The Omega Question – Understanding The Role of Fatty Acids in Your Body
Essential fatty acids, or EFA’s for short, are fatty acids that cannot be produced by the body, and instead must be obtained from the diet.
EFA’s can be divided into two distinct families; omega-3’s and omega-6’s.
The fat in fish includes a form of fatty acid called omega-3’s. Unlike the saturated fats found in butter and margarine, omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated.
The term ‘polyunsaturated’ refers to the number of hydrogen atoms that are attached to the carbon chain of the fatty acid.
Basically, while saturated fats must be avoided in the diet, consumption of polyunsaturated fats is beneficial for optimal health and disease prevention.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in a few different forms. Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahaenoic acid (DHA) are both found in abundance in cold-water fish like salmon, trout, mackerel and tuna.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is commonly found in flaxseeds, walnuts, soybeans and dark leafy green vegetables, however ALA does not affect the body in the same way as EPA and DHA – in fact, the body converts ALA into EPA and DHA for absorption and use.
Omega-6 fatty acids, like omega-3’s, are considered essential. Omega-6 is found mainly in sunflower and safflower oils, as well as various nuts and seeds.
Omega-6 is generally consumed more than omega-3, with estimated levels of omega-6 present in the body being 20 times more than that of omega-3.
What do they do?
Every cell in the body is surrounded by a cell membrane composed mainly of fatty acids.
This delicate cell membrane allows the correct amounts of necessary nutrients to enter, and ensures that waste products are quickly dispersed.
Omega-3 fatty acids play a key role in a large range of bodily processes, including:
- Regulating the body’s production of cholesterolRecent studies have suggested that use of a fish oil supplement alongside cholesterol-lowering medications contributes to a dramatic decrease of ‘bad cholesterol’. Read article ‘Omega-3’s Lower Triglycerides‘
- Reduces inflammation in the bodyOmega-3 fatty acids have incredible anti-inflammatory properties. EPA and DHA reduce the amount of inflammatory-mediating compounds in the body, leading to less pain, greater mobility and relief from symptoms.Fatty acids reduce the production of messenger chemicals called cytokines, which are involved in the inflammatory response associated with injury or dysfunction. This can help with chronic inflammatory diseases like IBD, asthma, arthritis and osteoarthritis. Read the article ‘What is Inflammation?‘
- Blood thinningOmega-3’s strengthen cell walls, decreasing platelet aggression and excessive inflammatory response. In most cases, doctors will recommend the use of aspirin for blood thinning, however recent research has shown that this many be doing more harm than good. Fish oils offer a risk-free way to reduce your chances of stroke, heart disease and illness. Read article ‘Deadly Warning on Daily Aspirin Use.‘
- Improved Brain Health60% of the human brain is comprised of fat, and around half of that is a form of omega-3. Fatty acids are essential in the formation of the brain’s nerve cell membranes and membrane fluid. As nerve cell function is dependent on membrane functioning, changes in it have a negative effect on behaviour, mood and mental function. Depression, anxiety, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, memory problems and ADD/ADHD have all been attributed to a omega-3 deficiency. Read articles ‘Fish Oils Treat ADHD Better Than Ritalin,’ and ‘Omega-3’s – Nutrients for the Brain.’
- Allergy ProtectionEPA and DHA have shown positive results in the reduction of allergic reactions by reducing inflammatory responses. EPA and DHA have found to protect against hay fever, asthma, food allergies, sinus infection and skin conditions, reducing symptoms and severity of attacks.
- Improved Visual HealthEPA and DHA have been linked to a lowered risk of age related macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of sight loss in people over 50 years of age. Omega-3 fatty acids form an important building block in the retina, allowing for optimal function and improved focus, colour, perception and clarity of vision.
- Prevention of cardiovascular diseaseA high intake of omega-3 fatty acids has shown to benefit heart health by reducing cholesterol, acting as a blood thinner, lowering mild hypertension, preventing blood clots, reducing heart irregularities and improving circulation. Read article ‘Fish Oil, Statin Drugs and Heart Attacks.’
There are many more benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, even including diabetes prevention, and prevention of cancer. Research continues to determine what other beneficial effects omega-3 fatty acids can have on our health.
Omega-6 fatty acids
The main type of omega-6 fatty acid is called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is a precursor to hormone-like prostaglandins.
Prostaglandins are basically lipid compounds derived enzymatically from omega-6, and perform a wide range of vital anti-inflammatory, anti-infection, anti-spasm functions.
Omega-6 fatty acids also reduce the stickiness of blood platelets and reduce the risk of blood clots.
Alpha-linolenic acid is a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in plants and is highly concentrated in flaxseed oil and, to a lesser extent, in canola, soy, perilla, and walnut oils.
Once consumed, ALA is converted by the body into usable EPA and DHA. The conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to EPA and DHA involves a series of chemical and enzymatic reactions.
Unfortunately, it is now known that the enzymes used for this conversion do not function optimally in many people, and as a result, only a small percentage of the alpha-linolenic acid is actually converted to EPA and DHA.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Balance
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids essentially have opposite effects in the body. Ideally, these fatty acids should be in equal concentration in body tissues, and they check each other in a delicate balance to regulate thousands of metabolic functions.
Nearly every biologic function is somehow connected with this balance.
Omega-3s are vitally important in the control of inflammation, cardiovascular health, allergic reactions, immune response, hormone modulation and brain function.
Our increasingly high-fat, ‘Western’ diet has thrown out the delicate balance. Generally speaking, the ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids should be 1:1, or even 1:2 at the most.
With the rapid change in our diets, the balance is more like 1:20 or 1:30, promoting inflammation and disease. We are essentially ‘breaking the laws’ of our bodies’ bio-physiology.
Because of the way omega-6 fatty acids are broken down by the body,they are more likely than omega-3’s to produce pro-inflammatory‘eicosanoids’.
In fact, many of the drugs used to treatpro-inflammatory states manage these conditions by blocking the effectsof potent omega-6 fat; arachidonic acid. Omega-3’s are strongly anti-inflammatory.
As a result of this imbalance, omega-6 has been referred to as ‘bad’ and omega-3’s ‘good’. In fact, both are essential for human health, it is just the balance of the two in relation to each other that is important.
Optimal Levels and Deficiency Prevention
For disease prevention, anti-inflammatory benefits and for all-round good health, it is strongly recommended that you increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids everyday.
Eating plenty of fresh, green vegetables and fish is a great start, however supplementation with a quality fish oil is recommended for practically everyone.
Generally speaking, there is little need to supplement with omega-6, as our changing diets and a moderate intake of fats and oil will ensure that your levels are topped up.
For most people, more focus should be paid to reducing omega-6 levels. Limiting your intake of saturated fats and reducing grain foods and carbohydrates is a good way to reduce overall intake of omega-6 fatty acids.
Boosting your levels of omega-3 fatty acids will contribute dramatically to balancing out the ratios.
Ensure that your intake of vitamins and minerals is kept high, especially vitamin B6, B3, C, magnesium and zinc. These have shown beneficial results in boosting health and EPA/DHA absorption.
We are, as it is often and accurately said, what we eat.
Our diet has evolved over the last 50 or so years, and not for the better.
Increasing amounts of saturated fats (think anything fried, or ‘fast’ food) and processed foods have massively increased our omega-6 intake, as well as decreasing vitamin, mineral and nutrient levels in our body.
This leads to chronic inflammation, disease, reduced learning and functioning capacity and general illness. And then we wonder why we are getting sick.
To be blunt, if you want to live a longer, healthier life, then you MUST ELIMINATE the junk food from your diet.
This not only includes cholesterol-, saturated fat and trans-fat ridden foods like McDonalds, KFC or fish ‘n’ chips – it also means grains, cereals, wheat, rice… anything that promotes inflammation in your body.
Grains and wheat create an inflammatory state in the body.
Our body is not equipped to handle these foods – the harvesting and processing of grains is a relatively new thing, and, on the inside, we have still not yet evolved from cavemen.
Add to the mix a high intake of saturated (omega-6 boosting) fats, and you are practically drowning yourself in inflammation. Read our article ‘Eating to Reduce Inflammmation’ to give yourself a better idea.
We need fats in our diet to function, but not all fats are the same. Beneficial fats, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are ideal – something as simple as swapping over to extra virgin olive oil helps. But unfortunately, in terms of omega-3 intake, we can’t just rely on diet.
A large proportion of Australians are omega-3 deficient due to not eating enough foods high in EPA/DHA, and failing to supplement to make up for this shortcoming.
Because the symptoms of deficiency can be vague, most people assume their problem or illness is something else, and don’t even consider increasing their omega-3 intake.
If you haven’t noticed, isolated countries and towns that rely on a a fish-dominated diet live longer, healthier lives. It’s not rocket science – you need to eat more fish and supplement too.
Aim to eat fish at least 3 times a week (tinned tuna does not count). On that note, remember that most of the fish we receive has been frozen, so you are already behind the ball.
Increase your intake of green leafy vegetables, lean meats and eggs, and ELIMINATE grains from your diet. Once you get into a good habit, it’s not that hard.
Every member of your family needs to supplement with a top-quality fish oil. Refer to our article ‘When Oils Aren’t Oils‘, and you’ll see why it’s a waste of time and money to buy cheap, inferior fish oil supplements from the chemist.
We have available the best fish oil supplements available in Australia.
These supplements are up to 6 times as strong as other brands, meaning it’ll not only help boost your omega-3 levels and health dramatically – they’ll also save you money.
Take a fish oil supplement everyday, reduce your family’s intake of ‘junk’ food and supplement well – You’ll be giving yourself the best shot at staying disease and inflammation free.