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Omega-6 vs. omega-3 - who cares?

Omega-6 vs. Omega-3 – wen kümmert‘s?

You've heard the scary truth. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of the typical Western world is so heavily skewed towards omega-6 fatty acids (10:1 or even 20:1) that many of us are little more than walking corpses.

Too much omega-6 compared to omega-3 leads to catastrophic levels of systemic inflammation that will set your joints on fire and make you fat, while ensuring you get an early visit from the Grim Reaper in the form of heart disease.

This is an old-fashioned, scary bedtime story. But that's all it is - a story.

The most famous national bedtime story

Just as Robert Southey wrote the story "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" as a tool for parents to teach their children to respect the privacy and property of others, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio has been used to make people afraid of cake, cookies and other highly processed, fattening products. While I agree that many people should step back from the dessert buffet, there are many valid reasons for this that really have an impact on human physiology.

Omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation

In a previous article, I discussed the biochemical basis of how omega-6 fatty acids such as linoleic acid and arachidonic acid are converted into pro-inflammatory compounds. As mentioned in that article, the consumption of omega-6 fatty acids can actually have anti-inflammatory effects - especially when we are talking about gamma linoleic acid (GLA). This is the number one problem for the omega-6:omega-3 ratio naysayers - omega-6 fatty acids are not automatically pro-inflammatory.

Biochemistry textbooks vs. your body

The next area we need to look at when it comes to the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is the difference between textbooks and your body. Biochemistry textbooks give the impression that the conversion of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is very simple and straightforward. Well, I'm here to tell you that this is not the case. Biochemistry in real life is chaotic, regulated, controlled, inhibited and compartmentalized. In other words, this means that when you eat a handful of walnuts, the linoleic acid they contain is not automatically transported to the body's "inflammation factory" where it is converted into highly pro-inflammatory, figure-destroying prostaglandins - that's not how it works. In order for linoleic acid to be used for pro-inflammatory purposes, it must be converted into arachidonic acid. What will surprise many, however, is the fact that linoleic acid - even when consumed in the amounts corresponding to the Western diet - is not converted into arachidonic acid. In reality, most of the linoleic acid (the primary omega-6 fatty acid in our diet) that you eat does not end up in your body's pro-inflammatory pathways.

A lengthy review published in Nutrition & Metabolism titled "Increasing dietary linoleic acid does not increase tissue arachidonic acid content in adults consuming Western-type diets: a systematic review", concluded that there is no evidence that changes in dietary linoleic acid content will alter tissue arachidonic acid content in adults consuming Western-type diets. A Western diet is a good model in this situation because it is rich in linoleic acid.

Dietary recommendations that are relevant to you

As a reader of this site, most mainstream dietary advice will simply not be relevant to you. You won't be eating 3 "decent meals" a day that are bursting with grains and lacking in protein. You'll avoid mayonnaise and foods overloaded with corn oil, safflower oil and soybean oil. Data about a diet rich in linoleic acid doesn't impress you because you don't eat that stuff anyway. You follow a carbohydrate-controlled diet rich in eggs, vegetables and a variety of different tasty animals. In your case, the pseudo-negative effects of linoleic acid are not a problem. However, arachidonic acid can be a potential problem. With arachidonic acid, no conversion to another fatty acid is necessary - it just needs to be incorporated into your cell membrane and can be used immediately for this purpose.

The good news is that your body will probably protect you. A study from the University of Connecticut, published in 2010 in the paper Lipids, showed that a low-carbohydrate diet that resulted in higher levels of arachidonic acid led to increased membrane arachidonic acid levels, but this enrichment of the membrane with arachidonic acid did not lead to an increase in the levels of pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid metabolites.

Based on the results of this and other studies, the authors concluded that low-carbohydrate diets can maintain membrane arachidonic acid levels.

Go on the fatty acid offensive

So adjusting your omega-6 fatty acids in your diet to reduce inflammation (unless we're talking about GLA) is a waste of time, but what can you do instead?

Number one is to go on the offensive with fish oil. Increases in dietary EPA and DHA lead to increased EPA and DHA levels in your membranes. Dr. Harris refers to the percentage of fatty acids that are EPA and DHA as the Omega-3 Index. This index is a reliable health marker that shows the direct changes caused by increased EPA and DHA intake in biochemical areas relevant to inflammation.

You can imagine it like this: Your cell membranes are full of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. When it comes to forming eicosanoids (anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory molecules), a fatty acid is removed from the cell membrane and converted.

So the more omega-3 fatty acids you can pack into your cell membrane, the greater the likelihood that an omega-3 fatty acid will be selected and removed from the membrane, leading to the formation of anti-inflammatory (or at worst, anti-inflammatory neutral) compounds. This is the reason that the absolute amount of omega-3 fatty acids in your cell membranes is what really matters. That's right. The all-important omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of your diet doesn't translate to your cellular membranes - the place where your anti-inflammatory weapons are forged. And following a diet rich in linoleic acid does not lead to changes in arachidonic acid levels - at least not the kind of changes that lead to increased inflammation.

What really matters is the amount of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in your diet. Focus on this for a good 15 seconds a day when taking your fish oil supplement and you have done all that is necessary.

The bottom line

Stop wasting your time trying to tabulate the ratio of two subclasses of fatty acids that don't matter in the grand scheme of things. You're not a typical Western European or North American, you're a power athlete, and aside from walnuts and the occasional teaspoon of toasted sesame seeds in your skillet, you wouldn't give a second glance to any of the top 25 sources of omega-6 fatty acids in the typical diet or the foods they're found in. And even if you ate tons of walnuts and consumed a daily shot of sesame oil, dietary linoleic acid wouldn't immediately find its way to the biochemical pathways that help convert it into pro-inflammatory compounds.

So take your 4 to 8 fish oil capsules a day and lift some heavy weights.

By Mike Roussell, PhD | 01/25/13


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