Blood & Laboratory Values

Fatty acids – function & diseases

fatty acids

Fatty acids are aliphatic monocarboxylic acids that have an unbranched carbon chain . Saturated and unsaturated fatty acids can be distinguished according to their natural occurrence or their chemical structure .

What are fatty acids?

Based on their different chain lengths, fatty acids can be divided into lower, medium and higher fatty acids. Natural fatty acids are normally made up of an even number of carbon atoms and have no branches.

A carbon chain must have at least four carbon atoms, with the simplest natural fatty acid being butyric acid . Unsaturated fatty acids have double bonds that have a cis configuration. If there are several double bonds, they are separated by a CH2 group. Unsaturated fatty acids have two to eight fewer hydrogen atoms than saturated fatty acids. Fatty acids that have two less hydrogen atoms are called monounsaturated fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, on the other hand, have four to eight fewer hydrogen atoms. Saturated and some unsaturated fatty acids can be built up or converted by the body.

This is not the case with polyunsaturated fatty acids, so they must be supplied through food and are therefore also referred to as essential fatty acids. The so-called essential fatty acids are required by the body, but it is not able to produce them itself. For humans, these are linolenic acid or linoleic acid. A special form are the trans fatty acids, which are formed when polyunsaturated fatty acids are heated. In the food industry, fatty acids are mainly used as raw materials for various emulsifiers, and they are also used as release agents, carriers and coatings.

Function, effect & tasks

Fatty acids are stored in adipose tissue as triglycerides, where lipolysis also takes place if necessary. In the bloodstream , the free fatty acids are then transported to those cells that need energy. 

The body stores the energy in depots and in the event of longer periods of deficiency, it then has the opportunity to fall back on these reserves. Fatty acids are essential components of dietary fats. In addition to carbohydrates and proteins, fat is one of the basic nutrients. By absorbing fat, the body is supplied with essential fatty acids and energy. Essential fatty acids are important for cell structure and for various metabolic processes . They can control fat absorption from the intestines , regulate fat metabolism and lower cholesterol levels. In addition, fat is important for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin K , vitamin E ,To be able to absorb vitamin D or vitamin A.

However, the self-synthesis depends on the diet. If a lot of carbohydrates and few saturated fatty acids are ingested, fatty acid synthesis increases. However, by consuming too much protein and fat, the formation of important fats is inhibited and more storage fat is stored. The cell membranes thus lose their function, suppleness and reactivity, and saturated fats also increase the stickiness of the blood platelets and the tendency to inflammation. As a result, the blood vessels also narrow .

Formation, Occurrence, Properties & Optimal Values

Many fatty acids are found in the seed oils of the plant kingdom, some of which also represent evolutionary connections. These include, for example, tariric acid, petroselinic acid, cyclopentene fatty acids, erucic acid and cyclopropene fatty acid. Saturated fatty acids are mainly found in animal foods such as sausages, meat, butter, lard, cream or cheese.

Unsaturated fatty acids or polyunsaturated fatty acids can be found in fish or plant foods such as walnut oil, linseed oil, olive oil or rapeseed oil. Linolenic and linoleic acid, on the other hand, are found in sunflower seed oil, corn oil, soybean oil, nuts and in fish such as salmon, mackerel or herring. Trans fats can be found, for example, in shortenings, margarine, cookies, puff pastry or potato chips. Polyunsaturated fatty acids can be divided into omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids . A distinction is made between omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Alpha Linolenic Acid: Found in nuts, dark green leafy vegetables, walnut oil, soybean oil, canola oil, or flaxseed oil.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): Found in fish such as tuna, salmon or mackerel

The omega-6 fatty acids can be divided into the following groups:

  • Linoleic Acid: Found in grapeseed oil, corn oil, pumpkin seed oil, safflower oil or sunflower oil
  • Arachidonic Acid: Can be found in egg yolks, butter, offal, or meat.

Diseases & Disorders

Unsaturated and saturated fatty acids are good sources of energy. They have a positive effect on the immune system and other metabolic processes. However, unsaturated trans fats are quite unfavorable for cholesterol levels because they increase LDL cholesterol. 

They also increase the risk of sudden cardiac death or coronary artery disease (CHD). It is therefore important to be able to estimate which fats and how much fat is consumed. However, a completely fat-free diet is not advisable, as some components of fat have important functions. One third of the fat consumed should consist of saturated and two thirds of unsaturated fatty acids. If too many omega-6 fatty acids are consumed, this promotes the formation of so-called eicosanoids, which promote inflammation.

To counteract this, sufficient vitamin C, A or E should also always be taken in, as they are able to convert omega-6 fatty acids and reduce the concentration of eicosanoids. In principle, however, essential fatty acids are very important, since the blood fat levels are lowered by the absorption and the risk of cardiovascular diseases is reduced. A lack of essential fatty acids can lead to the following diseases:

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.