Linolenic acid technically refers to either an Omega-3 fatty acid found in vegetable oils or an Omega-6 fatty acid found in sources such as primrose oil. More commonly, the term is used to refer to the former. The technical term for this fatty acid is Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and the Omega-6 fatty acid is more properly referred to as Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
Among the common sources of linolenic acid are flaxseed or flaxseed oil, canola oil and walnut oil. ALA is considered an essential fatty acid because the body cannot produce it naturally but requires it for various body functions and overall health. Linolenic acid must be added to the diet through easily absorbed nutritional sources such as seed oils and nuts.
Linolenic acid has numerous positive effects, such as helping to maintain healthy blood pressure. It also appears to be helpful to overall cardiovascular health. By adding ground flaxseed to oatmeal or yogurt, or by cooking with flaxseed oil, it is easy to increase the amount of ALA in a typical daily diet. High doses of linolenic acid have been linked to a possible increase in risk for prostate cancer or macular degeneration, so it is important to consume this essential nutrient in moderate amounts.
ALA also can help prevent and even reverse atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Some dietitians state that ALA can help reduce cholesterol levels, but this effect is uncertain. Consulting with a health professional can help determine if ALA supplements are appropriate to treat specific cases of high cholesterol or other issues.
In addition to helping support the cardiovascular system, linolenic acid softens skin. ALA helps contribute to the production of the protective outer layers of the skin, helping it look and feel healthier and absorb moisture more efficiently. This skin layer is known as the acid mantle.
Gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA, is an essential fatty acid that is important to the diet. GLA is most commonly found in the oil of evening primrose as well as borage oil and hemp seed oil. Its anti-inflammatory properties have led it to be used to treat eczema and psoriasis. Rheumatoid arthritis, nerve pain caused by diabetes and chronic fatigue syndrome also have been treated with GLA.
Also important to cardiovascular health, GLA has been shown to help lower cholesterol and maintain proper levels of various blood fats. Consuming GLA also has been linked to improved brain function. As with any nutritional supplement, small quantities usually are recommended, and moderation is key.