The eicosanoids (pronounced eye-cah-sah-noidz) function as signaling molecules the body makes out of essential fatty acids. The body uses both omega-3 essential fatty acids, which make anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, and omega-6 essential fatty acids, which make pro-inflammatory eiconsanoids, to keep hormones in balance. Or at least the body keeps hormones in balance when it gets the fats in food in the right balance. All of the eicosanoids are molecules made from 20 carbons atoms in a chain, eico- being the Greek word for "twenty."
Arachidonic Acid Products
One of the essential fatty acids the body uses to make the building blocks of hormones is arachidonic acid. This is the fat found in egg yolks, fatty beef, and cold cuts. It is an omega-6 essential fatty acid that is the raw material for more than 20 different hormones that regulate immunity, blood pressure, and the central nervous system.
The hormones made from arachidonic acid are pro-inflammatory. They stimulate the immune system to secrete chemicals that destroy disease-causing microbes or recycle dead tissue. They cause tension in the arteries to increase blood pressure or cause clotting, which is essential when blood is lost during injury. They keep us awake when we would otherwise fall asleep.
Dietary sugar stimulates the arachidonic cascade, which makes these inflammatory substances.
The arachidonic acid pathway to hormone production is not really "bad." For most people, it is just overactive, due to the excess of sugar and omega-6 fats in the diet.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid Products
The essential fatty acid the body uses to make the building blocks of regulatory hormones that stop the excesses of inflammation is eicosapentaenoic acid, also known as EPA. This is an omega-3 essential fatty acid. It is often described as a "good" fatty acid, but the fact is, the human body needs both this essential fatty acid and its "bad" counterpart to function properly.
The problem usually is that people just don't get enough to the omega-3 fatty acids and they get 20 to 30 times too much of the omega-6's. It's actually possible to have an omega-6 fatty acid deficiency. That's why until 1950 doctors in most of the world encouraged patients with various inflammatory conditions to eat lard and corn oil—and the recommendation actually worked.
How You Can Keep Eicosanoid Synthesis in Balance
Most people in the modern world need more of the omega-3's and less of the omega-6's. The important thing to remember about eicosanoids and inflammation is to reduce your overall consumption of dietary fat (most of which is omega-6 fat), but to increase your consumption of omega-3's, from products such as fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil, flaxseed oil, borage oil, and evening primrose oil.
The omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids really are essential, but you don't need a lot of them. As little as 10 grams a day (about 100 calories of fat) is enough. Start with your omega-3 supplements, making sure you get your omega-3's, and then be sure to get about 2 or 3 times as much fat from healthy plant oils, such as flaxseed oil, grapeseed oil, and nut oils. Then keep additional fat to a minimum, just enough to maintain good taste in your food.