Common in nature yet rare in your diet
Alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA) is found primarily in the green parts (chloroplasts) of plants where it is associated in photosynthesis – the process by which plants make sugars from light and the basis to all life on earth! Since ALA is found in plants, and the planet has more green vegetation than anything else, it is the most abundant fat there is. It accumulates into the tissues of animals that feed on this vegetation and is passed on to the subsequent predators. Unfortunately ALA has become rare in the average human diet, which is dense on seeds, the oil from seeds and meat from livestock fed on seeds. This rarity or deficiency is now being linked to a plethora of ills.
ALA the single parent
Alpha-Linolenic acid can be thought of as a single parent of the Omega 3 family of fats. ALA is a very weak acid with a similar strength to vinegar actually. That's not surprising since vinegar is Acetic acid which is another fatty acid.
In nature these fatty acids proceed to tag team up with a molecule of glycerol to become known as a triglyceride. They are more commonly known as FATS and are no longer acidic. It's helpful to know that all triglycerides have an identical glycerol backbone with three fatty acids of varying length. The equation is very simply summed up as follows:
1 glycerol + 3 fatty acids = 1 triglyceride (fat) + 3 molecules of water
Now whether these triglycerides take the shape of vegetable oil, butter or lard depends entirely on which fatty acids are involved. Some have straight saturated chains of atoms and produce solid fats. Others have kinky unsaturated chains and produce liquids.
ALA has a very kinky chain or tail and thus the fats in which it is abundant (linseed, canola) are liquids, even at low temperatures. However for humans and animals, which are both faster and more mobile than plants, it just isn't kinky enough. So before usage it has to be lengthened as I've described here.
DHA the wild child
Docosahexaenoic (DHA) is one of several offspring of ALA and the longest fatty acid in human and animal tissue. This is the fat that permits you to see and think. The highest concentrations of DHA are found in cell membranes of the brain and eyes. Here it has an amazing ability to quick-change between hundreds of shapes, billions of times per second.
The picture above illustrates DHA in one of its many shapes. Sometimes it curls up like a ball, other times it's perfectly straight. It just never sits still and is constantly on the move. Its concentrated presence in cell membranes (thin barrier surrounding cells) transforms them from 'orderly guards' to dancers at an all night rave party. Its diluted presence throughout the body is like oil added to an engine.
DHA is called upon for life's speediest of tasks. It has a role in dynamic, fast acting cells in the heart. An organ which beats around seventy beats per minute or some two billion times in a lifetime. It is found in tissues of the brain and your eyes, which are hopefully focused on this blog. DHA can be found in lesser concentrations throughout your body, where amounts are subject to exercise, genetics and diet. Endurance athletes have more DHA in their skeletal muscle than couch potatoes. The Prima Indians of Arizona are a population with the highest reported incidence of type-2 diabetes. They have far less DHA in their skeletal muscle than anyone else – owing to genetic differences. In rattlesnakes, the rattle muscle has much more DHA than its stomach muscle. Reptiles in general tend to have lower levels of DHA in their tissues than mammals and birds.
Hummingbirds have flight muscles which beat an incredible fifty-two times per second and are incredibly rich in DHA. Their leg muscles however have little. Fish have high levels of DHA, which is perfectly understandable since they live in cold dimly light environments and they need greater flexibility and agility to cope. They also have ready access to algae and other omega 3 rich marine life.