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Essential Fatty Acids and the Inflammation Balancing Act

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have been front and center in nutrition news for many years now because of their relationship to cardiovascular health. But their role in modulating all types of inflammation in the body makes these fats of even more important to healthy diets and lifestyles.
Essential Fatty Acids: What are they?
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, both 18 carbons long with two double bonds. They are considered “essential” because they are necessary for health and cannot be synthesized by humans (or in any mammals for that matter) from other fatty acids. Therefore, they must be consumed in the diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid and its metabolites, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-6 fatty acids include linoleic acid and its most notable metabolites, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA).
Where They Are Found?
The most bioavailable source of omega-3 fatty acids are oils from fatty fish. Nut and seed oils are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, though their conversion to DHA and EPA may not be as efficient as those from fish. Omega-6 fatty acids tend to be more plentiful in many people’s diet, which can affect how well omega-3 fatty acids convert to EPA and DHA.
Omega-3 fatty acid foods:

  • Fish and seafood, especially fatty fish like sardines, anchovies, tuna, mackerel, and salmon
  • Flaxseed oil and flax seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seed oil and seeds

Omega-6 fatty acids foods:

  • Liver and organ meats
  • Poultry and red meat
  • Fish and seafood
  • Egg yolk
  • Butter
  • Avocado
  • Flax seed oil and flax seeds
  • Hemp seed oil and hemp seeds
  • Pumpkin and sunflower seeds
  • Nuts
  • Borage oil
  • Black currant seed oil
  • Evening primrose oils
  • Other oils, such as corn, safflower, and soybean oils

Essential Fatty Acids At Work
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are components of cell membranes, built into the phospholipid bilayers of cells. In response to inflammation or injury, fatty acids including AA and EPA are released, triggering the formation of eicosanoids like prostaglandins, leukotrienes and lipoxins, which modulate the inflammatory process.
There are two phases to inflammation: initiation and resolution. The idea of using an “anti-inflammatory” medication, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) to address inflammation has begun to lose favor, because if inflammation is artificially interrupted or blocked, healing is also blocked. By contrast, nutrients like essential fatty acids are not anti- or pro-inflammatory per say. Rather, they either up- or down-regulate the production of pro-inflammatory mediators, thereby balancing inflammatory processes so that healing can occur without undue damage to surrounding tissues. Once adequate healing has occurred, essential fatty acid metabolites down-regulate the inflammatory process, and pro-resolvin mediators can bring the inflammatory process to an end.
These long chain fatty acids work together to modulate inflammation with checks and balances built into place. When the diet provides a good balance of high quality omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, this system works well to perpetuate inflammation when necessary and to quell and resolve the inflammatory cascade when the threat is over. However, most Western diets have an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids and include insufficient amounts of omega-3s. High omega-6 and low omega-3 intake can tip this system out of balance, resulting in the inhibition of the inflammation-resolving effects of omega-3s, and allowing for low levels of chronic inflammation to continue.
Potential health benefits to essential fatty acids span different systems and conditions, as chronic inflammation is the core etiology to most illnesses and chronic conditions. People with these conditions may not have the essential fatty acid substrate to form sufficient amounts of endogenous specialized pro-resolving mediators and may benefit from supplementation. Essential fatty acids may be beneficial to the prevention and treatment of:

  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Asthma and allergies
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cell membrane structure, cellular aging and optimizing telomere health
  • Diabetes and diabetic complications
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Irritable bowel disease
  • Neurological and cognitive health
  • Obesity and metabolic syndrome

Inflammation is a normal and healthy part of a functioning immune system. However, illnesses and complications arise from the body’s inability to efficiently dampen and ultimately resolve the inflammatory cascade once the initial threat is over. Essential fatty acids are crucial nutrients to the product of specialized pro-resolving mediators, underscoring a vast body of previous research illustrating the importance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

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