuron signaling.
These important functions mean that an essential fatty acid deficiency could have potentially serious consequences. Low levels of these fatty acids may be associated with a higher risk of heart disease, and increased levels of these fatty acids have been shown to lower cholesterol levels, decrease heart attack risk, and decrease atherosclerosis. Chronic inflammatory conditions are also associated with fatty acid deficiency, and holistic medical practitioners often suggest essential fatty acid supplements for people with autoimmune conditions. Finally, there is a possible connection between an essential fatty acid deficiency and certain mental illnesses and attention deficit disorder (ADD).
Infants may be at an increased risk of developing an essential fatty acid deficiency if they are fed a low-fat formula for a long period of time. This may result in decreased growth and failure to put on weight. It may also result in delayed learning.
There is no real consensus on the incidence of essential fatty acid deficiency. Some doctors and nutritionists feel it is relatively rare except for people with chronic fat absorption problems, with a prolonged illness, or with a severely restricted diet, such as an eating disorder like anorexia. Other medical professionals feel that many people actually have this deficiency at some level, and that this is responsible for the high number of people with heart disease and autoimmune disorders.
To prevent a deficiency, it is considered safe for most people to supplement daily with essential fatty acids either as an oil, such as flaxseed oil, or as a tablet supplement. The most common side effect is an unpleasant taste in the mouth. At very high levels, essential fatty acids are associated with increased bleeding, so people should not take these in excess. People who regularly take aspirin or blood thinners should talk to a doctor before trying these supplements.