Inflammation is a natural process in the body to deal with stress whether it is mental-emotional, physical, chemical, electromagnetic, or nutritional. Inflammation is part of the body’s natural mechanism to start the healing process. If excessive inflammation is present, signs may include:
- excessively sore muscles
- chronic pain in joints
- inability to recover from exercise or sports.
Essential fatty acids (EFA) play a key role in regulating the inflammatory response in the body. Omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids are the two essential fatty acids that are important components of all cells in your body. In fact, they make up 50% of the phospholipids that comprise a cell membrane. Although the human body is able to synthesize saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids (omega-7 and omega-9 fatty acids), it can not synthesize omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Humans do not have the delta-12 and delta-15 desaturase enzymes which are required to produce omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore these essential fatty acids must be obtained through your diet.
What Role Do Essential Fatty Acids Play in the Body?
The EFAs in your diet are linoleic acid (omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3). These fatty acids are converted to longer chain unsaturated derivatives, thus linoleic acid is converted to arachidonic acid and linolenic acid is converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (Figure 1 & 2). Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are metabolically distinct and have opposing physiological functions, therefore it is essential they are both included in the diet each day in the correct ratio.
Research has shown that individuals are healthy and vital on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of approximately one-to-one whereas the typical Western diet has a ratio of 15-to-1 or as much as 20-to-1 (2).
If there is an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids (i.e. seeds, grains, soybeans, and most nuts), the end product, arachidonic acid will replace EPA and DHA within cell membranes. This leads to abnormally high levels of biologically active compounds called eicosanoids, which include prostaglandins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes. An over abundance of these eicosanoids will lead to excessive inflammation in the body.
Restoring a more ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is pivotal to reducing inflammation in your body. Proper nutritional changes and supplementation will dramatically affect this ratio. Supplementing the diet with omega-3 fatty acids is a great way to create an ideal omega 6:3 ratio. Flax seed oil is a well known omega 3 fatty acid supplement which is touted as a healthy oil and contains alpha linolenic acid. In order for flax seed oil to be effective, your body must have an enzyme called delta 6 desaturase. The presence of delta 6 desaturase is critical in order to convert flax seed oil to EPA and DHA (Figure 2). If trans fatty acids, coffee, alcohol, and high stress are part of your lifestyle, the amount of delta 6 desaturase is drastically reduced, thus a minimal amount of flax seed oil will be converted to EPA and DHA(3).
Fish oil is an efficient and optimal omega-3 supplement as oppose to flax seed oil and because it is composed of EPA and DHA, the conversion pathway is bypassed. This means that the body will be able to quickly incorporate EPA and DHA into cell membranes and produce rapid effects, thus reducing prostaglandin production and inflammation in the body(2).
The benefit of omega 3 fatty acids will only be reaped if you limit the amount of omega-6 fatty acids in your diet. This is paramount when it comes to reducing inflammation in the body. Be wary of supplements that claim to offer essential fatty acids. Most of these products contain omega-3 fatty acids as well as omega-6 fatty acids. Remember the key to reducing inflammation is to reduce omega-6 and increase omega-3, thus these supplements serve to worsen the omega-6:3 ratio.
How to Improve Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio
Another way to improve your omega 6:3 ratio is to consume meats that are pasture fed and eggs that are organic and free range. For instance, free-range chickens roam freely and eat greens, insects, and worms which are the natural diet for chickens. The eggs of free range chicken have an omega 6:3 ratio of one-to-one, while the conventionally raised chickens have an imbalanced ratio of 20-to-1(4). Switching to pasture fed beef is another way to reduce omega 6-fatty acids and increase omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. Pasture-fed cattle have been primarily grazing on grass and contain a higher amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that 4% of the fat in wild animals (pasture-fed cattle) is eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and domestic animals(grain fed) raised on feed lots contain no detectable amounts of EPA(5).
18?-6 (seeds, grains, soybeans, most nuts)
18?-6 (flax, walnut, hemp, green leafy vegetables)
Fish is also a great source of omega 3 fatty acids. Make sure to inquire that the fish you are purchasing is wild and not farm raised. For instance, farm raised salmon contains no significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon are supposed to be eating algae, insects, and other wild fish for food, but farmed raised salmon are fed soy and other grains to fatten them quickly which means that farmed raised salmon is unable to provide you with omega-3 fatty acids rather it has nothing but omega 6 fatty acids.
Over consumption of grains is a significant source of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. Since 1992, the US Department of Agriculture recommended a ‘food pyramid’ of nutritional recommendations that placed grains at the bottom of the pyramid (i.e. to be eaten 6-11 servings per day). There have been some arguments that the USDA food pyramid and recommendation of 6-11 servings of grains and cereals is misleading and may lead to a deficiency of essential fatty acids in the diet(6). The new USDA food pyramid as of 2005 has reduced recommendations for grain consumption based on age, gender, and activity levels. Although the recommendations for grains have been reduced, the damage has been done with the previous food pyramid. Reducing grains to 1 serving a day or even eliminating grains such as cereals, most breads, pastas, crackers, and baked goods will help you reach a more ideal omega 6:3 ratio.
If you find yourself taking over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs on a daily basis to deal with excessive inflammation, proper supplementation and nutritional changes are effective ways of reducing inflammation. Make sure to use high quality fish oils that have been tested for heavy metals. Proper dosages are important to impart a physiological effect on the body. The optimal dosage of fish oils is 1-2 capsules per 50 pounds of bodyweight. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, the optimal dosage would range from 3-6 capsules per day. Fish oil supplementation will always be optimized with proper nutritional changes. Make sure to limit or eliminate grain consumption, eat organic and free range animal foods, and use healthy oils such as organic butter, coconut oil and olive oil. Making these changes will ensure that your body will be in an anti-inflammatory state.
- Calder C, P.: Long-chain n-3 fatty acids and inflammation: potential application in surgical and trauma patients. Braz J Med Biol Res 36(4):433,2003.
- Simopoulos, A.P., Am. J. Clinical Nutrition, September 1999; 70:560-569.
- Serrano, Eric, M.D., Personal Communication 2001.
- Simopoulos, A.P., J. Robinson, The Omega Diet. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999. p.29. Kris-Etherton, P.M. & Taylor, D.S., et. al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 71, No. 1, January 2000179-188.
- Siguel, E.N, Lerman, and R.H: Role of essential fatty acids: dangers in the US Department of Agriculture dietary recommendations.
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