Medical Articles

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Essential Fatty Acids Explained

What is an essential fatty acid? It is a fatty acid that your body cannot make for itself and must be obtained from your diet. Take for example ALA, alpha linolenic acid. It is a chain of 18 carbons. At the acid end there is a carboxyl acid group (COOH). The end opposite from the acid group is the "omega" end. Counting from the omega end, there is a double bond between the third and fourth, the sixth and seventh, and the ninth and tenth carbons. In a double bond, neighboring carbon atoms share an extra bond instead of being bound to a hydrogen atom. Because the first double bond is 3 carbons from the omega end, ALA is called an omega-3 fatty acid.

Because there is more than one double bond, ALA is called a polyunsaturated fatty acid - poly for many and unsaturated because the molecule is not saturated with hydrogen. At each double bond, the carbon chain takes a bend. These bends make it more difficult for the fatty acids to line up which gives unsaturated fats a lower freezing point.

When incorporated in cell membranes the bends in the unsaturated fats make the membrane more flexible and more permeable. This allows receptors to more easily stick out of the membrane and do their job. This is why polyunsaturated fatty acids are associated with better response by insulin receptors, which lowers blood sugar, and cholesterol receptors, which lowers LDL levels in the blood. The increased flexibility of cell membranes also helps blood circulation.

How the body uses Omega-3 and Omega-6

In general the body starts with the shorter chain fatty acids and uses enzymes to make longer fatty acids. From the 18 chain ALA, the body makes a 20 chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and from EPA the body make a 22 chain docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). DPA is a major constituent of brain, neural tissues and the fluid in your eye. From EPA your body makes eicosanoids, powerful signaling molecules. The eicosanoids made from EPA reduce inflammation, blood clotting and moderate the immune system.

From the 18 chain omega-6 fatty acid, linoleic acid, the body produces the 20 chain arachidonic acid, which is the material used to make eicosanoids which increase inflammation and blood clotting.

Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammation. Inflammation is strongly associated with cardiovascular risk and many diseases such as arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome. People suffering from conditions associated with inflammation should reduce their omega-6 intake and increase their omega-3 intake.

Avoid Rancidity with Unsaturated Oils

With each double bond added, fatty acids become more susceptible to oxidation also known as rancidity. Rancid fats expose your body to free radicals, which damage your tissues including DNA.

Ingesting rancid fats is associated with cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Saturated fats, such as those found in coconut oil, are very stable and do not go rancid very easily. Mono unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil, are fairly stable because they only have one double bond.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids such as the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are highly susceptible to oxidation. For example, flax oil will go rancid in 20 minutes when exposed at room temperature. Often, when you buy such oils, you will find that they are rancid. If you grind seeds, use them immediately.

Seeds and nuts, which contain polyunsaturated fatty acids, should be left whole to preserve them until shortly before consumption. It is best if they can be refrigerated.

Consider using anti-oxidant supplements to help your body protect the polyunsaturated fats in your tissues from becoming rancid.

Achieving Omega-3 and Omega-6 Balance

The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is open to some debate. What is not open to debate is that the typical American diet has far too much omega-6 relative to omega-3. The ratio in the typical American diet is around 15:1 where experts recommend a ratio of anywhere from 1:1 to 5:1. As a population, Americans need to consume less omega-6 and more omega-3.

Corn oil in processed foods and grain fed animal products are probably the largest source of omega-6 oils. Other vegetable oils with high omega-6 content include soy oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, safflower oil and cottonseed oil. Try to reduce your intake of all of these foods.

You should have 3 to 5 grams of ALA in your diet daily. This can be difficult to achieve without supplementation. Leafy green vegetables have an excellent ratio but a very low fat content. You would need to eat a lot of them to get enough omega-3. Seeds with a good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 are flax (1:4), chia (1:3) and hemp (3:1). Avoid the oils because of rancidity. Once hemp seeds are hulled, they are much more susceptible to rancidity. Do not let ground seeds be exposed to air for too long. Don't eat the same seed more than once or twice a week to avoid developing a food sensitivity to it.

Recently cold pressed clary sage seed oil has become available as a supplement. The oil is 51% ALA with a ratio of 1:4. It is unique among natural oils in that it contains powerful anti-oxidants, which keep it from going rancid for up to two years at room temperature. It is hypoallergenic and can be taken daily without developing food sensitivities.

by Michael Coulter


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