Just about everyone knows about the hormones produced in specialized tissues in the body.
The ovaries make estrogen. The testes make testosterone. The beta cells of the pancreas make insulin, and the thyroid makes thyroid hormone.
However, most people have not heard about the hormones made in every one of the sixty trillion cells in the human body, the eicosanoids (pronounced I-cos-a-noids).
While other hormones are made in specialized tissues and take minutes or hours to travel to the places in the body where they are needed, the eicosanoid hormones are made locally and can start their work in just seconds. The substances the body uses to make these hormones are called the essential fatty acids.
Here are three things everyone needs to know about the essential fatty acids.
- Even the "bad" essential fatty acids are necessary.
Every cell in the body can use essential fatty acids to make hormones that cause inflammation and hormones that stop inflammation. Everyone needs both.
We would quickly die if we did not have hormones that cause inflammation.
The hormones that cause inflammation are necessary to activate the immune system, to get rid of injured or dead tissue, and to stop bleeding. We would quickly die if we did not have hormones that cause inflammation.
These hormones are made with n-6 essential fatty acids. (The number refers to the location of double bonds of carbon in the fatty acid molecule. An n-6 fatty acid has a double bond at the sixth carbon atom in the molecule.)
The hormones that stop inflammation keep the immune system from destroying healthy tissues. They stop the formation of blood clots and lower blood pressure. They allow the body to relax. These hormones are made from the n-3 essential fatty acids.
- The problem with the "bad" essential fatty acids is that we get too much of them.
Our bodies were designed to make more inflammatory hormones than anti-inflammatory hormones. Ideally, we need about twice as many n-6 essential fatty acids as n-3 essential fatty acids.
The problem is that most of us get 20 to 50 times more of the pro-inflammatory n-6 essential fatty acids as we get of the anti-inflammatory n-3 essential fatty acids.
Here's an example. The most common n-6 essential fatty acid is arachidonic acid. It's abundant in beef, eggs, most cooking oils, lunch meat, hamburger, weiners, and many processed foods, especially those that include powdered eggs, including just about any packaged cake, cookie, or ice cream.
The only food that is abundant in both EPA and DHA is fish oil
Do you consume more hamburgers than fish oil? More Little Debbie's Snack Cakes than fish oil? More processed foods than fish oil?
While other foods like nuts and olive oil provide other useful n-3 essential fatty acids, only fish oil has the ability to correct a large imbalance in your diet to stop the overproduction of inflammation.
- The key to success with fish oil is simultaneously using more fish oil (up to 15 grams a day) while consuming less of other kinds of fat.
The best way to get the right balance of essential fatty acids is to eat low-fat to make sure you don't get too many n-6 essential fatty acids, but to eat fish, nuts, olives, and seeds and take fish oil to make sure you get enough n-3 essential fatty acids. A strictly no-fat diet is always a disaster.
Even the esteemed Dr. Dean Ornish, who asked his heart patients to follow a vegan, no-fat diet for years at a time, learned that his patients got better faster and stayed better longer with the addition of fish oil to their daily routine.
It actually is possible not to get enough of the essential n-6 fatty acids, but most of us don't have a problem with that. And even if you can't cut out the "bad" fats in your diet, taking fish oil will help bring your diet into balance that fights inflammation and disease.
- Molendi-Coste O, Legry V, Leclercq IA. Why and How Meet n-3 PUFA Dietary Recommendations?Gastroenterol Res Pract. 2011;2011:364040. Epub 2010 Dec 8.