All the craze in the 90’s said that fats were bad, and now we cannot hear enough about “good fats”. It’s true, fats are good, some essential. They are referred to as essential due to the fact that the body cannot make them itself. Instead, we must consume these essential fatty acids (EFA’s) from our diet. In that sense they could be considered a vitamin and at one point were even known as vitamin F.
There are two main types of EFA’s: omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-6 is very common in standard American diets and can be found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils such as canola often used in cookies, crackers, and sweets. Omega-3 fats, on the other hand, are frequently lacking in the average person’s diet. These fats can be found mainly in a variety of fish such as salmon, sardines, cod liver, etc., but can also be found in nuts and plants such as walnuts, flax and evening primrose oil.
The fanfare of these oils comes from the dramatic impact they have on the body seen through research. Omega-3 acids are considered the “good fats” for reasons we will discuss in a moment, and have been shown to reduce blood pressure, decrease clots, lower cholesterol, increase brain function, regulate blood sugar, mediate the immune system and promote healthy inflammation. These oils act as precursors for different forms of oil in our body, which allow for all of these effects. See the image below.
As you can see, omega-6 oils make something called arachidonic acid. This molecule is known for its inflammatory role in the body and goes on to make a product called cyclo-oxygenase (COX) enzyme. This is exactly what common pain relievers such as Tylenol work to inhibit because it is the COX enzyme that creates the pain message. However, as you see, Omega-3 acids do not produce arachidonic acid, decreasing the pain and inflammation that is produced. Furthermore, EPA, an omega-3 by-product, also competes with the arachdonic acid to decrease any activity of arachidonic acid that is present.
The by-products of these oils have been shown to have a major role in regulating immune function. Not enough immune function can lead to illness, but too much immune function can also lead to auto-immune disease. EFA’s make up the membranes of every single cell of every tissue, organ, or part of the body. Cells are how different parts of the body communicate to each other through release or uptake of different molecules. With “good fats” making up the membranes of our cells, studies have shown that the reactivity of the immune system is optimally promoted for proper balance.
Two particular by-products of omega-3 have been shown to be critical for brain health: EPA and DHA. In a research study where they assessed blood level for amounts of the two forms of omega’s, those with lower EPA and DHA had “older brains”. In addition those individuals performed poorly on exams measuring visual memory, executive function, and abstract thinking. These findings have been linked to the effects of omega-3’s on brain inflammation and vasculature health.
While as I mentioned, EFA’s are found in every part of the body, an area of abundance and of current interest is the prostate. In fact, a by-product of the oils, prostaglandins, were named so due to the vast amount found in the prostate. A recent study claimed that slightly higher omega-3 levels were associated with increased risk for prostate cancer. This claim has many flaws in the research methods and calculations that were used to determine this insight. It was a single blood draw that showed slightly higher omega-3 levels. In addition family predisposition for prostate cancer, and history of other diseases was not taken into consideration that are known risk factors for increased risk of prostate cancer. There are many other studies before and after this study that demonstrate the benefit of omega-3’s in prostate health.
Now you may be wondering what is the best way to get your EFA’s. The best way is always straight from the diet of wild, toxin free fish, but concentrated supplements are often utilized. For vegetarians who decide to decline fish product intake, as mentioned, there are plant sources including, walnut, flax seed and evening primrose. The one thing to remember with taking a plant source for omega-3 is that there is an additional conversion step needed in the body to get it to a useful form. Unfortunately, studies have shown that this conversion is decreased in many individuals and therefore the impact of intake from these sources for some may not be as pronounced. For further information or to find out if taking fish oil is right for you and the correct levels of each component specific for your needs, talk to your physician or come see us at Vital Kids Medicine (also now seeing adults).
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