Essential Fatty Acids: The Good, the Bad and the Balancing Act

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Co- Authors: Jerah Thomas, M.P.H., Peiying Yang, Ph.D.

Omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids are necessary for normal human growth and development. However, the human body can't produce these "essential" fatty acids. The amounts found in our bodies are a direct result of the content in the food we eat.

There are three major omega-3 fatty acids: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is primarily found in certain nuts and vegetable oils, while EPA and DHA are found in dietary fish and fish oil products. Sources include, but are not limited to:
•    Fish and fish oils
•    Vegetable oils (flaxseed, canola, soybean and olive oils)
•    Green vegetables
•    Grass-fed livestock and poultry (dairy products and eggs from grass-fed animals)

There's some evidence suggesting omega-3s may prevent and treat diseases of the heart and blood vessels: heart disease, heart attacks, atherosclerosis and blood pressure. Additionally, EPA and DHA specifically may reduce blood triglyceride levels, protect organ transplant patients from cyclosporine toxicity, and improve symptoms related to rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved fish oil-derived omega-3s for the reduction of blood triglyceride levels.

As the benefits of omega-3s are unfolding, researchers are evaluating their unique role as anti-inflammatory and antiproliferative activities, both of which are critical mechanisms in cancer prevention and tumor growth. M. D. Anderson faculty are investigating the role of omega-3s in cancer prevention.

Omega−6 fatty acids (popularly referred to as ω−6 fatty acids or omega-6 fatty acids) are another family of essential fatty acids that have in common a final carbon-carbon double bond in the n−6 position. Omega-6s are important for maintaining human health because they provide energy and are also components of nerve cells, cellular membranes, and are converted to hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins. Excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to promotion of various diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammation and autoimmune disease. Sources include, but are not limited to:  
•    Vegetable oils (corn, soybean, sunflower and evening primrose oils)
•    Hydrogenated (trans) fat
•    Margarine
•    Meat, egg and dairy products (from animals with diets consisting of grains, corn, soy or wheat)

Balance of omega-6 and omega-3
Certain foods that are part of the western diet have had a dramatic increase in the amount of omega-6s relative to the amount of omega 3s (15-20:1 current from closer to 1:1 prior to 1960) (Simopoulos, A.P, Exp Biol Med 233:674-688, 2008). This can lead to an increase in inflammation, which is potentially problematic for many chronic diseases including cancer. It's vital that we purposefully evaluate what we eat and select food items that promote health and wellness. While fatty acids are essential, it's imperative that we choose to integrate the healthy promoting, omega-3 fatty acids to our daily diets and ensure a proper balance (4 to 1 or lower) between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

1 Comment

Andrew Weil's "Eating Well For Optimum Health" has excellent coverage of the Omega-6 over -3 imbalance. So for us, we should almost always supplement Omega-3 only, not a mix of both.

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