Omega-3 and omega-6 are types of essential fatty acids i.e. we cannot produce it in our bodies and have to obtain them from our diet. Omegas are the building blocks for hormones, it control immune function, blood clotting, and cell growth as well as being components of cell membranes. In our modern diet, there is hardly any good source of omega-3 fatty acids, except wild fatty fish. By contrast, sources of omega-6 fatty acids are abundant. Our diet, which is rich in commercially farmed animal product and polyunsaturated vegetable oils will causes an omega 3 deficiency.
The simplified pathway graph below will help us understand what is happening in the body.
Omega-3 and omega-6 simplified pathway.
The boxes named ALA and LA represent omega precursors. Precursors are building blocks from vegetable origin. The body cannot convert and use them without the help of the enzymes ∆6 and ∆5 desaturase.
Let’s say we eat a piece of multigrain toast that contains flax and corn. Our body will make the enzymes and indiscriminately convert the ALA in EPA, then DHA and the LA in AA. If we eat as much of one as the other, we will have approximately a 1:1 ratio output. We’ll be in a balance of anti-inflammatory vs. inflammatory factors i.e. life is good!
But if we put peanut butter on our toast, we get in trouble! Peanuts have a 5162 : 1 LA to ALA ratio, meaning it will skew the balance in the favor of AA, resulting in inflammation in the body.
This is why we hear so much about the importance of taking fish oil. It is speculated that a couple of capsule of fish oil a day would counteract the overwhelming amount of omega-6 and omega-6 precursor we consume in our modern diet. But is that so?
EPA and DHA have distinct functions
The omegas in fish oil are directly available to us, because it has already been transformed fish, from ALA in phytoplankton, to EPA and DHA.
Simply put, EPA would be the antagonist of AA. EPA counteracts the inflammatory action of AA found in commercially farmed beef, chicken, eggs, pork, and dairies, as well as the AA produced from excess LA found in most of our foods like vegetable oil, margarine, grains, nuts, seeds and so on.
DHA has more of a structural function, is the most abundant fat in the brain and is a large contributor to brain growth. Oxidative damage that comes with age diminishes DHA concentrations in brain cell membrane, and is linked with its degenerescence. The important benefits of fish oil on moods and attention disorders is often attributed to DHA.
AA is not a bad guy. We need AA, it is an essential component in membranes of our body’s cells, and it is abundant in the brain, the muscles and the liver.
The problem is that we do not have the right balance in our modern diet. To function optimally, we should keep a ratio of 1 : 1 O-3 to O-6. If you have been eating more O-6 to O-3 in your diet (everybody raise their hand), a 2-3 : 1 ratio in favor of omega 3 would be more appropriate to correct the overabundance of omega-6 already in our body. It is pretty discouraging and almost unrealistic to achieve this, in the context of our modern life.
I’m prone to inflammation, like most PCOS sufferer. I always make sure I make the best food choice for myself, under the circumstances I’m in. Beside the obvious culprits like commercially produced polyunsaturated vegetable oils, it is important to tend toward foods with a favorable ratio, and remove/replace those with an extremely inflammatory ratio (replacing peanut butter with almond butter would be a good example). Grass-fed animal products have a more favorable fatty acid profile than grain fed animals because of the different omega precursors in their foods (Grass = ALA, Grains = LA)
Beware of misinformation, even from reputable sources! We always have to keep and mind that we are looking at for high sources of ALA/O-3 AND a favorable ratio.
Let’s take a closer look at 3 of the food richest in ALA:
Their fatty acid profiles for 1 oz (28 g):
Flax seeds Chia seeds Walnuts
Total Fat: 11.8 g Total Fat: 9 g Total Fat: 18.3 g
Omega-3: 6388 mg Omgega-3: 4915 mg Omega-3: 2542 mg
Omega-6: 962 mg Omega-6: 1620 mg Omega-6: 10666 mg (!)
Ratio: 4:1 = anti-inflammation Ratio: 3:1 = anti-inflammation Ratio: 1:4 = inflammation
Let’s look at salmon too! Their fatty acid profiles per 100 g:
Atlantic salmon (farmed) Wild Alaskan Sockeye
Total Fat: 13.4 g Total Fat: 7.3 g
Omega-3: 2506 mg Omega-3: 1130 mg
Omega-6: 962 mg Omega-6: 80 mg
O3:O6 ratio: 2.5:1 = anti-inflammation = good! O3:O6 ratio: 14:1 = anti-inflammation = best!
It’s definitely worth to take some time to do our research!
Once we have the tool to make better choices for ourselves, we can add helpful supplements, if we wish to. I use a two prongs approach.
- Using Chia seeds, Flax seed meal and Flax seed oil as a source of ALA.
- Using good quality Fish oil as a source of EPA and DHA.
Most people agree on taking the Fish oil but some frown on flax. The argument is that fish oil is superior to flax because the ALA in flax need to be converted by our enzymes in EPA and DHA. So it make sense to think that 1 g of fish oil would be more potent than 1 g of flax oil. It sounds logical but I still take flax with my fish oil!
My logic behind using flax, besides being very beneficial for PCOS, is that I want to make sure I provide some ALA to compete with the LA for the attention of my enzymes ∆6 and ∆5 desaturase. I speculate that if my intake of ALA is very low compare to my LA, my enzymes we’ll be busy pumping out a huge amount of AA into my system. A higher intake of ALA would slow down the output of AA and augment the circulating O-3 in my system. Then I take my fish oil to balanced the rest of the AA. Without getting too technical, I get noticeable benefits from each independently and I feel they even work better when they are taken together.
The key is always to balance one, with the other.
Fish oil, at the right dosage, does wonder on insulin sensitivity, mood and energy. If I’m traveling and I forget my supplement, there is a noticeable change it my mood within days.
Almost everybody can benefit from this key supplement!
Best sources of Omega-3 and its precursor
*It is important to say that omega-3, being involved in so many functions in our bodies, can have some interaction with certain medications.*