The Balancing Act of Omega Fatty Acids
by Greg Post
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are called essential because we need them to survive and
our bodies cannot manufacture them. Deficiency and imbalance of EFAs are blamed
for an impressive list of chronic health conditions. But, unlike the distant earthquake,
EFA deficiency is unlikely to make the headlines.
Two very notable essential fatty acids that are worth our attention are omega-3 and
omega-6. They get their names because of the placement of the first of multiple
double carbon bonds in the molecule. Though the chemistry is important it is not the
focus of this essay. What is important to us now is the potential health impact of
these two fats. Let’s take a closer look at each of these essential fatty acids
separately and then consider their relation to each other.
In reverse order we will consider omega-6 first. Perhaps we do not hear as much
about omega-6 as we do its counterpart. But consider this impressive resume.
Omega-6 has been useful in the treatment of anorexia nervosa, ADHD, osteoporosis,
diabetes, eye disease, certain skin conditions, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis,
tuberculosis and even cancer. Not bad for an unsung hero. Go over that list again.
These are all serious conditions that have been tied to omega-6 deficiencies. So why
do we hear so little about this little gem? Perhaps it is because health issues only
become exciting once there is an obvious problem. Then we usually look for a pill to
take. But if this is a reason for our ignorance it is not the biggest reason.
The plain truth is most of us are getting plenty of omega-6 in our diets. In fact most
of us get way too much. Over ten times too much. That’s a switch isn’t it? Too much
of a good thing. The reason we get so much of it is because many of the foods we
buy are processed with some type of linoleic acid which is a popular form of omega-
6. In addition many oils we use are high in omega-6 such as sunflower, safflower,
soybean, corn and cottonseed oils.
So what’s the rub? Why worry about too much omega-6? Our bodies have the ability
to convert linoleic acid into longer chain fatty acids which lead to the production of
eicosanoids. Eicosanoids depending, on their source, can have positive and negative
influences on our bodies. They can slow intravascular clotting which helps to prevent
heart attacks and strokes. They suppress inflammation preventing us from
overreacting to allergens. They dilate blood vessels reducing hypertension and
increasing good blood delivery. They can also control cell growth slowing the rapid
growth of cancer cells.
On the other hand they might increase blood clotting which leads to heart attack and
stroke. They suppress the immune system leaving us more open to infection. They
increase cellular growth thereby promoting the growth of cancer cells. And they
create new blood vessels which can feed cancer cells. Unfortunately eicosanoids
produced by an overabundance of omega-6 in the system cause many of the
negative factors mentioned above.
Omega-3 has the opposite story. Like omega-6 it is essential to proper health and is
useful in the treatment of many chronic diseases. Among these conditions are heart
attacks, cancer, lupus, schizophrenia, accelerated aging, stroke, insulin resistance,
asthma, postpartum depression, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, ADHD, and Alzheimer's
But unlike omega-6 most diets are deplorably deficient in omega-3. Most of us get
only a small amount of what we need for optimal health. Though it can manifest itself
in many ways this deficiency may be most noticeable in chronic heart disease. Entire
cultures are known to have very low incidence of heart disease because of diets high
in omega-3 rich foods. Most notorious among these are Eskimos. Danish researchers
first learned this secret from the Eskimos. Of course the Eskimos did not realize they
had a secret. They were just eating large amounts of the fatty foods that were
available to them. That’s right, fatty foods. Foods like salmon which are high in
Once the secret was out researchers rolled up their sleeves and produced a flurry of
studies and trials to test the hypothesis that omega-3 reduces heart disease. The
studies continue to go on. But the overwhelming conclusion is consistent with the
original observations. That is: omega-3 reduces incidence of heart disease. In fact the
conclusions are so certain the even the American Heart Association now
recommends fish oil supplements for any one with documented coronary heart
disease or high triglycerides. That was no small concession for the AMA.
Of course we all understand that the key to everything is balance. Perhaps this
familiar sentiment is nowhere more important than it is to the topic at hand. Both
omega-6 and omega-3 are essential to health. But the ratio at which we ingest these
fatty acids is key. Scientists differ on the optimal ratio. One recommended ratio is 5
parts omega-6 compared to 1 part omega-3. Some would stretch that to a 10:1
ratio. The more conservative estimates place the optimal ratio somewhere between
1:1 and 4:1. Unfortunately the average American diet includes an omega-6/omega-3
ratio between 14:1 and 20:1. This imbalance contributes to many of the chronic
health problems mentioned above.
So what do we do? Assuming you are a reader who takes this seriously there are
some steps you can take to assure better health for you and your family. You can
begin by avoiding foods prepared with linoleic acid and some of the linoleic acid rich
oils mentioned above. Buy less prepared foods and do more home cooking. Then
make every effort to increase omega-3 consumption. Cold water fish like salmon and
tuna (not the canned varieties) are very high in omega-3. But you need to eat these
fish more than once per week. I have met people who eat salmon every day for
breakfast. If you are not a fish lover or are concerned with marine pollutants try fish
oil supplements. The good ones are completely free from contaminants. Our diets
have contributed to the increase of chronic conditions like heart disease. Our diets
can go a long way toward resolving the problems.
For more information on the omega fatty acids and heart health please see the links
Omega-6 and omega-3: Omega-3 and triglycerides: Triglycerides: About The Author
Greg Post has degrees in science, divinity and philosophy and is currently an I.T.
Generally it can be said that
most of us do not get a good
balance of essential fatty acids in
our diet. Perhaps this does not
sound like late breaking news.
However most of what we
consider news does not directly
impact our lives. An earthquake
half way around the world will
make the headlines. But in reality
most of us are insulated from its
effects. Essential fatty acids on
the other hand will never make a
reporter’s career. However,
many of us are affected by these
little buggers more than we may
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