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Experts' Advice


Human beings have requirements for two families of essential fatty acids. These are the ome ga-3 and the omega-6 fatty acids. Both are essential to the body, but the importance of the correct balance of these fatty acids to human health has been greatly underestimated. Unfortunately, modern diet provides excessive amounts of omega-6 from polyunsaturated margarines and oils. So, a recent recommendation from the American Heart Association (1) to increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish to reduce heart problems is a step in the right direction.

The essential fatty acids

The omega-6 fatty acids are high in sunflower oil and some vegetable oils and margarines made from them. Fats made from these oils are also used in manufactured baked goods such as cakes, pastries, chips and crisps. Therefore, these products contain a lot of ’hidden’ omega-6. The omega-3 fatty acids come in two forms: the active forms, called

EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) found in oily fish, and the inactive form found in oils from flax and rape seeds, soya and some nut oils. It has been generally accepted that the inactive form is converted by the body into the active forms. However, there is now mounting evidence that this conversion is less effective than previously thought. Dutch workers (2) have found that supplements of flax-seed oil fed to healthy vegan volunteers led to the formation EPA , but not  DHA  Another recent study (3), in which brest- feeding mothers were fed 15 g of flax-seed oil per day, backs this up: no DHA derived from this source could be found in the mother’s milk or blood, although EPA was found

DHA and EPA have separate roles

DHA is an important structural fat in all cell membranes of the body and is essential for proper growth and development of the brain, nervous system, and the photosensitive cells in the retina of the eyes. In fact, DHA is so vital that an infant receives it in breast milk, at the expense of the mother’s own reserves. EPA has an essential role too. It seems that, while DHA is the ‘structural’ fatty acid, whose effects take time to build,  EPA may be more immediate in its effect. Research shows it to be especially helpful for protecting heart and artery health. It has a potent, relaxing action on blood vessels, which is thought to account for the lowering effect of fish oil on blood pressure.  EPA also discourages the formation of atherosclerosis (the furring up of the arteries). Together,  EPA  and  DHA help maintain the health of all the organs of the body, in particular, they help to prevent abnormal cell changes, which predispose to cancer.

Fatty acid balance and inflammation

When the cell is challenged by some kind of stimulus, the essential fatty acids present in the cell membrane are used for the formation of eicosanoids, of which the prostaglandins are the best known. These are biologically-active compounds which have many functions in the  body. For example, they can lower the risk of blood clots forming or increase blood flow by dilation of blood vessels. If the fatty acids in the cell membranes are mainly omega-6 fatty acids, the eicosanoids produced on stimulation cause  excessive inflammation. If, however, adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are also present, the effect of the stimulus is moderated and there is  less inflammatio. In other words, the presence of omega-3 fatty acids in the cell membranes leads to a ‘dampening down’ of inflammation, and the potential damage to the tissues is much less.Hence, if you have a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids (or a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids), you may be more prone to a range of inflammatory conditions. These include more mino complaints, such as itchy skin, sniffy nose, or headaches. Or, they could be more seriou conditions, such as chronic catarrh, asthma, eczema, psoriasis, colitis, rheumatoid arthritis lupus, etc. This is why a lot of health problems in modern life have been blamed on the overus of omega-6 rich sunflower oil, which is used in so many manufactured food products. Thenthusiasm for using sunflower oil is because of its effect in reducing cholesterol levels, whic was discovered in the 1980s. These days we know that olive oil also has cholesterol-lowerin properties too, and fortunately, it is high in monounsaturated fatty acids or MUFA, which are neutral, with respect to the inflammatory response.

If you’re showing signs of inflammation

It is most important that you make sure you are eating 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day for their contents of antioxidant vitamins and trace minerals. Although this article is focused on fatty acid balance, nutrition is an integrated netword and must always be viewed holistically. Increasing your essential fatty acid intake puts a higher demand on antioxidant resources – so you should make sure you are taking plenty of fruit and veg. How you improve your fatty acid balance? The first thing that you need to do is to cut down on your intake of sunflower oil or vegetable oils of unknown origin. Replace them with olive oil. There are many varieties of olive oil available now-you can get cooking olive oil or olive oil of high-quality for salad dressings. Also avoid too many omega-6-rich manufactured foods such as baked goods, including cakes, pastries and pies or ready –prepared sandwiches or shop-bought fish and chips. The next thing is increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids.

How much omega-3 is needed?

Most people need and intake of about 1 gram per day in total of EPA + DHA to maintain their health. But if you are suffering from a severe inflammatory condition, then you may need 2 grams per day. To get 1 gram per day you will need to eat about three portions of oily fish a week. Another option, if you wish to achieve your target for omega-3 fatty acids, is to take a daily supplement of high strength omega-3 fish oil.

What if you can’t take fish oils?

If you are vegan or vegetarian or cannot take fish oils for reason, then you can partly meet your requirements by supplementing with flax seed oil (about 10 g. per day.) This will ensure your levels of EPA, but the recent evidence suggests that you are unlikely to produce an adequate supply of DHA from this source. Fortunately, a new form of DHA is now available, which has been concentrated from marine algae. Hence, it is totally of vegetable origin. A well-formulated mix of flax-seed oil and algal DHA provides and ideal solution for vegetarians who wish to take an essential fatty acid supplement that ensures supplies of both the essential omega-3 fatty acids. But make sure that you take it in a gelatin-free capsule!

(1) Kris-Etherton, PM et al.(2002) Circulation 106, 2747
(2) Fokkema, MR et al.(2002) Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 63,287.
(3) Francois CA et al.(2003) Am J Clin Nutr 77, 226.