Food and Behaviour Research

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Prevalence of essential fatty acid deficiency in patients with chronic gastrointestinal disorders

Siguel, E.N., Lerman, R.H. (1996) Metabolism 45(1) 12-23. 

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Patients with chronic intestinal disorders causing malabsorption, nutritional losses through diarrhea, or catabolic illness would be expected to have essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiency (EFAD), but such deficiency has not been demonstrated in patients treated in accordance with the prevailing standard of care.

We studied plasma fatty acid patterns of 56 reference or control subjects and 47 patients with chronic intestinal disorders (mostly Crohn's disease) using high-resolution capillary column gas-liquid chromatography. Patients exhibited a shift in fatty acid metabolism similar to that previously shown to be associated with EFAD. Compared with control subjects, patients had (1) decreased polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) levels (43.7% v 50.4%, P < .0001), (2) increased monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) levels (25.8% v 22.0%, P < .0001), (3) higher ratios of mead (20:3 omega 9) to arachidonic (20:4 omega 6) acid (0.020 v 0.013, P < .04), and (4) lower concentrations of total (214 v 284 mg/dL, P < .01), saturated fats (SFA) (63 v 75 mg/dL, P < .001), MUFA (56 v 63 mg/dL, P < .001), and PUFA (93 v 143 mg/dL, P < .001).

Patients had metabolic shifts toward increased production of MUFA and an increased ratio of derivatives to precursors of omega 6 fatty acids, shifts that occur when cells are EFA-deficient. More than 25% of the patients had biochemical evidence of EFAD according to at least one criterion. Optimal diagnosis requires a concurrent evaluation of concentrations of fatty acids in plasma and in lipoproteins (percent fatty acids).

On indices of EFA status that depend on percents, ratios, or concentrations of fatty acids or on the production of abnormal fatty acids, the patients were between patients with severe whole-body EFAD and healthy subjects, a state referred to as absolute EFA insufficiency.

Patients with chronic intestinal disease should be evaluated for likely EFA deficiencies and imbalances, and treated with substantial amounts of supplements rich in EFAs, such as oral vegetable and fish oils, or intravenous lipids if necessary.