Fatty acids for women

  • Health
  • Sunday, 02 Mar 2003


THERE is a misconception that all fats are bad for health simply because they are linked in some way to obesity, heart disease and stroke. Fats are in fact indispensable for everyone as they are a source of energy that keeps us going. Without fats, we are unable to withstand the cold weather or shock, neither are we able to obtain the fat-soluble vitamins which are vital for health. However, too much fat and the wrong type of fat would also mean bad news.  

Fats are generally categorised into “good” and “bad” ones. Saturated fatty acids commonly found in animal fats not only provide energy, but also play a role in building cell membrane structures.  

However, problems arise when these fats are taken in excess. They will lay down as plaques (fatty deposits) along the arterial walls, impeding blood flow and consequently resulting in heart problems.  

This then makes sense as to why health professions are advocating a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables but low in meat. Trans fatty acids found in margarine, partially hydrogenated fat and deep-fried foods are thought to be harmful as well. Cutting back on these fats is therefore without question a good step towards maintaining good health.  

What about essential fatty acids (EFAs)? Well, these are the good fats that cannot be manufactured in the body and must be supplied in the diet. Adequate levels of EFAs within the body are responsible for the fluidity and flexibility of the cell membranes as well as the synthesis of prostaglandins, chemicals that help regulate the function of smooth muscles in the heart, lungs, intestines and uterus.  

Linoleic acid (LA) is the first member of the omega-6 EFA family. It is metabolised to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and prostaglandin E1 (PGE1) in the body. However, the conversion of LA to GLA can be blocked by many diet and lifestyle factors such as excessive saturated fats, trans fatty acids, ageing, diabetes and viral infections. When this happens, prostaglandins are not synthesised in the right proportion required, thereby leading to a host of health problems, especially in the reproductive, cardiovascular, skin and immune systems.  

Clinical findings show that premenstrual syndrome (PMS), mastalgia and menopausal symptoms are some of the problems that develop as a result of a disturbance in the balance of prostaglandins, afflicting more than 80% of the female population at some time of their lives. 



PMS is defined as a group of symptoms that manifest two to 14 days before the start of the menstrual period. These symptoms are both physical and psychological, ranging from water retention causing weight gain, breast tenderness, period cramps, mood swings, irritability to poor concentration.  

Women with PMS are thought to be abnormally sensitive to prolactin (a hormone elevated in breast-feeding mothers for milk production). Prostaglandin E1 (PGE1) made from LA has the ability to dampen this hypersensitivity effect, thus playing a vital role in reducing PMS symptoms.  

However, as mentioned earlier, the conversion of LA to GLA can be deterred by diet and lifestyle factors. The easiest way is then to supply a direct source of GLA from evening primrose oil (EPO) to overcome this rate-limiting step. Recently, eight clinical trials conducted in over 200 Malaysian women with PMS found that their PMS symptoms were significantly alleviated when four to eight capsules of 500mg EPO were consumed daily.  



Mastalgia is the medical term for breast pain. Most women fear the worst and worry that they may have breast cancer. It is then wise to check with your doctor quickly if you feel lump(s) in either of your breasts. 

There are two types of mastalgia – cyclical and non-cyclical. Cyclical mastalgia is also known as premenstrual mastalgia as it occurs about seven to 10 days before menstruation and disappears as soon as the period starts.  

The pain is often described as tender and heavy. Studies indicate that women who develop mastalgia may have an excessive sen-sitivity to normal or mildly raised prolactin levels.  

As for non-cyclical mastalgia, it is not related to the menstrual cycle and the cause is unknown.  

The pain is often in the middle region of the breast and is described as burning or abscess-like. This condition is more prevalent in older women, typically those in their 50s. 

The clinical journal, Medical Progress, in its Oct 1995 issue, outlined that GLA derived from EPO is used as the first choice of therapy for mastalgia. The idea behind giving EPO is that PGE1 can smoothen out the hypersensitivity effect of prolactin on body tissues and helps relieve pain in the breasts. The effective dose is three to four capsules of 500mg two times daily taken for at least three months.  


Menopause is a stage of life whereby the woman’s body is going through complex hormonal changes that can impact her social life, personal growth and performance at work. Menopause usually occurs in a woman’s life between the 40s and the mid-50s. During this time, the ovaries stop producing eggs, hence the decline in oestrogen and progesterone levels, the hormones responsible for female reproductive function.  

It is these hormonal variations that orchestrate the physical and psychological changes that accompany menopause. Hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety, mood swings and vaginal dryness are some of the common symptoms. Following menopause, women will experience a greater risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. 

The role of PGE1 in menopause is to relax blood vessels and decrease inflammation, thus beneficial in alleviating menopausal symptoms. PGE1 is also protective against heart attacks and osteoporosis by regulating blood pressure, cholesterol and calcium metabolism. 

A double-blind, placebo study reported that 56 menopausal women who were treated with eight 500mg capsules of EPO for six months had significant improvement in the number of night time hot flushes or sweating episodes compared to the placebo group. 

For better management of these female conditions, EPO should be taken in conjunction with a high fibre and low saturated fat diet. Moderation in the intake of foods containing phytoestrogens such as soybean, tofu, flaxseed and alfalfa is recommended. Avoiding caffeine in the form of coffee, tea and cola drinks also leads to improvement in many cases.  

Last but not least, exercising is a form of relaxation to improve overall wellbeing. 

  • Reference 

    Graham, J. (1984), Evening Primrose Oil – Its Remarkable Properties and Its Use in the Treatment of a Wide Range of Conditions, Thorsons. p 22-50. 

    This article is a contribution from a panel of herbal medicine and natural healthcare practitioners. For more information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my . 

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