February 6, 2007
Confusion regarding the essential fatty acids is the rule rather than the exception while research regarding their good effects piles up. It’s hard to find head or tail in this subject, but the quick answer is: Eat more fish!
If you want to delve into the depths of this answer, then fasten your safety belt and read on!
There is general agreement that omega-3 fatty acids have a high health value in all of their sources, from linseed oils alpha-linolenic acid to fish’s docosahexaenoic acid and prostaglandin E3.
Is this true about the omega-6 fatty acids?
There is common confusion about the health benefits of essential fatty acids, and this has not been reduced by recent public warnings against the use of polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids.
Let’s look into this:
The most common misconception is that it is possible to generalize about all omega-6 fatty acids. It is not. In the industrialized world the problem is that we are inundated with cheap linoleic acid, which is an omega-6 fatty acid that is found in e.g. corn and sunflower oil. Linoleic acid alone is not that healthy either. If you eat too much of it, you build up deposits of NEFA (which has nothing to do with bicycle lights!) but means that linoleic acid builds up as a non-esterized fat, which can lead to sudden cardiac arrest (1).
The ratio between our consumption of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be close to 2:1, but unfortunately it is closer to 20:1. The problem with linoleic acid is that we get too much of it because it is cheap.
Linoleic acid must be converted to gamma linolenic acid (GLA), followed by DGLA and prostaglandin E1, before we have the equivalent of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The first conversion (to GLA) requires an enzyme called delta-6-desaturase. There are many people this enzyme. These people are primarily people with allergies and people with diabetes. When you lack this enzyme the only way to avoid getting too much linoleic acid is to take supplementary GLA. GLA is found in evening primrose oil or borage seed oil.
If you do not lack delta-6-desaturase, the best thing to do is to limit linoleic oil intake and increase fish oil consumption.
If we eat fatty fish and fish oil we save more of the enzyme needed to convert linoleic acid to GLA. Therefore, if we balance our linoleic acid consumption with fish oil then we will not suffer as many harmful effects from unconverted omega-6 fatty acid.
Another way of reducing the amount of accumulated linoleic acid is by taking the amino acid L-Carnitine. L-Carnitine functions as a kind of oil pipeline which transports the linoleic acid directly into the cells power plant (the mitochondria), where, with the help of Q10, it is made into energy. This reduces the amount of freely circulating linoleic acid in the blood.
As explained in the above, we should avoid too much linoleic acid, whereas its converted product, GLA, is healthy and good. So the health value of omega-6 fatty acids is dependent on which omega-3 fatty acid is being discussed.
In a large summary article in Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology (2), the authors assess a long list of illnesses where GLA has an amazing effect. These include inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and cancers. GLA has been shown to be able to inhibit osteonectin, which is a protein connected cancer metastasis. GLA also has been shown to increase nerve impulse speed in diabetics.
Therefore, omega-6 fatty acids cannot be seen as either all bad or all good. This is especially true when comparing GLA with linoleic acid. Supplementation of both fish oil and GLA is a good idea.
By: Vitality Council
1. Circulating Nonesterified Fatty Acid Level as a Predictive Risk Factor for Sudden Death in the Population. Xavier Jouven, MD, PhD; Marie-Aline Charles, MD; Michel Desnos, MD; Pierre Ducimetière, PhD. Circulation. 2001;104:756.
2. Gamma linolenic acid: an antiinflammatory omega-6 fatty acid. Kapoor R, Huang Y-S, Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 2006; 7(6): 531-4.