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Omega-3 and Omega-6: Striking a Balance

Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are certain fats that our bodies use to perform many vital functions. We don't produce these, so we have to get them from our food. While it is important to have plenty of both, it is also important to have them in the correct ratio and, as this article will highlight, very few of us are eating the right foods to support the delicate balance.

What are omega fatty acids?

Omega fatty acids are fats. Fats are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and are a vital component of good health. Fats perform numerous functions, including supporting brain health, appetite regulation, hormone health, balancing cholesterol and lots more. For a long time we were led to believe that fat was unhealthy and should be avoided, however the truth is that the right sort of fat is not only healthy but completely essential and low fat foods, which often replace healthy fat with unhealthy sugar, can be incredibly damaging. This article goes into more detail about 'The Big Fat Fraud'.

Dietary fats can broadly be divided into two types: saturated and unsaturated. Omega fatty acids are examples of unsaturated fats, which include monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). There are many types of omega fatty acids, with 11 having been identified in nature, however the two we are looking at here are known as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Other fatty acids can be produced in the body, but Omega-3's and Omega-6's are known as essential which means that our bodies do not produce them and we must therefore source them through our diet.

Omega fatty acid and inflammation

Before we delve into the omega relationship, here are a few important facts to note:

  • Inflammation has increased immensely in recent years. Inflammation can affect many common conditions, including asthma, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, allergies, GI disorders, autoimmune diseases and cancers.

  • All these conditions have long latency, meaning that for most of the lifespan of the disease, the symptoms are under the surface. They are degenerative conditions, progressing undetected and by the time the symptoms appear above the surface, the condition is often considerably advanced.

  • The presence of increased inflammation is closely associated with, and contributes to, the majority of these diseases.

Today, poor diet is the biggest cause of death globally, due to it being a driver of inflammation. Acute inflammation is essential in order to kill pathogens and defend the body. However, when the inflammation does not calm down, this leads to chronic, ongoing inflammation, causing an insidious process of progressive tissue damage. Every single cell in the body has a specific fatty acid profile which corresponds with the fatty acid profile of your diet. When we lived as hunter-gatherers, the ratio of Omega-6's to Omega-3's was 1:1, slowly increasing to about 4:1. However, today, with the highly processed diets of the western world, that ratio is roughly 15:1 in the UK and Europe and as high as 25:1 in the USA. This terrible ratio has been progressing since the start ot the 20th century as our diets have changed. The food industry started to produce stabilised plant oils and put them in all their processed foods; the intake of important polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables (powerful, important anti-inflammatory nutrients) has dived dramatically; the way in which foods are processed and preserved has resulted in highly pro-inflammatory compounds and all this has been exacerbated by our enormous intake of sugar, often hidden in the most unlikely places.

Omega-3 vs Omega-6

Omega-3 fatty acids act as a powerful anti-inflammatory, helping to reduce levels of chronic inflammation in the body, which can lead to the numerous diseases mentioned above, if left unchecked. Once the fatty acid profile of your cells contain sufficient Omega-3's, these produce anti-inflammatories and pro-resolving lipid mediators which help end an inflammatory response and heal the damaged tissue. The Omega-6's are equally as important as without them, our constant exposure to harmful foods, environmental toxins, chemicals etc., would be left unchecked. Both are essential, like the brake and accelerator of a car, reacting appropriately to different situations (oncoming traffic, a pedestrian jumping in front of the car). Every day we are exposed to harmful substances and our bodies need to respond appropriately. This involves a delicate balance between starting an acute inflammatory response and ending it. Testing today reveals that almost no-one has the correct Omega 6-3 ratio with almost everyone having excessive Omega-6 levels. This can lead to chronic inflammatory disorders as the acute inflammation is never adequately switched off and the damaged tissue never properly healed. Increasing your intake of foods rich in Omega-3's and reducing your intake of those high in Omega-6's is crucial for any person with a chronic inflammatory condition, and any other person wanting to maintain overall health and vitality. This is more relevant today as we are constantly being told that chronic inflammation is a risk factor for COVID-19.

Some of the best foods for Omega-3's include:

  • Oily fish (mackerel, salmon, cod, tuna, anchovies, sardines etc)

  • Chia seeds

  • Hemp seeds

  • Walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts

  • Cod liver oil

  • Egg yolks

Most of us in the U.K. and other Western countries (particularly in the USA) are deficient in Omega-3's, so it is really worthwhile looking at your diet to make sure you are getting enough of these foods. Fish such as wild Alaskan salmon, anchovies, sardines and krill are a healthy and rich source of Omega-3's. These foods are also packed with other nutrients, such as the vitamins A, D and B, and the minerals zinc, iron, selenium and calcium. Omega-3's also help with heart health, mood regulation, lowering triglycerides, improving blood circulation and lowering blood pressure.

As already discussed, Omega-6's have their own set of health benefits. They may help to reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease, increases bone density and help reduce nerve pain in cases of neuropathy. They are are a crucial part of the immune system necessary to defend us at any given time from harmful substances.

Omega-6's are prevalent in many common foods and, as such, most of us already get plenty. Some of the main sources are:

  • All processed foods, pizza, pasta, chips, crisps etc.

  • Beef

  • Chicken

  • Eggs

  • Spirulina

  • Nuts

  • Cooking oils, including: sunflower seed, sesame, peanut, safflower and walnut.

Finding the balance

As mentioned above, it is all about getting the balance right. Health experts suggest that a healthy diet should contain an Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid ratio of between 1:2 and 1:4, so between two and four times as much Omega-6's is considered healthy. This contrasts with typical Western diets, where the ratio may be as high as 1:30. Cutting out junk food and maximising Omega-3 rich foods should easily get this ratio down to a healthy level, as well as providing many other health benefits that come with a nutritious, balanced diet. If you have numerous debilitating symptoms, or one of the health conditions mentioned in this article, chances are your Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acid ratio is way out of balance. Testing is always the best place to start and then supplementing with a clean source of fish oils is often necessary. Look out for my article on my website in the next few weeks advising of the foods to eat, and foods to avoid as part of an anti-inflammatory diet. You can sign up for my Anti-Inflammatory Programme with delicious recipes and tips to help you address inflammation making good nutrition and improved lifestyle choices or you can arrange a consultation with me for advice on your personal health concerns.

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