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The more scientists and researchers look into the potential health benefits of essential fatty acids (the “good fats”), the more evidence they find supporting their role in overall health and wellness. From cardiovascular health to healthy joints and mental function, essential fatty acids (EFAs) provide much-needed nutrition for many of the human body’s most critical functions. In fact, omega-3 essential fatty acids are so important that we’ve included them as one of our "Seven Basic Supplements for Good Health."

But the world of EFAs can be a confusing maze of three-letter acronyms—DHA, EPA, AKG, GLA, CLA, MCT, etc. Then there are the different types of essential fatty acids (omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9), what they are derived from (linolenic acid, linoleic acid and oleic acid, respectively) and the various sources (fish oil, flax seed oil, borage oil, cod liver oil, krill oil, etc). But what does it all mean, and what kind of supplement is right for you? Here is a short guide that will hopefully make choosing the right supplement a little easier.

ALA stands for alpha linolenic acid. It is found in plant-based sources like flax seed, borage, hemp seed and some types of nuts like walnuts. Unlike the next two, ALA is not produced naturally in the body.

EPA stands for eicosapentaenoic acid. It is naturally occurring in the body, but it also comes from sources like coldwater fish (i.e., Arctic cod) and fatty fish (i.e., salmon). About 8% of the human brain is made up of EPA and DHA.

DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid. Like EPA, it is found in coldwater fish. However, it also plays a role in the development of healthy eyes, brain and the nervous system, and it has also been studied as a potential memory support nutrient.

Fish Oils

The human body requires fat to remain healthy and strong. But not all fat is created equally since the body metabolizes different types of fat in different ways. Saturated and trans fats are the bad fats; monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and oils are the good fats. The polyunsaturated oils contain the essential fatty acids that you get from the food you eat. The most common dietary source is fatty fish like salmon, and the most common EFA supplements are fish oil supplements.

Fish oil supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).The fish, like humans, do not actually produce the omega-3 fatty acids themselves; instead, they get the omega-3s from their diet of microalgae, which produces these fatty acids. In the case of predatory fish, they accumulate omega-3s by eating smaller fish that feast on the microalgae. While some people are leery of fish oil supplements because they fear the supplements may contain toxic chemicals like mercury, Swanson Health Products thoroughly tests our products through third-party analysis to ensure purity and potency.

Flax Seed and Evening Primrose Oil

Most people only think about fish oil when it comes to omegas, but there are a few other oils that are also beneficial, including flax seed and evening primrose. Flax seed oil contains the omega-3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which your body needs but cannot produce itself, and evening primrose oil delivers high levels of gamma linolenic acid, which supports a woman's monthly cycle and helps keep skin healthy.

Flax seed oil

Flax seed oil contains the omega-3 known as alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which your body needs but cannot manufacture itself. Your body can use ALA to make the other omega-3 fatty acids that it needs, including both EPA and DHA. This is one major reason why some people choose flax seed oil over fish oil; another is because it's vegetarian. It is found in plant-based sources like flax seed, borage, hemp seed and some types of nuts like walnuts. Another advantage of flax seed oil is that your body won't create more EPA and DHA than it needs. However, the body’s process of converting ALA into the other fatty acids is not very efficient.

Evening Primrose Oil

Evening Primrose Oil has been a long-time favorite fatty acid supplement for women. It delivers high levels of gamma linolenic acid, which is an important essential fatty acid that provides support throughout a woman’s monthly cycle and helps keeps skin healthy and beautiful. GLA is another omega-6 EFA.

Combination Supplements

Combination essential fatty acid supplements bring together multiple sources of EFAs into one supplement. Our MultiOmega, for example, combines flax seed oil, fish oil and borage oil for a well-rounded, three-part supplement that contains omega-3s, -6s and -9s. The EFA Complete supplement uses only vegetarian sources, and, unlike the other supplements we’ve covered so far, this one is a liquid that can be easily added to smoothies. It is a blend of certified organic flax seed oil, borage oil and evening primrose oil that also provides omega-3s, -6s and -9s. If you’re having a hard time picking between fish oil, flax seed oil or any other single-sourced supplement, a combination formula could be the best bet for you.