Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids: The Skinny on Good Fats

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids: The Skinny on Good Fats

Omega-3 or alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is an essential fatty acid commonly found in fatty fish. ALA is partially converted into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) respectively. When combined with Omega-6 (linoleic acid) the two act as a pump that regulates the inflammatory/anti-inflammatory response in the body. Although historically Omega-3 was not a mainstay of the American diet, its medicinal benefits are clear, and more individuals are supplementing their diets with rich Omega-3 foods.

Prostaglandin I vs. Prostaglandin II

When an infection is present the immune system triggers production of Prostaglandin II which produces an inflammatory response sending white blood cells to the area to quarantine the infection. Almost immediately, the immune system also triggers the production of Prostaglandin I to suppress inflammation and begin the healing process. Inflammation is important in that it prevents the infection from spreading to nearby tissues and organs. Although this mechanism is important, there must be a way to turn it off as too much inflammation can actually harm the same nearby tissues and organs. Omega-3, in its respective forms, is a necessary component in the production of Prostaglandin I, while Omega-6 is a necessary component in the production of Prostaglandin II.

Read more about reversing chronic inflammation

Imbalances between Omega-3 and Omega-6

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Omega-3 is often found to be deficient in the American diet. Conversely, Omega-6 is abundantly found in the American diet of saturated fats and because of this deficiency is rare. I recommend that before you look into supplementing with a combo Omega-3 and Omega-6, that you assess your intake of both to avoid imbalances. The balance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 is critical as imbalances result in the body’s inability to regulate the inflammatory/anti-inflammatory response. When the two work in proper ratio to each other, that being, approximately a 2:1 ratio of Omega-3: Omega-6, the inflammatory pump is said to be in balance. Although earlier research, out of the National Institute of Health and the Office of Dietary Supplements have not been able to determine an appropriate ratio of Omega-3, Omega-6 intake.

Dietary Sources

Omega-3 is a member of the polyunsaturated fatty acid family, and is necessary for proper health and since the body cannot manufacture it must be supplemented by dietary sources. According to the University of Maryland, School of Medicine the food containing the most Omega-3 is found in fatty fish:

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel
  • Tuna
  • Herring
  • Halibut

Two servings of fish per week are enough to meet the minimum requirements of Omega-3. It is suggested that you limit your intake of fish containing high levels of mercury like tuna and swordfish. For those individuals who dislike fish there are Omega-3 supplements available, but make sure they are high grade and mercury free. Other good sources of Omega-3 are found in high quality oils such as flaxseed, walnut, and canola.

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Health Benefits

In his book, The Omega-3 Connection, Dr. Andrew Stoll was one of the first researchers to discover the benefits of an Omega-3 rich diet and brain health. Further research has uncovered other benefits specifically related to inflammatory conditions. These conditions have a systemic-wide impact on organs such as the heart and blood vessels and are related to diets high in saturated fats, refined sugars, and over processed foods.

That being said, Omega-3 has been found to reduce inflammation in conditions such as:

  • Arthritis 
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Elevated Triglycerides
  • Lupus
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • IBS

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Precautions in Use

Omega-3 in high doses can thin the blood, therefore, individuals with a history of bleeding disorders (thrombocytopenia, hemophilia, coagulation factor deficiency, cancer, among others) should consult a physician prior to use. Also of importance, are those individuals who take prescription blood thinners such as Coumadin, Warfarin, and Plavix, or over-the-counter aspirin. Other potential drug interactions can occur with certain cholesterol and hypertensive medications. Lastly, many herbal remedies mimic their synthetic counterpart.

Herbal supplements that are prescribed to thin the blood can therefore adversely interact with anticoagulation medications and or Omega-3:

  • Willow Bark
  • Horse Chestnut
  • Goldenseal
  • Black Cohosh

In conclusion, do not be fooled into a false sense of security by continuing to eat poorly and supplementing your diet with Omega-3. Omega-3 as in other supplements, work best when taken in conjunction with a diet rich in foods that are as close to whole and natural as possible, with minimal additives and processing.

Image: foodmuse

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Linda Mundorff, MPH, MSN, ND, RN, CNC, CTN has worked in health care for over 25 years as a registered nurse, health educator, associate professor, and a naturopathic doctor. She holds several degrees in health education, public health, nursing, and naturopathy. She is a certified nutritional consultant and a board certified traditional naturopath. Dr. Mundorff is the author of several books, including Memories Of My Sister: Dealing with Sudden Death, Medical Terminology: A Student Workbook. Her latest, Take Control: A Guide to Holistic Living, is an innovative health guide, which helps the reader learn how to regain control of their health by discovering the practical effectiveness of combining alternative and modern medicine.