(Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids). Essential fatty acids are called essential because our body can not make them, and they must therefore be supplied in our diet. They are used as building blocks in the production of some hormones and in the walls of our cells. A number of health conditions have been shown to improve, or worsen, depending on the supply and balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.
The metabolism of essential fatty acids has a huge impact on the inflammatory process. I would like to spend a minute on this very important connection. The two main essential fatty acids we consume in our diet are the Omega 3 Fatty Acids and the Omega 6 Fatty Acids, also called polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s). The Omega 3 Fatty Acids and the Omega 6 Fatty Acids share a common metabolic pathway, and in so doing they share the same enzymes. The metabolism of Omega 3 Fatty Acids results in the production of key components of cell walls, an absolute requirement if the cells are to be healthy. The metabolism of Omega 6 Fatty Acids results in the production of highly inflammatory Series II Prostaglandins. This can be problematic because of the following reasons: first, the Series II Prostaglandins are inflammatory, thus potentiating any disease process with an inflammatory component, such as arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease; second, these prostaglandins are not used in the production of cell walls, and are therefore of little value to the cell; and, last, the metabolic process leading to Series II Prostaglandins uses up antioxidants, and can result in diminished antioxidant capability.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids can be obtained from the following dietary sources:
- Canola Oil.
- Flaxseed Oil.
- Black Currant Oil.
- Nuts, Soybeans, and Tofu
- Cold-water fish: halibut, mackerel, herring, albacore tuna, and salmon. These fish must be ocean-caught rather than farm-bred, as the source of the fatty acids they contain is the plankton on which they feed, and is not available to farm-bred fish.
Omega 6 Fatty Acids can be obtained from:
- Vegetable seed oils, such as Corn Oil, Safflower Oil, and Soybean Oil.
- However, even though these oils are classified as Omega 6 Fatty Acids, they go through the process of hydrogenation, which converts them into “Trans” fats. See our section on trans fat for a more complete discussion, but the take home lesson is that we recommend the use of oils with less Omega 6’s and more Omega 3’s, such as Canola Oil.
It is very important to mention at this point that saturated fat also promotes the Omega 6 pathway, leading to the production of inflammatory prostaglandins and away from cell wall components. Saturated fat would be any fat from animal sources such as is found in meat and dairy products, including milk and especially butter.
The problem, and the link these fatty acids have with the inflammatory process, is this. I mentioned above that the Omega 3 Fatty Acids and the Omega 6 Fatty Acids share the same enzymes in their common metabolic pathways. However, in the process of “sharing” these enzymes, they are actually in competition for them. The result is that the Omega 6 pathway competes preferentially for these enzymes, so that if enough Omega 6 Fatty Acids or saturated fat are delivered, the metabolic products are the inflammatory Series II Prostaglandins rather than the valuable cell wall components. The reverse is also true. That is if more Omega 3 Fatty Acids are delivered than Omega 6 Fatty Acids and sat fat, there is more production of valuable cell wall components and less Series II Prostaglandins.
The dietary gist of this complex pathway is that, to reduce inflammation, preference should be given to the Omega 3 Fatty Acids over Omega 6 Fatty Acids, Trans fat, Sat. fat, and Monounsaturated fat. This means that steps need to be taken to minimize the consumption of Omega 6 fatty acids and sat fat, and to increase the consumption of Omega 3’s. Otherwise, the Omega 6 Pathway will take over, resulting in production of inflammatory Series II Prostaglandins. If dietary sources are not adequate, Omega 3’s can be obtained from supplements of fish oil or flaxseed oil.
In addition to conditions associated with inflammation, a number of other health problems have been shown to be influenced by the balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Certain areas of the body, such as the skin and GI tract, have a rapid turnover of cells. That is, the life span of skin and intestinal cells is short, and new cells are constantly being made. Since Omega 3 Fatty Acids comprise an important part of the cell wall, a supply of Omega 3 Fatty Acids is important if healthy cells are to be produced. This would be especially important in conditions involving the skin, such as eczema and atopic dermatitis, or the GI tract, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease. In addition, some mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, have been shown to improve with supplementation of Omega 3 Fatty Acids.