Omega essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are two fats in the body that cannot be synthesized. Therefore, the body needs omega EFA’s from the diet. In fact, some medical professionals refer to omega EFA’s as vitamin F. Omega fatty acids play an important role in inflammation.
As we’ve discussed in the previous article, inflammation is a natural and proactive process of the body. Inflammation of tissues provides signaling the body to begin the healing process on a cellular level. When the body experiences inflammation in excessive amounts, this can result in chronic illness.
What Are Essential Fatty Acids
There are multiple fatty acids humans can derive from the diet, but only two are considered “essential.” These molecules are alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid. Alpha-linolenic acid is commonly known as an omega-3 fatty acid while linoleic acid goes by the name omega-6 fatty acid. Other fatty acids are sometimes classified as “conditionally essential,” meaning that they can become essential under some developmental or disease conditions.
If the body is deficient in these fatty acids, disorders such as reduced growth rates, kidney malfunctioning, suppressed immune function, depression, and dry skin can occur. Therefore, the intake of these micronutrients is pivotal to optimal health. Some reports even document amazing benefits such as atherosclerosis prevention, reduced incidence of heart disease and stroke, and relief from bodily inflammation.
The body, indeed, needs both omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids, but in a balanced way as the respective nutrients have proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects.
Omega 6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids are considered pro-inflammatory. Omega 6 EFA’s are the polyunsaturated fatty acid arachidonic acid (ARA), which contributes to the makeup of the fatty acids present in the membrane phospholipids of cells involved in the inflammatory process.
When humans consume omega 6 EFA’s—AKA ARA—they are broken down by the body and converted into prostaglandins—(as well as some other substances.) Prostaglandin is a compound that makes up the omega 6 EFA. It’s found in almost every human tissue and bodily fluid. Considered a lipid compound—or protein—prostaglandins cause inflammation. Scientists discovered the association of prostaglandins and inflammation with findings such as higher prostaglandin levels in menstrual fluid from women who experience severe menstrual cramps.
Prostaglandins are in particular an interesting body protein because they are considered cyclic—they are both a by-product of omega 6 intake as well as necessary for omega 6 chemical makeup. Prostaglandins are a lipid-compound because of the rate at which they are formed from omega 6 consumption. When people take in foods containing omega 6 fatty acids, the body creates the inflammatory proteins at a higher-than-normal speed. The increased speed overwhelms the body, and it cannot metabolize the prostaglandins fast enough. The result is inflammation.
Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and lupus are autoimmune diseases characterized by a high level of the proinflammatory leukotriene. This compound is also produced by omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids do the opposite of omega 6 fatty acids. The chemical makeup of these EFA’s fight inflammation. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the omega 3 fatty acids responsible for reducing inflammation.
During the chemical chain reaction of ARA, EPA has the ability to intercept the modulation and stop the production of enzymes that produce the proinflammatory proteins—prostaglandins—and leukotrienes. More specifically, EPA holds back the enzyme delta-5-desaturase (D5D), which is the impetus of omega 6 EFA-induced inflammation.
While EPA intercepts the production of substances that cause inflammation, DHA has a more powerful effect on inflammation—it can turn off inflammation. DHA can change inflammation-causing macrophages to inflammation-reducing macrophages.
DHA has a unique structure that also deters inflammation. Its fluid structure is necessary for nerve synaptic responses to happen. It sweeps through cell membranes, which is important for transmissions of complicated processes like retina functioning. The fluidity of DHA also plays a crucial role in breaking up lipid deposits in membranes. The disruption of these solid pockets in the membranes makes it more difficult for entities such as cancer cells to continue to survive as they cannot connect to the hard deposits within the outer portion of cells.
All Created Equal—and Essential
The different types of omega 3 fatty acids and the omega 6 fatty acid are all necessary for the body to perform how it needs to. Even though the omega 6 fatty acid ARA promotes inflammation, the body still needs it. If there is a deficiency of omega 6 fatty acid in the body, there are supplements available to get the levels up.
A good rule of thumb to include more anti-inflammatory omega 3 EFA’s in one’s diet is the 2:1 ratio rule. You need twice as much omega 3 fatty acid as you need of omega 6. Traditional paleo-like diets, such as Scandinavian, Mediterranean, and Japanese diets, are rich in EPA and DHA.
Also, it might seem like DHA is more potent than EPA. Reviewing the biochemical processes, that statement is true to a degree. But DHA is not more essential than EPA—just different. There have been cases of individuals who took a DHA supplement, creating an influx of DHA in the body and experienced negative side effects. The solution was to add an EPA supplement for optimal balance.
The Importance of Medical Supervision
The delicate balance of the omega EFA’s need to be closely monitored if you’re beginning supplementation. Always talk to a medical professional about how supplementation of these micronutrients can or can’t help your unique treatment program.
Individuals that are in the beginning stages of chronic inflammation—or an autoimmune disease—need to be extra careful of their dietary intake regarding omega 6. Supplementation with an omega 3 nutraceutical could help get the body back on track and feel less sick (inflamed.)
Medical providers should always be the first to consult you on any supplement added to a treatment program. Omega 3 fatty acids play an important role in reducing inflammation, but all EFA’s are important to bodily functions. And, as always, a healthy and well-balanced paleo-like diet should set you up for success making it easier to follow the 2:1 ratio.
Foods Rich in Omega 3 Fatty Acids
- Wheat germ
- Fresh fruits
- Olive oil
Foods Rich in Omega 6 Fatty Acids
- Grapeseed oil
- Sunflower seed oil
- Borage oil
- Evening primrose oil
- Black currant seed oil