Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency

Maintaining a healthy cell

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Paleontologists tell us that our ancestors had diets rich in aquatic animals containing unsaturated Omega-3s that supported the development of the human brain due to its high DHA content. The brain is built from fatty acids and omega-DHA that it is imperative for memory and thinking. Polyunsaturated essential fatty acids (EFAs) are a primary component for developing healthy cell membranes. When applied topically, products containing essential fatty acids help prevent/correct skin barrier and cornification disorders and lower the rate of transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Essential fatty acids cannot be synthesised by the body and must come from foods sources. Today scientists continue to uncover evidence that correct intake of omega-3s is essential to cell function. EFAs perform key roles in helping to maintain optimal health throughout the entire body and the skin.

  • Inflammation-moderating: reduces the production of cytokine messenger chemicals that cause excessive inflammation (the immune response) and inhibits the activation of monocytes. Chronic inflammation is a catalyst for atherosclerosis, a leading cause of cardiovascular disease.
  • Perform an important role in the production of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins support regulation of blood pressure, blood clotting, nerve transmission, functions of kidneys and gastrointestinal tract, inflammatory and allergic responses, and more.3
  • Help to balance and control fats circulating in the blood stream (cholesterol and triglycerides). 3
  • Help decrease platelet aggregation (blood clotting).
  • Support arterial expansion and contraction.
  • Reduce the risk for obesity by assisting insulin response through stimulating leptin secretions, a hormone that helps regulate food intake, body weight and metabolism.
  • Help prevent cancer cell growth.
  • Improves ADD, ADHD
  • Support the healing of sunburn and regeneration of the skin barrier.


Several symptoms are associated with EFA deficiencies. 1

  • Depression, nervous disorders, learning deficits
  • Growth deficiencies in children
  • Inflammation
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Memory loss; inability to concentrate
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Gastrointestinal disease
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Psoriasis, dry, scaly itchy skin
  • Brittle nails, dry hair

Lipids (Fats)

EFA4Prior to understanding the role of essential fatty acids let’s review the different types of fats found in our diets. Fats are derived from fatty acids and glycerol and are referred to as triglycerides. Carbon molecules are framed with hydrogen and oxygen and are joined by ester bonds. When a carbon chain is completely full of hydrogen molecules it is considered “saturated”. When it is missing two hydrogen molecules, it is called a monosaturated fat. Lipids have three roles in our cells: (1) provide an important form of energy storage; (2) are a major component of cell membranes; (3) play a significant role in cell signalling.

Table 1 Fats

Type Appearance Sources Risk Factors or Benefits NOTES
Monosaturated  Solid at room temperature. Shortening, butter, lard, meat fat. Risk factors: Inflammation, heart disease, increased blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, gallbladder issues, breast & ovarian cancer. Limit – Avoid
Trans-fats – Polyunsaturated fatsFound in 40% of supermarket products. Liquid oils turned to solid (margarine, vegetable shortening) Vegetable oils:  corn, safflower, canola, sunflower Trans fats: Oil converts into trans fatty acids by chemically adding hydrogen (hydrogenated) to prevent oxidation and extend shelf life.  Since they are not found naturally in nature, trans fats are unhealthy. They decrease insulin sensitivity; increase risk of heart attacks; increase LDL cholesterol. Use cold-pressed, non-hydrogenated oils. Natural oils are susceptible to heat damage, light and oxygen; overheating alters nutritional values.
Liquid monounsaturated – MUFA has 18 carbon chain w/ double bond between carbons 9 & 10 (oleic acid) Liquid (hardens when refrigerated) Olives, olive oil, limited in nuts and avocadoes Olive oil (cold pressed).  Found to have anti-inflammatory benefits, helps balance cholesterol levels increasing HDL, and more. Use old pressed, extra virgin oil. First pressing contains most nutrients.
Essential Fatty Acids
Poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA)
Essential for all cell membranes cell function.  EFA-3 and EFA-6 are precursors of hormone-like regulatory agents called eicosanoids. EFAs promote cardiovascular health, reduce blood pressure; lower risk of colon, breast, and prostate cancers; anti-inflammatory (arthritis); help psoriasis conditions; reduce oxidative stress in cells, reduces stress chemicals, i.e., cortisol.  Improves mental moods and clarity.
Metabolic Pathways
Omega-6 (LA) linoleic acid è delta-6-desaturaseè Gamma Linolenic acid (GLA) èelongaseè Dihomogamma-Linolenic Acid (DGLA) èdelta-5-desaturase èarachidonic acidSeries 1                                   Series 2
Prostaglandins                        Prostaglandins Anti-Inflammatory                  Inflammatory
Corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, meat, eggs, evening primrose, borage oil Linoleic acid is the most abundant PUFA found in the epidermis with arachidonic acid (AA) being second. It is required for the synthesis of ceramides that make up 40-50% of the lipids in the stratum corneum the support a strong skin barrier. Avoid hydrogenated oils.
Purchase organic foods when possible.
Omega-3 (ALA) Alpha-linolenic acid èdelta-6-desaturase èStearidonic Acidèelongase èEicosatetraenoic Acidèdelta-5-desaturaseèEicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) è Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) èProstaglandin 3 (PG3) (anti-inflammatory) Flax seeds, walnuts, salmon, soybeans, halibut, herring, scallops, shrimp, tofu, tuna, leafy green vegetables, eggs
Some algae contain DHA
ALAs play as an essential immunomodulatory role throughout the skin altering the fatty acid composition and eicosanoid content of the cell.  Eicosanoids derived from EPA help with the regulation of cell division and growth, blood clotting, muscle activity, digestion, and movement of substances in and out of the cell, as well regulating inflammatory responses. Consume wild, cold-water fish
Recommended daily adult intake*
Omega-3 ALA: 1.1-1.6 g/day
Omega-6 LA: 11-17 g/day
*Note: Amounts may vary for male/female/children and for those with disease. Nat. Institutes of Health – Institute of Medicine


The Cell Membrane

EFA1Fatty acids (lipids) make up all cell membranes. The main function of a cell membrane is to selectively regulate active transport that allows certain substances (nutrients) to enter and leave (cell wastes) while preventing others. Four major phospholipid groups make up 50-60% of the lipid membrane forming a stable barrier: Phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylethanolamine, and sphingomyelin.9 Additionally, the plasma membranes contain glycolipids and cholesterol that correspond to about 40% of the total membrane lipid molecules.9 Lipid bilayers behave as two-dimensional fluids (fluidity) in which both lipids and proteins are free to rotate and move in lateral directions. This is a vital property of membranes and is dependent upon temperature and lipid composition.9

Transmembrane proteins are also inserted within the lipid bilayers. The phospholipids give structural organisation to cell membranes. The proteins are responsible for specific functions including communication (signalling) and channel proteins that form pores or selective doorways throughout the cell membrane.9

Building the skin barrier

Healthy skin cells work in synergy to build a strong skin barrier. During epidermal differentiation, the metabolically active keratinocytes move upward and differentiate to build a strong barrier. Essential fatty acids merge into the phospholipids of the cell membranes and organelles.7 At the granulosum layers, the cells contain oil-rich reservoirs called Odlund (lamellar) bodies that are filled with ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids. They excrete their contents into the extracellular spaces and form what are known as the bilayers. Their strategic function is to govern skin permeability and water balance (NMF) within the skin.1 They are also the primary pathways for chemical penetration through the stratum corneum.

Considerations for maintaining a healthy cell membrane

Inadequate intake of omega-3 results in abnormalities in the skin barrier. There’s a marked difference in healthy skin with organised lamellae (layers) between the corneocytes versus skin with essential fatty acid deficiency (EFAD) that causes disorganisation and appears as undulations (furrows) resulting in ichthyosis (scaly skin). When the membrane becomes damaged (oxidative stress, disease, poor nutrition) it no longer functions correctly leading to acceleration of the ageing process. Glycation (deep wrinkles) is a prime example.

EFA Balance for Optimum Health

EPA, DHA (from Omega-3 ALA) and AA (arachidonic acid from Omega-6 (LA) are both metabolised though the same biochemical pathways. EPA and AA are precursors for hormone-like agents (signalling molecules) called eicosanoids that play a vital role in immune and inflammatory responses throughout the body including the skin. The highly complex conversion process is reliant on a complex series of enzymatic alterations – delta-6 desaturase and delta-5 desaturase. This rate of conversion is considered very inefficient since only 1-10% of ALA is actually converted to EPA and DHA.11 During the conversion process, both Omega-3 and Omega-6 compete for the same enzymes. When there is competition from a surplus of omega-6 fats it becomes a colossal deterrent for omega-3 to be converted correctly. Moreover, if an individual has an enzyme defect that prevents the formation of GLA and other essential substances it can lead to dermatitis and other inflammatory issues that contributes to biological ageing.

Dietary recommendations include reducing the amount of Omega-6 and increasing Omega-3 along with adequate amounts of all nutrients including vitamin B6, B3, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc. GLA (gamma linolenic acid) can be found in primrose oil, borage oil, and in the seed oil of black currents. These GLA-enriched oils are also incorporated into many of the dermaviduals® formulations to support skin correction.

Inflammation and Drug Intervention

Life style, genetic traits, and other conditions, however, can lead to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, dermatitis, dry scaly rashes, and skin barrier function disorders. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid) regulate inflammatory responses by regulating the production of proinflammatory compounds such as cytokines. Optimum function of these complex chemical processes is vital to health. Medical intervention often recommends taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as NSAIDs, anti-rheumatic drugs, and other topical skin prescriptions. Unfortunately, these drugs interfere or inhibit specific enzyme activities necessary for fatty acid metabolism.2 The effects begin to manifest in the skin in the form of inflammation and disturbance within the skin’s layered structures including the moisture barrier.

Additionally, extreme omega imbalance may also deter development of human brains, disease risks including depression, and cancer. It also can affect foetal development when mothers do not consume proper levels of omega-3 as well as other required nutrients. Individual omega-3 ratio requirements depend upon the health of an individual, especially in the elderly and/or in the presence of disease that may demand more therapeutic doses of omega-3.

Wise Choices

EFA5Since the 1960s, the introduction of cheap vegetable oils was believed to be a healthier choice to butter and lard. Furthermore during the 1980s, consumers were lead to believe that “fats were bad.” A low fat, low carbohydrate diet became synonymous with being healthy. This false ideology gave rise to increased health risks including obesity. The problem was that these oils contained high ratios of Omega-6s (linoleic acid) leading to a ground swell of omega imbalances and health risks. An average diet provides 20 or more parts of omega-6s to one part omegas-3s. This is seven times higher than the recommended three-to-one intake ratio that supports optimal health. Omega-6s are plentiful in corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, and soy including packaged, take-out, and prepared foods that are high in these oils. This also includes grain fed meat, poultry, and farmed fish.

EFA6Seafood sources provide the long chain Omega-3s that our body requires. It is recommended that you consume wild caught fish from cold waters from sustainable fisheries twice a week. Be mindful of some species of fish due to significant levels of contaminants in particular methylmercury and PCBs. Artificial colour is injected into farm-raised salmon to give a pink tone to the flesh. Wild pink salmon obtain their natural pink/orange colour from a fat-soluble carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin taken from their rich diet of zooplankton and krill. If you cannot consume fish, omega-3 can be found in other foods including flax seed oil, walnuts, and soybean.


EFA7 (1)It may also be advantageous to supplement. Be mindful that supplements come from a reliable source. To ensure purity and potency, the fish oil should undergo a multistep molecular distillation process that

  • Concentrates and refines the omega-3 fatty acids
  • Removes lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, dioxins, and PCBs and other contaminants
  • Reduces oxidation and formation of trans fats
  •  Minimized odour and fishy aftertaste.

Oral consumption – notation

While the natural 15-lipoxygenase of the skin oxidises linoleic acid, α-linolenic acid and γ-linolenic acid into anti-inflammatory acids, the same omega-3 or omega-6 acids taken orally are metabolised into eicosapentaenoic acid resp. arachidonic acid and their respective reaction products that are less efficient.

Precaution: Individuals who have disorders involving bleeding, bruising, or consuming blood thinners should consult with their medical practitioner prior to taking supplements of omega-3 fatty acids.

dermaviduals® Solutions: Balanced diet + physiological skin care = Healthy Cells = Healthy Skin

Maintaining the health of the cell is paramount to the skin. Cosmetic ingredients such as emulsifiers, fragrances, colourants, and mineral oils can impede the skin barrier and also damage cell membranes. Based on the science of corneotherapy, the dermaviduals® DMS® system (derma membrane structure) contains phosphatidylcholine made up of linoleic acid and choline. This membrane-forming system is delivered in a spherical transport system utilising liposomes or nanoparticles and offers the perfect balance of essential fatty acids in skincare.

High concentrations of alpha linoleic acid (Omega-3) can be found in Lotion N and Linseed Oil. Additionally, look out for Omega-6’s in Avocado Oil, Grape Seed Oil, Rose Hip Seed Oil as well as Wheat Germ Oil. They really give your skin a boost of essential fatty acids.


This dossier has been prepared on behalf of dermaviduals Australia and New Zealand as a reference that relates to various skin conditions. In no way do they replace the advice of your medical practitioner or a dermatologist. All views represent the research and findings of the writer in conjunction with derma aesthetics.


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  18. Illustrations: public domain
  19. Allport, Susan (2006). The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We can Do To Replace Them. University of California Press, Ltd. London, England and Berkley and Los Angeles, California.
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  22. Vigilante, K. Flynn, M. (1999) Low-Fat Lies, High-Fat Frauds and the healthiest diet in the world. Washington, D.C.: Life Line Press.

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