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What is Arachidonic Acid?

By Jennifer Voight
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Arachidonic acid is a liquid Omega-6 fatty acid essential to the human body in small amounts. It is important in the production of prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrines, and is essential to infant brain development. Although arachidonic acid is considered an essential fatty acid, it is not essential to acquire it through the diet. The human body can convert arachidonic acid from the linoleic acid present in many vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Excess arachidonic acid in the body is common in developed countries and is usually the result of taking in too much from food sources, such as meat and eggs, with the highest concentrations in organ meats and egg yolks.

The primary effect of arachidonic acid in the body is to stimulate inflammation. Redness, swelling and pain are all normal inflammatory responses of the body tissue to injury and aid in healing. After intense exercise, the inflammatory response helps the muscles adapt to stress and grow stronger. AA is a precursor to prostaglandins and thromboxanes, substances that dilate blood vessels, increase blood clotting, regulate body temperature, as in cases of fever, help regulate sleep, and control cervical dilatation and uterine cramping in pregnant women. While some inflammation has a beneficial effect in the body, too much can cause harm.

It is arachidonic acid’s effect on inflammation that has caused many nutritionists to label it a bad fat, along with saturated and trans fats. Arachidonic acid and linoleic acid are Omega-6 fatty acids. Both Omega 6 fatty acids and Omega 3 fatty acids, like fish oils, are polyunsaturated, essential fats. Both types of fats are used by the human body to build essential hormones. Yet Omega 3 fatty acids are generally anti-inflammatory.

The modern diet is extremely deficient in Omega 3 sources while having an abundance of Omega 6 sources. Too much arachidonic acid from food sources can exacerbate inflammatory diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, lupus, allergies, and arthritis. Experts sometimes recommend that people who have, or are at increased risk of inflammatory diseases, avoid foods high in AA.

Bodybuilders and other athletes sometimes choose to supplement with arachidonic acid because of its role in building muscle strength and growth. This effect has been backed up by a 2007 Baylor University study, although more research is most likely needed before attempting supplementation. The decision to supplement with arachidonic acid should be made under the advice of a physician. Since most people already consume too much of this acid, supplementation should generally be avoided, except by athletes who regularly engage in rigorous activity.

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