Q: One of my friends said she heard essential fatty acids are bad for you. Is that true?
Dr. Wright: In the past couple of years, there have been a few studies linking one particular essential fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to increased risk of prostate cancer and cataracts. ALA is the major fatty acid found in flaxseed and flaxseed oil. While not all of the studies on ALA agree with these findings, there is enough evidence to be cause for some concern.
However, it’s important to remember that ALA is an essential-to-life fatty acid, and it’s highly unlikely that Nature would require us to have it in order to survive if there was no way around these potential negative effects. It’s very possible that another nutrient or several nutrients are involved in the ALA-prostate cancer and ALA-cataract connection, and that using more (or less) of these would "erase" any possible harm from higher levels of ALA.
Unfortunately, researchers rarely consider nutrients in more complex interactions. So it’ll likely be a long time until this aspect of the "ALA question" is considered.
In the meantime, this does not mean that you need to eliminate flaxseed and flaxseed oil from your diet! In addition to ALA there are many other healthful nutrients present, especially in whole flaxseed. However, if you’re a "flaxseed fan," it’s probably wisest to consult your nutritionally knowledgeable physician about what quantity of flaxseed or flaxseed oil might be best for you. And since too much ALA can suppress "5-alpha- reductase" (see the September issue of Nutrition & Healing — available free to subscribers on www.wrightnewsletter.com — for details about this enzyme), if you’re a man, you might want to have your "5-alpha reductase" enzyme activity measured. This is easily done from a 24-hour urinary steroid test.
Some physicians may also recommend a red blood cell membrane essential fatty acid test (preferable to the serum test of essential fatty acids) to make sure your ALA levels aren’t out of balance with other fatty acids.
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