Essential fatty acids

Essential fatty acids

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are fats that are essential to the diet because the body cannot produce them. Essential fatty acids are extremely important nutrients for health. They are present in every healthy cell in the body, and are critical for the normal growth and functioning of the cells, muscles, nerves, and organs.

EFAs are also used by the body to produce a class of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which are key to many important processes. Deficiencies of EFAs are linked to a variety of health problems, including major ones such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. It has been estimated that as many as 80% of American people may consume insufficient quantities of EFAs.

Very few health issues have received as much attention during the past several decades as the question of fat in the diet. Sixty-eight percent of deaths in America are related to fat consumption and diet, including heart disease (44% of deaths), cancer (22%) and diabetes (2%).

There are several types of dietary fats. Saturated fat is found mainly in animal products, including meat and dairy products, and avocados, and nuts. Cholesterol is a dietary fat that is only found in animal products. Cholesterol is also made by the body in small amounts from saturated fats. Heavy consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol has been linked to heart disease and cancer.

Unsaturated fats are typically oils from vegetables, nuts, and are present in some fish. These are considered the healthiest dietary fats. Essential fatty acids are unsaturated fats. EFAs are the only fats that may need to be increased in the American diet.

Scientists classify essential fatty acids into two types, omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, depending on their chemical composition. Technically, the omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid, stearidonic acid, and two others called EPA and DHA. Alphalinolenic acid is found mainly in flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybeans, walnuts, hemp seeds, and dark green leafy vegetables. Stearidonic acid is found in rarer types of seeds and nuts, including black currant seeds. EPA and DHA are present in cold-water fish, including salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, and cod. Cod liver oil is a popular nutritional supplement for omega-3 EFAs.

Omega-6 fatty acids are more common in the American diet than the omega-3 EFAs. These include linoleic acid, which is found in safflower, olive, almond, sunflower, hemp, soybean, walnut, pumpkin, sesame, and flaxseed oils. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is found in some seeds and evening primrose oil. Arachidonic acid (AA) is present in meat and animal products.

Both types of EFAs, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, are necessary in a healthy diet. Deficiencies of EFAs have been brought about by changes in diet and the modern processing of foods and oils. Many nutritionists believe that a major dietary problem is the use of hydrogenated oils, which are present in margarine and many processed foods.

Fatty acids diagram

Hydrogenated oils are highly refined by industrial processes, and contain toxic by-products and trans-fatty acids. Trans-fatty acids are fat molecules with chemically altered structures, and are believed to have several detrimental effects on the body. Transfatty acids interfere with the absorption of healthy EFAs, and may contribute to atherosclerosis, or damage to the arteries. Deep-fried foods, which are cooked in oil that is altered by very high temperatures, also contain transfatty acids.

Many health professionals, including those at the World Heath Organization, have protested against the use of hydrogenated oils in food and the consumption of trans-fatty acids. Health conditions linked to the consumption of trans-fatty acids and hydrogenated oils include cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, immune system disorders, decreased sperm counts, and infant development problems.

Dietary changes that have contributed to EFA deficiency or imbalances include the increased use of oils that contain few or no omega-3 EFAs; the industrial milling of flour that removes the EFA-containing germ; the increase of sugar and fried foods in the diet that may interfere with the body’s absorption of EFAs; and the decreased consumption of fish.

A balance of omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs in the diet is recommended by experts. Americans typically consume higher quantities of omega-6 EFAs, because these are found in meat, animal products, and common cooking oils. Research has shown that too many omega-6 EFAs in the diet can lead to the imbalanced production of prostaglandins, which may contribute to health problems. Experts recommend that omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs be present in the diet in a ratio of around one to three. Americans consume a ratio as high as one to 40. Thus, the need for greater amounts of omega-3 EFAs in the diet has increased.

Symptoms of EFA deficiency or imbalance include dry or scaly skin, excessively dry hair, cracked fingernails, fatigue, weakness, frequent infections, allergies, mood disorders, hyperactivity, depression, memory and learning problems, slow wound healing, aching joints, poor digestion, high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol.

General use

EFA supplementation is recommended for more than 60 health conditions. EFAs are used therapeutically to treat and prevent cardiovascular problems, including heart disease, high cholesterol, strokes, and high blood pressure. EFAs also have anti-inflammatory effects in the body, and are used in the nutritional treatment of arthritis, asthma, allergies, and skin conditions (e.g., eczema). EFAs are used as support for immune system disorders including AIDS, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and cancer.

Other conditions that may improve with EFA supplementation include acne and other skin problems, diabetes, depression, menopausal problems, nervous conditions, obesity, memory and learning disabilities, eye problems, and digestive disorders. EFAs are recommended for weight loss programs, as they may assist fat metabolism in the body. EFA supplementation is a recommended preventative practice, as well.


Common EFA supplements are flaxseed oil, evening primrose oil, borage oil, black currant seed oil, hemp seed oil, and cod liver oil. Consumers should search for supplements that contain both omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs, because imbalances of EFAs may occur if either is taken in excess over long periods of time. Flaxseed oil is a recommended supplement, because it contains the highest percentage of omega-3 fatty acids with some omega-6 EFAs, as well.

Flaxseed oil is generally the least expensive source of omega-3 EFAs as well, generally much cheaper than fish oil supplements. Evening primrose oil is a popular supplement as well, because the GLA it contains has shown benefits in treating premenstrual syndrome and other conditions. However, evening primrose oil contains no omega-3 EFAs. Hemp seed oil is a wellbalanced source of both EFAs.

Supplements are available from health food stores in liquid and capsule form. The recommended daily dosage is one to two tablespoons (13-26 capsules), taken with meals. EFAs can also be obtained from a diet that includes cold-water fish consumed twice per week, whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, wheat germ, soy products, canola oil, and other foods mentioned above. Whole flaxseeds are a wholesome source of EFAs as well, and can be freshly ground and added to salads and other dishes. Supplements that contain the enzyme lipase help the body more efficiently digest the oils.


EFA supplements are generally fragile products, and must be produced, packaged and handled properly. Consumers should search for quality EFA supplements produced by reputable manufacturers. Products that are organically grown and certified by a third party are recommended. EFA products should be produced by “cold or modified expeller pressing,” which means that they were produced without damaging temperatures or pressure.

Products should be packaged in light-resistant containers, because sunlight damages EFAs. Packages should include manufacturing and expiration dates, in order to assure freshness. Stores and consumers should keep EFA products under refrigeration, because heat damages them. Taste can indicate the quality of EFA oils: those that have no flavor usually are overly refined, and those that taste bitter are old or spoiled. Because of their low temperature threshold, nearly all oils that are used as EFA supplements are not suitable for use as cooking oils.

In 2001, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began cautioning pregnant and nursing women and parents of infants and toddlers about the potential dangers of exposure to mercury from fish rich in omega- 3 fatty acids, and from fish oil capsules. High levels of mercury can affect brain development in fetuses and young children. The FDA recommends that these groups instead opt for younger species of fish such as canned tuna or farm-raised fish and skip fish oil capsules altogether. Vegetarians can supplement their diets with foods high in aplah-linoleic acids, including certain oils, flaxseed, and walnuts.

Essential oils

Essential oils

Essential oils are the fragrant oils that are present in many plants. Hundreds of plants yield essential oils that are used as perfumes, food flavorings, medicines, and as fragrant and antiseptic additives in many common products.

Essential oils have been used for thousands of years. The ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, more than 5,000 years ago, had machines for obtaining essential oils from plants. Essential oils were the primary source of perfumes for the ancient civilizations of Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome.

Essential oils have been found in 3,000-year-old tombs in the Pyramids, and early Greek physicians, including Hippocrates, mentioned aromatic plant essences and oil massages for their healing and mood-enhancing qualities. The Romans associated essential oils and their fine aromas with wealth and success. Ayurvedic medicine, the world’s oldest healing system, has long recommended essential oil massage as a health treatment for many conditions.

In modern times, essential oils are used in the manufacture of high quality perfumes, as additives in many common products, and in the healing practice of aromatherapy. Aromatherapy was begun in the 1920s by a French chemist named Réné-Maurice Gattefosse, who became convinced of the healing powers of essential oils when he used lavender oil to effectively heal a severe burn on his body.

Gattefosse also discovered that essential oils could be absorbed into the bloodstream when applied to the skin, and had medicinal effects inside the body. Another Frenchman, Dr. Jean Valnet, used essential oils during World War II to treat soldiers, and wrote a major book on the topic in 1964 called Aromatherapie.

European biochemist, Marguerite Maury, performed thorough studies of how essential oils influence the body and emotions, and popularized essential oil massages as therapy. In the 1990s, aromatherapy was one of the fastest-growing alternative health treatments.

Essential oils are produced using several techniques. Distillation uses water and steam to remove the oils from dried or fresh plants, and the expression method uses machines to squeeze the oil out of plants. Other techniques may use alcohol or solvents to remove essential oils from plant materials.

Essential oils are extremely concentrated. It would take roughly thirty cups of herbal tea to equal the concentration of plant essence in one drop of essential oil. Some essential oils made from rose plants require 4,000 pounds of rose petals to make one pound of essential oil, and are thus very expensive. Lavender is one of the easiest essential oils to produce, because it only takes one hundred pounds of plant material to produce one pound of essential oil.

Essential oils are generally very complex chemically, containing many different substances and compounds. Some experts have theorized that essential oils are the lifeblood of a plant, and contain compounds that the plant uses to fight infections and drive away germs and parasites. Scientific research has isolated hundreds of chemicals in essential oils, and has shown many essential oils to have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and antiparasitic properties. Some essential oils contain more than 200 identified chemical substances.

Although there are hundreds of essential oils that are used regularly in healing treatments and perfumes, some of the more commonly used essential oils are lavender, chamomile, peppermint, tea tree oil, eucalyptus, geranium, jasmine, rose, lemon, orange, rosemary, frankincense, and sandalwood.

Uses of Essential oils

General use

Essential oils are used in several healing systems, including aromatherapy, Ayurvedic medicine, and massage therapy. Essential oils are used for skin and scalp conditions including acne, athlete’s foot, burns, cuts, dandruff, eczema, insect bites, parasites, sunburn, warts, and wrinkles. They are recommended for muscle, joint, and circulation problems such as arthritis, high blood pressure, cellulite, aches and pains, and varicose veins.

For respiratory problems and infections, various essential oils are prescribed for allergies, asthma, earache, sinus infections, congestion, and colds and flu. Essential oils are also used to improve digestion, promote hormonal balance, and tone the nervous system in conditions including anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and exhaustion.

Essential oils can be used as quick and effective mood enhancers, for increasing energy and alertness or reducing stress and promoting relaxation. Essential oils can be used as perfumes and lotions, and can be used as incense to improve the atmosphere in houses and offices.

In 2002, several reports were made on the benefits of tea tree oil in fighting infections. Although still preliminary, these reports will help pave the way to greater acceptance of essential oils in the mainstream medical community. In the case of tea tree oil, one small study showed its effectiveness in fighting orthopedic (bone, joint, and soft tissue) infections. Another recent study showed promising results for tea tree oil gel in topical treatment of recurrent herpes labialis.


Essential oils work by entering the body in two ways, through the nose and through the skin. The nose is a powerful sense organ, and the sense of smell is connected directly to the limbic system of the brain, which helps control emotions, memory, and several functions in the body. Research has shown that aromas and the sense of smell influence memory recall, moods, and bodily responses such as heart rate, respiration, hormone levels, and stress reactions. Essential oils with their potent aromas can be used to enhance moods, promote relaxation, and increase energy levels.

Essential oils are also absorbed by the skin, and act medicinally once they are absorbed into the body. For instance, eucalyptus oil, long used in common cough and cold remedies, can be rubbed on the chest to break up congestion and mucus inside the lungs. Some essential oils, such as tea tree oil, lavender, and thyme, have natural antiseptics in them, and can be applied to cuts, burns, and sores to disinfect and promote healing.

Because essential oils are very strong and concentrated, they should be diluted with base oils before rubbing them directly on the body. Base oils are gentle and inexpensive oils, and common ones include almond, jojoba, grapeseed, sunflower, and sesame oil. Mineral oil is not recommended as a base oil.

Essential oils should be diluted to make up 1–3% of a base oil solution, which is one to three drops of essential oil per teaspoon of base oil. For larger quantities, 20 to 60 drops can be added per 100 milliliters of base oil. Only a few essential oils can be rubbed directly on the skin without dilution. These are lavender, tea tree oil, eucalyptus, and geranium, although people with sensitive skin should use them with care.

Allergic reactions are possible with essential oils. People with sensitive skin or allergies should perform a simple skin test when using essential oils for the first time. To do a skin test, one drop of essential oil can be added to a teaspoon of base oil, and a small amount of this solution can be rubbed on a sensitive spot on the skin, such as the soft side of the arm or behind the ear. If no irritation occurs after 24 hours, then the essential oil is non-allergenic.

Essential oils can be used in a variety of ways. They can be added to massage oils for therapeutic massages. Essential oil solutions can be used on the skin, scalp and hair as lotions, conditioners, and perfumes. A few drops of essential oils can be added to bath water or used in the sauna. Essential oil diffusers, lamps, and candles are available which use heat and steam to spread (diffuse) the aroma of essential oils in rooms.

Essential oils can be added to hot-and-cold compresses for injuries and aches. Some essential oils, like tea tree, fennel, and peppermint oil, can be combined with a mixture of water and apple cider vinegar and used as mouthwash. For colds and congestion in the lungs or sinuses, essential oils can be inhaled by adding a few drops to a pot of boiling water, and covering the head with a towel over the pot and breathing the vapors.

Consumers should search for essential oils made by reputable manufacturers. Essential oils should be certified to be 100% pure, without chemical additives or synthetic fragrances. The highest quality oils are generally obtained from distillation and cold pressing methods.


Essential oils should not be taken internally, by mouth, rectum or vagina, unless under medical supervision. Essential oils should be kept away from the eyes. If an essential oil gets into the eyes, they should be rinsed immediately with cold water. Essential oils should be used with care on broken or damaged skin.

Some essential oils have not been thoroughly tested and may be toxic. The oils to be avoided include arnica, bitter almond, calamus, cinnamon, clove, mugwort, sage, wintergreen, and wormwood. Pregnant women should avoid these and basil, fennel, marjoram, myrrh, oregano, star anise, and tarragon. In general, any essential oils that have not been tested or lack adequate information should be avoided.

Some essential oils may cause the skin to become photosensitive, or more sensitive to sunlight and more likely to become sunburned. Essential oils that are photosensitizing include bergamot, orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, and angelica root. These oils should be avoided before exposure to sunlight and ultraviolet light such as in tanning beds. People with sun-related skin problems should avoid these oils.

Those with health conditions should use care with essential oils. Steam inhalation of essential oils is not recommended for asthma sufferers. The essential oils of rosemary, fennel and sage should be avoided by those with epilepsy.

Pregnant and nursing women should use caution with essential oils, because their skin and bodies are more sensitive and some oils may cause adverse reactions.

Essential oils should not be used during the first three months of pregnancy, and after that they should only be used when heavily diluted with base oils. Women with histories of miscarriage should not use essential oils during pregnancy at all. Pregnant women should perform skin tests before using essential oils. Essential oils are not recommended for nursing mothers.

Essential oils should be used with care on children. They are not recommended for children under one year of age, and should be heavily diluted with base oils when used as a skin massage or lotion for children. Essential oils should be stored out of the reach of children. Clean glass containers are the best storage vessels, and should be dark in color to keep sunlight from damaging the oil. Some essential oils can damage wood, varnish, plastic, and clothing, and should be handled with care.

Side effects

Most readily available essential oils are safe if used in small doses, and side effects are generally rare. Possible side effects include rashes, itching, and irritation on the skin. Allergic reactions include watery eyes, sneezing, and inflammation. Some essential oils may cause nausea, dizziness, or gastrointestinal discomfort when used in excess or by those with allergic reactions. Some essential oils, particularly those derived from citrus fruit plants, can cause increased sensitivity to sunlight and increased risk of sunburn.


Essential oils are not recommended for those taking homeopathic remedies, as essential oils are believed to interfere with their effectiveness. Essential oils are often blended together to enhance their healing effects, and mixtures can be tailored to individual preferences and conditions. Aromatherapists specialize in creating essential oil blends for individuals and health conditions.

Essiac tea

Essiac tea

Essiac tea is based on a Canadian Ojibwa Indian formula containing primarily burdock root (Arctium lappa), Turkish rhubarb root (Rheum palmatum), sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), and the inner bark of the slippery elm (Ulmus fulva or Ulmus rubra). It is used in alternative medicine mainly as a treatment for cancer.

The formula is said to have been first developed by an Ojibwa healer to purify the body and balance the spirit. In 1922, the formula came to the attention of Rene Caisse (essiac is Caisse spelled backwards), a nurse in Ontario, Canada, after hearing first-hand accounts of it curing cancer.

She began administering the tea to cancer patients and found it to have remarkable healing abilities. She continued treating cancer patients with the tea until she died in 1978. In 1977, Caisse sold the essiac tea formula to the Resperin Corp. of Ontario, Canada.

Caisse reported that hundreds of her patients had been cured of their cancers through the use of her tea, sometimes used as intramuscular injections. Most of the patients came to her after conventional cancer treatments (surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy) failed.

Several alternative health care practitioners report essiac tea seems to work best in patients who have had the least amount of radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

The mainstream medical community does not embrace essiac tea. Critics contend that a certain number of cancers deemed incurable spontaneously go into remission without an adequate medical explanation as to why.

Others chalk up the successes to the so-called placebo effect, where the belief that the treatment is working effects a cure rather than the treatment itself. The treatment is not approved by the American Medical Association or the American Cancer Society.

In 1938, a bill in the Canadian Parliament to legalize essiac tea failed by three votes. It is still not approved for marketing in the United States or Canada. However, the Canadian Health and Welfare Department permits compassionate use of essiac tea on an emergency basis.

In 1975 and again in 1982, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York tested only the sorrel component in the tea. They boiled it which may have neutralized any beneficial compounds in the leftover tea and administered it to mice with cancerous tumors. It determined the formula had no anticancer effects. The National Cancer Institute and Canadian Bureau of Prescription Drugs reached the same conclusion in the 1980s.

General use

Essiac herbal blend

Essiac tea is generally used by alternative health care practitioners to treat, and even cure, various forms of cancer and the side effects of conventional cancer therapy. It is also used to treat AIDS. It is used to a lesser extent to treat a variety of other medical conditions, including diabetes, skin inflammation, liver and thyroid problems, diarrhea, ulcers, and some other degenerative diseases.

It is more commonly used in Canada than the United States. Other uses include treating pain, purifying the blood, healing wounds, lowering cholesterol, and increasing energy levels.

Although each of the four main ingredients in essiac tea are used to treat other conditions, only the sorrel is used separately to treat cancer. Only when the four are combined do they effect anti-cancer properties. It is not clear exactly how or why the ingredients work in combination, but it is generally believed they work synergistically to stimulate production of antibodies.

Caisse herself said she believed essiac tea purified the blood and carried away damaged tissue and infection related to the cancer. She also believed the tea strengthened the immune system, allowing healthy cells to destroy cancerous cells.

Caisse also maintained that tumors not destroyed by essiac tea would be shrunk and could be surgically removed after six to eight weeks of treatment. To insure any malignant cells that remained after treatment and surgery were destroyed, Caisse recommended at least three months of additional weekly essiac treatments.

One of Caisse’s patients was her mother, Friseide Caisse, who was diagnosed with liver cancer at the age of 72. Her mother’s physician reportedly said she had only days to live. Rene Caisse began giving her mother daily intramuscular injections of the tea. Friseide began recovering within a few days and after a few months, with less frequent doses of essiac, her cancer was gone. She lived to be 90, finally succumbing to heart disease.


The four main ingredients of Essiac tea are sold separately and can be combined at home. Essiac tea is also marketed as tea bags and in bottles of the prepared formula. The basic formula for essiac tea is to combine 6.5 c of cut burdock root, 16 oz of powdered sheep sorrel (including stems, seeds, and leaves), 1 oz of powdered Turkish rhubarb root, and 4 oz of powdered slippery elm bark.

Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Boil 2 gal of fresh spring water, add 8 oz of the essiac blend, cover, and boil on high heat for 10 minutes. Turn heat off and let sit for six hours. Remove cover and stir. Replace cover and let steep another six hours.

Turn on heat and return the mixture to a boil. Remove from heat and strain into another pot. Wash original pot and strain mixture again into it. Then pour liquid into amber bottles, cap, and store in a dark cool location. Refrigerate after opening.

The formula is ready to use immediately. When ready, shake the bottle well to mix the sediments. Blend 4 tsp of the essiac formula with 4 tsp of warm spring water. The usual daily dosage is 2–4 oz of tea for persons weighing 100–150 lb and 2 oz for every 50 lb over 150 lb.

Some alternative health practitioners recommend regular doses of essiac to strengthen the immune system and as a preventative for certain diseases, including cancer. The frequency ranges from daily to weekly.


Essiac tea is not recommended for pregnant or lactating women. The formula should not be prepared or stored in plastic or aluminum containers. Sunlight and freezing temperatures destroys the formula’s effectiveness. It is generally recommended that persons consult with their physician before treating any condition with essiac. It is important to remember that essiac is often used in combination with traditional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Side effects

No major adverse side effect have been associated with essiac tea.


Essiac is not known to adversely interact with other medications or nutritional supplements.