Generally it can be stated that the majority of us don’t get a good balance of essential fatty acids in our diet. Perhaps this doesn’t seem like late breaking news. However the majority of what we consider news doesn’t directly affect our lives. An earthquake half way round the world will make the headlines. But in fact most people are insulated from its effects.
Essential fatty acids
These on the other hand won’t ever create a reporters career. However, lots of us are influenced by those little buggers over we might suspect. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are called essential because we want them to survive and our bodies can’t manufacture them. Deficiency and imbalance of EFAs are blamed for an impressive collection of chronic health conditions.
But, unlike the remote earthquake, EFA deficiency is not likely to make the headlines. Two very notable essential fatty acids which are worth our attention are omega-3 and omega-6. They get their names due to the positioning of the first of numerous double carbon bonds in the molecule. Though the chemistry is important it isn’t the focus of the essay. The most important thing to us today is the possible health impact of both of these fats.
Let’s understand it
Lets have a closer look at each one of these essential fatty acids individually and then consider their connection to one another. In reverse order we’ll consider omega-6 first. Perhaps we don’t hear as much about omega-6 as we do its counterpart. But consider this impressive resume. Omega-6 has been helpful in treating anorexia nervosa, ADHD, osteoporosis, diabetes, eye disease, certain skin conditions, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis and even cancer. Not bad for an unsung hero. Go on that list again.
All of these are serious conditions which were tied to omega-6 deficiencies. So why do we hear so little about this little gem? Perhaps it’s because health problems only become exciting once there’s an obvious issue. Then we usually find a pill to take. But if this is a reason for our ignorance it isn’t the biggest reason. The plain fact is most people are getting loads of omega-6 in our diets. In fact the majority of us get far too much. Over ten times too much. Thats a change isnt it? Too much of a good thing.
The reason we get so much of this is because a number of the foods we purchase are processed with some kind of linoleic acid that’s a favorite form of omega-6. Additionally several oils we use are high in omega-6 like sunflower, safflower, soybean, corn and cottonseed oils. So whats the rub? Why worry about a lot of omega-6? Our bodies have the ability to convert linoleic acid to longer chain fatty acids that lead to the production of eicosanoids.
Eicosanoids depending, in their origin, can have positive and negative influences on our own bodies. They could slow intravascular clotting that helps to prevent heart attacks and strokes. They suppress inflammation preventing us from overreacting to allergens. They dilate blood vessels reducing hypertension and raising excellent blood delivery. They are also able to control cell growth slowing down the rapid growth of cancer cells. On the other hand they may increase blood clotting which contributes to heart attack and stroke.
They suppress the immune system leaving us open to disease. They increase cellular development thereby promoting the growth of cancer cells. And they produce new blood vessels that could feed cancer cells. Unfortunately eicosanoids produced by an overabundance of omega-6 from the machine cause lots of the negative factors mentioned previously. Omega-3 gets the opposite story. Like omega-6 it’s crucial to appropriate health and is helpful in the treatment of several 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 disease. But unlike omega-6 most diets are deplorably deficient in omega-3. Most of us get just a small amount of what we need for optimum health. Though it can manifest itself in several ways this lack may be most evident in chronic heart disease. Entire civilizations are known to have very low incidence of heart disease due to diets high in omega-3 rich foods. Most notorious among these are Eskimos.
Danish researchers first discovered this secret from the Eskimos. Obviously the Eskimos didn’t realize they had a secret. They were eating large amounts of the fatty foods which were available to them. Thats right, fatty foods. Foods like salmon that are high in omega-3. Once the secret was out investigators rolled their sleeves up and generated a flurry of research and trials to check the hypothesis that omega-3 reduces heart disease. The research continue to go on.
But the overwhelming conclusion is in accord with the initial observations. That is: omega-3 reduces incidence of cardiovascular disease. The truth is the decisions are so certain that 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 all of us know that the key to everything is balance. Perhaps this familiar sentiment is somewhat more important than it is to the subject at hand. Both omega-6 and omega-3 are essential to health. But the ratio in which we consume these fatty acids is essential. Scientists differ on the perfect ratio. One recommended ratio is 5 parts omega-6 compared to 1 part omega-3. Some would stretch this to a 10:1 ratio.
The more conservative estimates place the perfect ratio somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1. Unfortunately the typical American diet contains an omega-6/omega-3 ratio between 14:1 and 20:1. This imbalance contributes to a number of the chronic health issues mentioned previously.
What do we do?
Assuming you’re a reader that takes this seriously there are a few measures you can take to guarantee better health for you and your loved ones. You can start by preventing foods prepared with lactic acid and some of the lactic acid rich oils mentioned previously. Buy less prepared foods and do more home cooking. Then make every attempt to boost omega-3 consumption. Cold water fish such as salmon and tuna (not the canned varieties) are quite high in omega-3. But you will need to consume these fish more than once each week. I’ve met people who eat salmon every day for breakfast. If you’re not a fish lover or are worried about marine pollutants attempt fish oil supplements. The great ones are free from contaminants. Our diets have led to the growth of chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease. Our diets may go a long way toward solving the issues.