Understanding Essential Fatty Acids

Key points:

1. Omega 3’s are essential to your health
2. Omega 3’s are found in flax, hemp, walnuts, cold water fatty fish, or algae
3. Animal sources of Omega 3’s are better than Plant sources
4. Omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory, they reduce pain, reduce the formation of fibrosis, protects the cardiovascular system, lessens the effects of stroke and heart attack, and reduce triglycerides.
5. Omega 6’s cause inflammation.
6. Omega 6’s are found in corn, peanut, sunflower, safflower, soy, meat, eggs, and dairy.
7. Ideal ratio between Omega 6’s and Omega 3’s is 4:1. The Western diet’s ratio is about greater than 10:1.
8. For cardiovascular benefits you should consume more than 850mg/day to 2.7g/day. This is likely only possible with supplementation.

EPA, DHA, Omega 3’s, Omega 6’s, PUFAs, essential fatty acids, fish oils, flax seed oils… Everyone seems to be talking about these things but what are they, and do you really need them!?

If you are concerned about your overall health then the answer is yes. As you will learn here, omega 3 fatty acids are crucial to your overall health. In our highly processed food society this is a fatty acid that is missing from out diet and may be the answer to many people who are suffering from, or trying to prevent, some of the top diseases in our society.

What are Omega 3 fatty acids?

Omega 3’s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) (as opposed to the saturated fatty acids we hear about when it comes to heart disease) that our body is unable to make on its own thus making them essential fatty acids. Omega 3’s consist of ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), EPA (eicosopentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)

Where do we get them from?

Omega 3’s can be consumed by eating plant sources (flax, hemp, walnuts) or animal sources (cold water fatty fish, or algae). Plant sources typically come in the form of alpha-linoleic acid which the body can convert to EPA. The draw back to plant sources is that they do not convert very effectively to EPA. Animal sources come in the form of EPA or DHA and thus are a better source, except these sources are at risk for being contaminated with toxins such as mercury. Therefore to get adequate amounts of these essential fatty acids you will likely have to consume supplements.

Why are they so great?
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If you take a look at the diagram here you will see how Omega 3’s affect the body. DHA is responsible for forming the synapses in the brain. This is why you see in DHA fortified baby formula. EPA has two functions. One is that it forms a substance called Prostaglandin E3 (PGE3) which has anti-inflammatory effects. It is also responsible for decreasing the platelets’ ability in your blood to form clots by making them less sticky. This may explain why those having a stroke may have less detrimental outcomes if they were consuming sufficient amounts of Omega 3s. The degree of damage post heart attack has been less in those who consume more EPA. Omega 3s are also responsible in improving blood flow by dilating or opening up the blood vessels. This likely explains the reduction in blood pressure after consumption of Omega 3’s.

Another extremely important part of EPA is that it slows down the activity of the enzyme delta-5-desaturase (D-5-D). D-5-D is important in converting an Omega 6 fatty acid called linoleic acid (found in safflower oil, sunflower, soy, peanut and canola) to arachidonic acid which ultimately produces prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). PGE2 promotes inflammation in the body. Research is starting to see that inflammation is associated with many health issues such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, pain, and fibrosis.

EPA also blocks the conversion of arachidonic acid to PGE2 thus they directly lessen the effect of high consumption of arachidonic acid (found in meat, eggs, dairy) and linoleic acid. Athletes who perform high intensity cause inflammation and this inflammation is compounded by the western diet of high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. This can likely be counteracted by consuming Omega 3 fatty acids.

One study found that 59% of those with neck and back pain, due to a herniated disc, were able to discontinue their use of NSAIDs after consuming fish oil for on average 75 days.

Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) also block the production of PGE2 to decrease pain and inflammation but they have side effects such as gastric ulcers/bleeding, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, kidney impairment, and hypertension.

It should also be noted in the diagram that insulin increases the production PGE2. We see an increase in insulin in people who have type 2 diabetes and those who consume large amounts of simple sugars and high fructose corn syrup. In this day and age of processed foods, which are full of simple sugars and high fructose corn syrup, it is no wonder that more and more people are experiencing diseases which are related to inflammation.

Research has also shown that Omega 3s successfully decreases your triglycerides (25-30%), but not LDL (the bad cholesterol), more successfully than by medication. There have also been studies that have shown a reduced risk of sudden cardiac death.

How much do I need to take?

In the past it was estimated that the ratio between Omega 6 and Omega 3 was about 1 to 1. Right now it is estimated that the ratio is about 10:1 to 15:1. People are consuming large amounts of Omega 6s from linoleic acid and arachadonic acid. The sharp rise in vegetable oil consumption may be to blame. In 1909 the consuption per person of vegetable oil was 2lbs and in 1985 the consumption was up to 25lbs. No wonder people are experiencing health issues associated with inflammation! Canada recommends the ratio to be 4:1. There are two ways you can improve your ratio.

1. Eat foods containing omega 6s in moderation by substituting foods high in linoleic acid and arachidonic acid with foods high in ALA or foods high in EPA.
2. Supplement your present diet with fish oils. Make sure to consult your doctor, chiropractor or health care provider before doing so.

It is recommended that the minimum amount of EPA/DHA should be 0.3 to 0.5g/day and 0.8 to 1.1g/day of ALA. To see benefits in cardiovascular health and anti-inflammatory effects research has shown that you should consume greater than 850mg/day to 2.7 g/day. Consumption of fish oil below 3g/day has been considered safe but the Inuit have been shown to consume up to 16g/day.

The journal Circulation recommends the following depending on your health:

1. Person without documented coronary heart disease (CHD) – Eat a cariety of (prefereably oily) fish at least twice a week. Include oils and foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid.
2. Person with documented CHD – consume 1 gram of EPA/DHA per day, prefereably from oily fish. EPA/DHA supplements could be considered in consultation with your physician
3. Persons needing triglyceride lowering – 2-4 grams of EPA/DHA per day provided as capsules under a physicians care.

Conclusion

Since EPA/DHA are essential for our health and because our society consumes an unhealthy balance between Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s which leans use towards inflammation choosing foods that are high in Omega 3’s,reducing the consumption of foods high in Omega 6’s, and considering EPA/DHA supplements is highly recommended.

The following information should not be used as physician advice and is only used for educational purposes. For further information please consult your physician.

References:

1. Boswell, M & Cole, BE. Weiner’s pain management: A practical guide for clinicians. 7th ed. American Academy of Pain Management, 2006, pp 584-585.
2. Fact Sheet. Fish oils and Omega 3 fatty acids. CMAJ, 2008 : 178(2).
3. Holub, BJ. Clinical nutrition: 4. Omega-3 fatty acids in cardiovascular care. JAMC, 2002; 166 (5).
4. Kris-Etherton, PM, Harris, WS, Appel LJ. Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease. Available at: http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/106/21/2747 . Accessed February 20, 2009.
5. Marcholi R et al. GISSI-Prevenzione Investigators. Early protection against sudden death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids after myocardiaol infarction: time=course analysis of the results of the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardico (gissi)-Prevensione. Circulation. 2002;105(16): 1897-903.
6. Maroon, JC & Bost, JW. Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) as an anti-inflammatory: an alternative to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory durgs for discogenic pain. Surgical Neurology, 2006 (65): 326-331.
7. von Schacky, C. A review of omega-3 ethyl esters for cardiovascular prevention and treatment of increased blood triglyceride levels. Vascular Health and Risk Management 2006:2(3) 251–262.

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