Recently I got my essential fatty acid levels checked. Specifically I wanted to see where my Omega 3 levels were in comparison to my Omega 6 levels. Essential fatty acid levels and ratios are important to measure and monitor, as they can help identify negative lifestyle consequences before they potentially lead down a path of major dysfunction and disease. Needless to say, I was shocked when I got my results back, but first let me give you some context.
Essential Fatty acids (EFA)… what are they? Why do you need them? What’s their relevance? Why are the essential?
You probably know about Omega 3’s and the the use of fish oil supplementation. Most of us have heard about Omega 3’s and the role of fish oil for cardio-vascular health, or maybe you’ve heard about the benfits of utilizing fish oil in your gym, due to the anti-inflammatory effects. However it would be a disservice to think that fish oil and Omega 3’s are only good for cardio-vascular and anti-inflammatory benefit. In fact, there are other forms of Omega 3 essential fatty acids that are not found in fish oil, that also have a ton of benefit.
Over the next couple of posts, I want to help you better understand the role of EFA’s, not just Omega 3’s but 6’s, 7’s, 9’s and the different types of fatty acids that comprise each category. As we cover the ins and outs over the next several posts, you’ll learn about the ideal ratios of Omega 3:6, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): docosahexaenoic acid (DHA); and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). You’ll learn from some amazing research (without having to do the late night reading, PUBMed searching, eye’s squinting, caffeine infused reading sessions…) that has shown the importance and relation of EFA’s to things like prenatal and maternal health including breast feeding and postpartum depression. In addition I’ll show you how and why EFA’s can aid in protecting your brain and nerve system against degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS and Dementia. What about the relation of EFA’s and weight loss…? There’s so much to uncover and share with you, including knowing when to much is too much…
Essential fatty acids are essential for all vital functions of your body. Every cell in your body has a bi-lipid layer which is made up of essential fatty acids. Your brain for instance is over 60% fat and about a fifth of that fat is made up of fats that you do not produce but instead have to acquire through your diet, specifically in the form of the Omega 3 fatty acids, EPA, DHA and ALA. The benefits of these fats were first described in studies looking at Greenland’s Eskimo’s. They consumed a high seafood diet and had low rates of coronary heart disease, asthma, type 1 diabetes mellitus, and multiple sclerosis. Since that observation, the beneficial health effects of omega-3 fatty acids have been extended to include benefits related to cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and mental health.
The poly unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s) found in Omega 3 and 6’s that we focus on are:
Linoleic Acid (LA), Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA/LNA), Arachidonic Acid (AA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), Docosatetraenoic Acid (DTA), Docosapentaenoic Acid (DPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
The overall ratio of Omega 6:3 should be about 1:1 or 2:1. The standard American diet (SAD) is estimated to leave people out of optimal with a range from 10:1 all the way to 25:1. Unfortunately due to our modern diet and lifestyles, the ideals ratio’s have been thrown off massively, which in turn has negative physiological consequences. Some of the reasons that we are so far off the ideal ratio, due to nutritional and lifestyle factors include:
A)) An increase in energy intake and decrease in energy expenditure
B)) An increase in saturated fat
C)) An increase in omega-6 fatty acids
D)) An increase in trans-fatty acids
E)) An increase in cereal grains
F)) An increase in fruit and vegetable intake
G)) A decrease in omega-3 fatty acid intake
H)) A decrease in complex carbohydrate intake
I)) A decrease in fiber intake
J)) A decrease in protein
K)) A decrease in antioxidants
L)) A decrease in vitamin D
M)) A decrease in calcium intake
Ultimately, in order for us to begin to move towards a more ideal ratio that is beneficial not only for health but also for prevention and wellness optimization would require not only decreasing the intake a unhealthy forms of omega 6’s, but also in increase in omega 3 and gamma omega 6 fatty acids.
The best sources of omega 3’s come from mostly from wild fish, wild game, or non-standard processed livestock (ie. Grass Fed, cage-free, free-range etc.) As mentioned before, Omega 6's are not all bad, it's just that unfortunately in the Standard American Diet (SAD), the omega 6 fats utilized are turned rancid due to oxidation through overheating and processing. It's largely the main issue with omega 6's - where the vast majority of our omega 6's are coming from.
Some sources cite that Americans get the majority of their omega 6's from sources such as oils, shortening and margarine. The remaining percentages come from beans, seeds and nuts (6%), eggs (1%), meat, poultry and fish (13%). What this breakdown means is that the vast majority of omega 6 intake is coming from vegetable oils from fried goods (fries, chicken etc.), pastries made with shortening (thanks to that mid-morning coffee break...) and then junk foods... as a result, the omega 6's that we take in are either rancid or highly oxidized. When an EFA (or fat in general), good or bad, is oxidized due to over heating, or goes rancid due to improper storing and handling - it turns that potentially valuable energy substrate into what I like to call shards of glass... These shards of glass in short can lead to increases in LDL due to inflammatory effects.
Just imagine that corn oil/vegetable oil/canola oil/margarine or any other "bad" fat getting turned into shards of glass, and when those shards of glass hit your blood stream, they go Edward Scissorhands on your blood vessels creating little nicks and cuts which causes your body to respond by releasing cholesterol to actually help patch and heal the affected areas. If that were an isolated incident, we'd be ok, but often times due to the standard American diet (SAD) and modern lifestyle we create nicks and cuts at breakfast, coffee break, lunch, coffee break, dinner, after dinner drinks... The inflammatory process is an article by itself waiting for my attention... I digress...
Back to omega 6's turning into shards of glass and increasing LDL particles ("the bad" type) and also the inflammatory cascade which leads to a host of different disease markers and processes.
Although there are a host of negative problems that can arise from your omega 6:3 ratio's being off including depression, coronary heart disease, accelerated brain deterioration, aging and even shortening of your telomeres. Getting your omega 6:3 and AA:EPA ratios back on track has immense benefit. Research has shown benefit in brain and retinal development, memory function, cancer fighting properties, pre-natal development, cognitive function, mood stabilization and anti-inflammatory benefits - just to name a few.
I highly recommend that you pay careful attention to your Omega 3 intake. If you have not been supplementing with high quality omega 3 supplements, then you should definitely start and if you have been, I recommend getting your omega 6 and 3 levels tested so that you can determine that if what you're doing is enough, or working.
What you want to look for in Omega 3/ fish oil supplementation:
Higher EPA to DHA ratio
Fish should be wild, cold water type and smaller type fish (least toxins)
Organically filtered and Triple Purified to remove any trace of heavy metals such as mercury
Antioxidants to provide protection from oxidation (so the good fats aren't turned into rancid fats through oxidation)
Licensed pharmaceutical grade